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The Triumph of Numbers:
Civic Implications of Quantitative Literacy

by Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

Excerpted with permission from "Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America," Copyright (c) College Entrance Examination Board, 1997. All rights reserved.

As recently as two centuries ago, quantitative literacy was extremely rare. Scientists were a partial exception, but not a very important one, since there were so few, and since many even in what we now consider the physical sciences made little use of numbers. ... As recently as 1800, the most important practitioners of quantification were merchants. For them, the manipulation of quantities was an extraordinarily challenging task in those days when measures often varied from town to town, when there were different measures for different substances, and when almost nothing was decimalized...

The expansion in the collection, publication, and use of numbers, when considered as a phenomenon of the last two or three centuries, stands out as one of the really important developments of modern history. Contemporary science would be almost unthinkable without it, as would our current systems of finance, bureaucracy, regulation, engineering, medicine, insurance, trade, and tax collection--to give only a partial list. Accounts, statistics, and measurements have contributed enormously to administrative centralization, to the growth of the state and of large business enterprises.

The flow of information from periphery to center often takes the form of numbers ... [which] are ideally suited to combination and abstraction, and hence to distillation into ever simpler forms. They can easily be passed along from the provinces to the capital, or up an administrative hierarchy to the political leadership, and combined with other numbers as they proceed. Often, this requires no more than adding them together. Combining numbers is much more convenient than abridging thousands of written reports, each about a different district or problem, into one brief summary. By now numbers surround us. No important aspect of life is beyond their reach. Factories and shops, freeways and harbors, schools and concert halls, churches and bedrooms are all surveyed or sampled, then registered and reported in quantitative terms. ... The statistical bureaucracy, generally in alliance with a regulatory one, may become a powerful force for the imposition of standard categories--not just on the paper forms, but also in the world. ... This production of uniformity through numbers makes the world more readily administrable.

The reduction of complex information to a few numbers, or even a single number, has become a common feature of contemporary life. ... In public statistics, the use of a single index number to summarize a broad and sometimes elusive concept has become overwhelmingly common. Inflation is measured by indexes of consumer and of wholesale prices. Trade balances, worker productivity, gross domestic product, the unemployment rate, and mean household income are other economic numbers used to assess the health of the American economy or the success of current economic policy.

On the whole, understanding the role of numbers in the world has not been a high priority of mathematical education. Up to high school, mathematics generally means the manipulation of quantities and symbols. Students are required to perform arithmetic calculations and to solve equations. ... The problem of attaching numbers to the world is given rather little attention, except in relation to certain idealized problems chosen to promote a certain way of thinking rather than to learn about the world. Students are taught to calculate how many dimes and how many quarters they must have if their pockets contain seven coins worth a dollar, or where two trains will collide if one is traveling west at 70 miles per hour and the other going east at 50. Rarely do they learn what a stratified sample is, or how an unemployment rate is determined, or what the smog index measures. The sorts of numbers that modern citizens are likely to confront in their lives as citizens and voters have little place in the modern curriculum ...

Theodore Porter is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles. He specializes in the history of science and is the author of "Trust in Numbers" (1995). He can be reached by e-mail at tporter@history.ucla.edu.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997