The fallacy of the Innumerati

This post is a response to a blog post by @pritishnandy called ‘The tyranny of numbers‘ , presenting a counter-argument.

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It seems the average human is a very non-quantitative organism. At the very least, we seem to be largely unaware of our mathematical capabilities in day to day life. No matter that the human brain performs rather sophisticated calculations in the background to accomplish simple things picking up that steaming cup of tea on the desk.

Consider that the brain has information from two eyes, that provide it with two images  of the cup at slightly different angles. From this, it must perform the trigonometrically intensive task of judging the distance to the cup in three dimensional space (formally called stereoscopic 3D-interpolation ). It must then send signals to the arm, knowing its location through a combination of visual and proprioceptive information and then activating muscles precisely to the correct degree, in the correct order to move the arm to a different point in three dimensional space (formally, vector mechanics). Of course, one is not explicitly aware that one is doing all that, but rest assured, your brain is.

Fascinating as all this mathematical jugglery is, humans are apparently unappreciative of it. Nandy clearly understands and instead utilizes a healthy dose of nostalgia – pining for the days when “novels were novels” and numbers were confined to “maths classes and occasionally, quiz questions.”

Except, they never were. Any progress humankind has ever made has involved numerical calculation at some point. India has a very rich tradition of utilizing mathematics to understand the natural world, society and the human condition. Sometimes, these efforts have gone so far that we have ended up with mathematically rather precise delusions – such as astrology. Bear in mind though, that the flaw in these delusions is their central assumption that phenomenon like planetary motion affect human life, rather than their mathematics.

Indeed, even art has a love affair with numbers. As early as 450 BCE, Polykleitos the Elder – a sculptor by passion, wrote “The Kanon and symmetria” , analysing the mathematical basis of aesthetics. Much closer to our time, is the work of the Renaissance artists and their detailed study of perspective and triangulation which was only made possible by their simultaneous mathematical prowess. Even poetry, that Nandy mentions, is subject to meters of sentence length. Or music, which enumerates notes to harmonize sounds.

No, it is not numbers that have stolen the romance from art or the simplicity of life. If anything, they have enriched it. But read further into Nandy’s prose and one realizes that the thorn in his side, is not numbers. It’s ranking. Ranking is a natural human tendency. It serves to answer the question – what is better? As such, it facilitates one of the most basic human desires : to better one’s living conditions.

Ranking does not have be quantitative – one can easily rank things as “best, almost the best, good, not so good, bad, poor and worst”. It just so happens that numbers provide the most detailed method to establish ranking. For example, as long as your believe in the concept of GDP , ranking countries by their GDP tells you a lot about their people, well-being and potential. Nandy complains about VAT numbers, and PAN card numbers and Aadhar numbers. He complains about normalcy being defined by numbers. There is good reason for that. Numbers, by their nature of being infinitely many, provide an inexhaustible way to assign identities. Normalcy is defined by the normal distribution, which is a very good reflection of what is or is not significantly different from the typical state of things. Normalcy has always been what it is – the normal distribution is just our way of having a very clear idea of what we mean by it. Once again, numbers are the best way to do so.

Perhaps it feels dehumanizing , but there no better way to get the job done. One just has to stop being overly emotional about what is just a functional tool. You see, numbers are just representations. They mean nothing by themselves – the meaning is derived by the underlying concepts that the numbers represent. Much like how the numbers show you exactly how dismal the corruption is – complelling Nandy to stop counting. Alas, I propose he should have done a lot more than mere counting with the numbers all these years.

Nash @nashv