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Trust in Numbers

Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life

Theodore M. Porter
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    Trust in Numbers
    Book Description:

    This investigation of the overwhelming appeal of quantification in the modern world discusses the development of cultural meanings of objectivity over two centuries. How are we to account for the current prestige and power of quantitative methods? The usual answer is that quantification is seen as desirable in social and economic investigation as a result of its successes in the study of nature. Theodore Porter is not content with this. Why should the kind of success achieved in the study of stars, molecules, or cells be an attractive model for research on human societies? he asks. And, indeed, how should we understand the pervasiveness of quantification in the sciences of nature? In his view, we should look in the reverse direction: comprehending the attractions of quantification in business, government, and social research will teach us something new about its role in psychology, physics, and medicine.

    Drawing on a wide range of examples from the laboratory and from the worlds of accounting, insurance, cost-benefit analysis, and civil engineering, Porter shows that it is "exactly wrong" to interpret the drive for quantitative rigor as inherent somehow in the activity of science except where political and social pressures force compromise. Instead, quantification grows from attempts to develop a strategy of impersonality in response to pressures from outside. Objectivity derives its impetus from cultural contexts, quantification becoming most important where elites are weak, where private negotiation is suspect, and where trust is in short supply.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2161-7
    Subjects: Mathematics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION Cultures of Objectivity
    (pp. 3-8)

    “Objectivity” arouses the passions as few other words can. Its presence is evidently required for basic justice, honest government, and true knowledge. But an excess of it crushes individual subjects, demeans minority cultures, devalues artistic creativity, and discredits genuine democratic political participation. Notwithstanding such criticism, its resonance is overwhelmingly positive. Attacks are rarely directed at true objectivity, but rather at pretenders who use it to mask their own dishonesty, or perhaps the falseness and injustice of a whole culture. Most often it is not closely defined, but simply invoked to praise or blame. In the United States, scientists, engineers, and...


    • CHAPTER ONE A World of Artifice
      (pp. 11-32)

      The credibility of numbers, or indeed of knowledge in any form, is a social and moral problem. This has not yet been adequately appreciated. Since the 1970s, debates about objectivity between philosophical and sociological camps have been polarized mainly over the question of realism. The claim that science is socially constructed has too often been read as an attack on its validity or truth. I consider this a mistake, as well as a diversion from more important issues. Perhaps there is something to be accomplished by arguing whether science can get at the real nature of things. But the answer...

    • CHAPTER TWO How Social Numbers Are Made Valid
      (pp. 33-48)

      The Latin root ofvaliditymeans “power.” Power must be exercised in a variety of ways to make measurements and tallies valid. Nobody seriously doubts that phosphorus, say, exists in some real quantity in any given discharge of waste water. But it requires a massive exercise of social power to establish valid measures of such discharges. This involves not only a disciplined labor force, but also good public relations. If manufacturers or environmentalists think the measurement process is unreliable or, worse, biased, it may well break down. If the most accurate methods are too expensive, inferior ones may become standard....

    • CHAPTER THREE Economic Measurement and the Values of Science
      (pp. 49-72)

      Textbook science is predominantly about theory. This is especially true of physics, the currently reigning queen of the sciences, which beginners and other outsiders sometimes confuse with mathematics. This class of outsiders includes most social scientists who have thought at all about the achievements of natural science and their implications for human studies. When the issue is posed in such abstract terms, even experimenters will often say that their business is to test theory. I discussed in chapter 1 some of the reasons for believing that experiment has a life of its own, a life of instrumental practices. But of...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Political Philosophy of Quantification
      (pp. 73-86)

      Quantification has not yet become a topic in political philosophy. Not that its political dimension has been ignored. An abundance of seemingly contradictory views have been advanced by moralists, critics, and quantitative researchers themselves. This corpus of writings includes some ill-considered polemics, but also some nuanced and thoughtful discussion. The best arguments are by no means all on one side. Unfortunately, there has been little dialogue. Critics, especially on the left, present the quantitative mentality as morally indefensible, an obstacle to utopia. Advocates have sometimes answered their opponents, but usually by defending the legitimacy of quantification as a way of...


    • CHAPTER FIVE Experts against Objectivity: Accountants and Actuaries
      (pp. 89-113)

      I have already discussed accounting as an emblem of quantitative practicality, in contrast to the detached and otherworldly outlook nourished within pure mathematics, and sometimes in the scientific disciplines as well. Practicality in the context of accounting is meant to imply a close contact with the world of production or management. In regard to natural science, I use the term broadly to refer to techniques for predicting and controlling phenomena. Obviously it does not follow that theorizing is impractical, even in this sense. What aids in comprehending events will often contribute also to their reliable manipulation. Still, it is time...

    • CHAPTER SIX French State Engineers and the Ambiguities of Technocracy
      (pp. 114-147)

      The United States gave us the word “technocracy,” but France seems to have some claims on the thing itself. The Ecole Polytechnique, product of the French Revolution, is often taken to epitomize technocratic culture in France. Polytechnique, with its emphasis on mathematics and science, was central to what Antoine Picon calls the invention of the modern engineer. Quite unlike its imitators, it educated the highest stratum of elites. Where else has administrative power been so closely allied to technical knowledge?

      This alliance helps to explain the French tradition of what would now be called applied economics, discussed in chapter 3....

    • CHAPTER SEVEN U.S. Army Engineers and the Rise of Cost-Benefit Analysis
      (pp. 148-190)

      The Army Corps of Engineers was permanently established in 1802, on the model of the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées. Its officers were recruited from among the top graduates of the military academy at West Point, the American Ecole Polytechnique. The French emigré L’Enfant, designer of the great geometric capital of Washington, had a hand also in its planning. At its creation, much of its technical library was in French. Like its predecessor, the Corps of Engineers stood for administrative unification. This, and the proud elitism of its officers, made them politically suspect in nineteenth-century America.¹ Its enemies sustained this...


    • CHAPTER EIGHT Objectivity and the Politics of Disciplines
      (pp. 193-216)

      Researchers in accounting, insurance, applied economics, and quantitative social science have generally been so keen to model their work on the better-established disciplines that they may be a little nonplussed to find their specialties represented as the prototypes of quantification in science. Others who have learned some history of physics or biology from science textbooks, or even from the standard historical literature, may reasonably wonder if my chapters on quantification in the context of bureaucracy could have much to do with its uses in the more academically respectable sciences. In the rest of the book I will take up these...

    • CHAPTER NINE Is Science Made by Communities?
      (pp. 217-232)

      Objectivity is one of the classic ideals of science. It refers to a cluster of attributes: first among them is truth to nature, but there is also impersonality, fairness, universality, and in general an immunity to all kinds of local distorting factors like nationality, language, personal interest, and prejudice. In some idioms, the ideal of rationality and objectivity has seemed to imply a thoroughgoing individualism in science. The classic figure here is Descartes, who wanted to build up a world using only materials demonstrated to be sound by the clear light of reason, a light in principle accessible to anyone,...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 233-268)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-302)
  11. Index
    (pp. 303-310)