The Tyranny of Numbers

“Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.”
– Luke 12:7

 Numbers rule. In today’s world, numbers — and the data and algorithms fed by those numbers — seem to determine everything. In business, numbers influence every facet of business strategy, from levels of production to employment to prices. A whole new discipline, called data analytics, has been created to explore and manipulate business statistics. In sports, data-driven statistics determine player value (see WAR — “wins above replacement” — among a host of new “sabermetrics” used by baseball analysts to replace traditional indices of performance). In entertainment, movies are judged by their “Rotten Tomatoes” index and star-power is driven by digital downloads. Anyone can go to the internet to find the “net worth” of a celebrity measured in his or her “assets minus liabilities.” In politics, poll numbers and projections seemingly elevate the status of a candidate before a single vote is cast. At times, poll numbers are the deciding factor in government policy decisions and allocation of resources. Even in education, administrators rely on numbers to guide planning and assessment of programs. In my own institution, student enrollment numbers are compared to departmental overhead to yield a “costs-benefits” analysis that determine faculty load. The result yields a minimum number of students per course — under that number courses will not be offered, will be pulled if already advertised, or will lead to a withdrawal from the “faculty load bank” amassed over a professor’s career. (I cannot refrain from a “what hath God wrought” interjection here.) Indeed, in our present society individual identity — historically determined by social connections or membership in a religious or political community — is reduced to a number. Are we really a person without a Social Security Number?

This is not necessarily brand new, even if we have taken our numbers obsession to greater heights. In a famous 1829 essay entitled “Signs of the Times,” Thomas Carlyle warned that values such as heroism, devotion, philosophy and morals had been replaced by an overarching mechanism. “Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance,” Carlyle wrote, “For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness.”1 Three decades earlier, the “gloomy parson” Thomas Malthus had sounded the alarm about population increase in An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus warned that the dramatic increase in human population at the time would soon outstrip the means for feeding that population, necessitating what he called “positive checks” on population like wars, famines and epidemics. Both Malthus and Carlyle responded to the consequences of English industrialization, as did Jeremy Bentham, whose utilitarian ideas hinged on the provision of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” Combined with the unbridled capitalism of profit-driven English middle class industrialists, the Industrial Revolution created conditions in which increased production, yielding higher profits, trumped other human considerations. Charles Dickens, of course, criticized that tendency in works like Hard Times and A Christmas Carol. The reign of numbers was clearly articulated by Ebenezer Scrooge when, confronted by the reality of human suffering wrought by early industrial living conditions and the need for charitable giving, he exclaimed, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? . . . Better they should die and decrease the surplus population.”

The Scientific Revolution contributed to the reign of numbers as well. Early modern scientists and scientific thinkers developed a method predicated on the viewpoint that the physical universe was rational and knowable through rigorous methods of experimentation and verification. That method and perspective has yielded impressive accomplishments that have helped us understand the universe, harness natural forces, and treat previously inexplicable diseases. Most scientists professed humility before the wonders of this clockwork universe, but a few — joined by popularizers who, perhaps, misunderstood the nuances of modern science — used science to exclude other perspectives and methods to discover truth. For them, the universe was a closed system answerable only to mathematical principles that could explain and even predict every physical operation. Such an exclusive perspective led scientists like John Tyndall in the 19th century to reduce physical things to operations and numbers. Tyndall was most famous for proposing a “prayer gauge” experiment in which separate groups of ill patients in a hospital would be either prayed for or treated by physicians. The experiment would decide once and for all whether faith or reason held sway over physical phenomena. Tyndall’s proposal sparked a furious debate and most later scientists abandoned his simplistic notions regarding the interplay of natural and supernatural forces. Indeed, many scientists today acknowledge the role of mental, emotional, and spiritual beliefs on physical health. And modern chaos theory recognizes the subtlety and complexity of the natural processes. But the effects on broader culture remain — today’s fixation with numbers grew partly out of a belief in the fundamentally rational and predictable nature of the universe. If the physical world responds to mathematical modeling, why not the human world crafted by physical reality?

As a historian, I often fall prey to the numbers game. When I analyze past events and cultures, I avail myself of numbers to describe that culture. Numbers impress students with the magnitude and relative scale of historical developments. When I teach about wars or economic conditions or famines or epidemics, I refer to numbers. Levels of production, distribution of goods and services, demographic data, casualty figures and mortality rates pepper my lectures and class texts. Those figures provide a point of reference and a means to compare historical eras. The obvious danger in this historical numbers game, however, becomes a failure to appreciate the human dimension. Every number, every statistic, every death reflects a story of real human beings who deserve full appreciation of their essential humanity. In the study of history, I constantly remind myself, two plus two does not always equal four.

Which brings me to our present circumstances. As I write this essay, the world is gripped by the ever-growing coronavirus pandemic. We are daily bombarded by numbers reflecting the scale and expansion of this disease. Television newscasts, on-line news stories, essays and notices detail the number of cases and the mounting death toll of the virus. Commentators analyze the numbers of coronavirus diagnoses based on the numbers of tests administered and the numbers of survivors. They extrapolate from that the likelihood of greater numbers of persons infected. They use those numbers to predict the apex of the outbreak and the potential future numbers of cases and deaths. All these numbers are broken down by country, region, state, city, gender, age, ethnicity, and any other category imaginable. These numbers are compiled to give scientists and medical professionals an idea of the scope of the epidemic and the amount of medical equipment needed to treat infected patients. They are also used to inform the public and impress on us the need for preventive measures. In the process, they have the potential to frighten, reassure, or motivate the community. Finally, pandemic numbers are used to direct government policy. “Stay at home” orders, quarantines, and allocation of scarce resources are determined by calculations of the projected spread of the disease. All in all, numbers can be useful in responding to crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, the proliferation of statistics threatens to overwhelm us. We are numbed by the scale and constant fluctuations of numbers. We either avoid them or pore over them as if numbers themselves hold the key to understanding the pandemic. Numbers have the capacity to dehumanize as well as inform and educate. As the death toll grows, we respond less positively. We see the mortality figures and are glad that we and our loved ones are not among them. We subconsciously judge the victims. They were too old, we shamefully tell ourselves, or too weak or too compromised. They live somewhere else. They work in congested, overpopulated areas. They are numbers and not real. We become indifferent to the reality behind the numbers.

Modern people often judge the past negatively. We shake our heads at the irrational response of medieval Europeans to the 14th-century Black Death, early modern smallpox epidemics, or 19th-century cholera outbreaks. All that recourse to ritual and prayer, that attribution of disease to God’s will, that moralizing about the sins of the dead, that mortification, fasting, and self-flagellation. Isn’t it all just superstition? Aren’t we superior in our scientific understanding and advanced treatments of disease? And yet, is our dehumanizing approach to numbers any better? And, in times of crisis, don’t we also find ourselves praying and sacrificing? Is our prayer more rational because it is modern? Doesn’t the recourse to prayer underscore a deep human need and the universality of belief?

John Donne reminded us that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Behind the numbers that obsess modern business, sports, entertainment, education, and politics are human beings. Behind the historical statistics of population growth, economic productivity, war casualties and epidemics lie you and me. Behind the numbers of coronavirus deaths are real people, people with real lives and aspirations, people like ourselves. Modern science and industry have contributed positively to human culture but they do not define us. We cannot distort the benefits of historical developments to create dehumanizing ideologies. It can be depressing when we are confronted with overwhelming numbers, I know, and denial is a potent defense mechanism in times of crisis, but we must resist the urge to feel less and dehumanize the people behind the statistics. “And therefore,” Donne continued, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Jesus remind us to overcome fear and anxiety by trusting in God’s love. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus preached, “And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” If even the hairs of our head are numbered, if God formed us in the womb and knows us so intimately, how precious are our lives? Too precious to reduce to numbers. Too precious to conflate with theories and statistics. Too precious to devalue in the name of selfishness or sanity. The lessons of Jesus persist even in, maybe especially in, times of crisis. Amidst the numbers that abound about the coronavirus pandemic, there are rays of hope. Isolation and “stay at home” orders remind us of the importance of community. Interspersed among the statistics are stories of human beings coping, helping, sharing, and simply reaching out to others. It’s God’s love and those stories that define us.

  1. Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review (1829); accessed at victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/signs1.html.
Richard J. Janet, PhD About Richard J. Janet, PhD

Richard J. Janet, PhD, is a professor of history, and director of the Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought and Culture at Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri.