The Trouble with Numbers

We live in a world that has become on a daily basis increasingly more complex because of its ever advancing technology and still rapidly increasing population. One of the most obvious effects of both is that we have come to live in a world defined by, restricted by, and described by numbers.

For example, for most people, the date today is January 1, 2010. That’s effectively an arbitrary denotation of the passage of time since the attributed date of birth of the founder of a major religious belief system. Research, however, suggests that that birth date is off by six or so years and that the time of year was later manipulated for theo-political reasons to coincide roughly with the winter solstice. Because much of the world has based its chronology — and dates and chronologies are important for many political, economic, and social reasons — societies in general have accepted the modified Gregorian calendar for practical reasons and have resisted major changes for exactly those reasons. But most people never consider the background or the implications, and those who do quickly move on to more pressing issues, and ones about which they can do something.

Unhappily, the same lack of understanding lies behind so many of the numbers we use in society today, and the numbers tend to become “reality,” with little understanding of what actually lies behind them — until something goes wrong, and the blame is assessed everywhere but where it should be — and that’s at a lack of understanding of what the numbers really mean… or, in many cases, what they do not mean or represent.

For example, everyone takes “for granted” that if someone runs a temperature over 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit consistently for several hours, that person is sick. Not necessarily. In some cases, subnormal temperatures signal severe illnesses as well. Also, the 98.6 degree number is an average across large populations. It doesn’t hold for everyone, as I well know, because my wife’s “normal” temperature is consistently a degree and a half below “normal.” What that means for her is that what would be a mild or moderate fever for someone else is a severe fever for her. Yet the failure to understand the difference between “normal” for her and for the population as a whole could make a considerable difference to her in the case of a severe infection.

I’ve made the point earlier about numbers in regard to the side-effects with regard to vaccinations. Because some parents do not understand statistics, because they fear side-effects that occur in one in a million cases, they will avoid vaccinations for “childhood” diseases, where the side effects of the disease are often hundreds of times more prevalent than the side-effects of vaccination.

Failure to understand what the economic numbers meant in the several years before the last financial meltdown contributed mightily to the disaster. No matter what any “guru” preaches, you cannot have massive societal and even world-wide price run-ups in securities and real estate prices on a wide-scale basis when real overall economic growth is slow or moderate — not without generating a “bubble” and a subsequent collapse.

Nor can every company realistically aim at 10-40% annual profit targets, and when large numbers of companies are posting such profits at a time when nominal inflation is low… something is wrong, either the way those profits are calculated, or the way inflation is measured… or the reporting of other data… or the business practices of the companies involved.

Likewise, when more than forty percent of the grades given at universities in the United States are “As,” anyone with a modicum of understanding should realize the implications behind those numbers. In three generations, human beings don’t change from 10-15% of the collegiate population being brilliant to 40% plus being brilliant, especially when far larger numbers of less advantaged students are attending college. What it does mean, among other things, is that pursuit of “the almighty grade” has become as rampant as the pursuit of “the almighty dollar,” and that excellence in both academia and business has become secondary to numerical targets of dubious worth in assessing performance.

When “reader reviews” flood Amazon.com, what do they mean? Do they really judge excellence? While some may be accurate in that regard, in practice what those numbers reflect is popularity, not quality. There’s nothing wrong with that… so long as people understand that, but unfortunately, many don’t. More than a few readers have contacted me in surprise after reading one of my “less popular” SF novels to say that they thought a book was far better than the reader reviews. That shouldn’t really be surprising. Often excellent books do not make a quick and easy read, and for some readers, who seek ease of escape and entertainment, an excellent book may not be a good read. That doesn’t mean the book is “bad,” only that it’s not suited to them, but handing out “stars” for popularity doesn’t reflect quality. In fact, one reader made the point that he looks for “bad” ratings among authors he knows are good writers to find the excellent books.

The same problem exists with the travesty of “student evaluations.” I’m sorry, but 18-20 year old students do not know what they need to learn. Studies have shown that high student evaluations correlate directly to high grades given by the professor. There are always exceptions, but across thousands of professors that observation holds true. Thus, the numbers reflected in student evaluations do not reflect the quality of teaching, but the degree of grade inflation. Yet university administrations routinely use these evaluations as a proxy for good teaching. What their use reflects is not excellence, but the need for “popular” teachers to fill classrooms, regardless of excellence.

I could go on and on, but my opening thought for another numbered year is that, with more and more numbers flooding us, day after day… try, please try, to understand what they really mean and not what everyone else tells you they mean.

4 Responses to “The Trouble with Numbers”

  1. hob says:

    Mr Modesitt, in the light of our simian cousins, do you think that schools/universities should mould and develop popularity as a tool in the aid of teaching? After all modern media develops/moulds popularity for use in many fields, politics, brand sales etc…

  2. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Personally, I think that teaching the molding of popularity would have limited success and would be a very bad idea, mainly because most forms of popularity are based on some form of misrepresentation, and to me, that's a very bad idea in any aspect of education. After all, student evaluations are based on popularity, not substance, and are already a misrepresentation. Further institutionalizing popularity in education would only make the situation worse.

  3. hob says:

    some form of misrepresentation…

    thanks for the promt response, I guess I was trying to see if the same responses that occur in a social group–everyone picking up cultural norms of behaviour even under conditions when most remain illiterate–could be used in the aid of teaching complex theory. Thinking on your reply, it occurs to me that perhaps I should have asked if teachers should be percieved to hold more power within society then currently, maybe by assigning military aids to them or they holding some rank within the military.

    I forgot to say Happy New year last time, so Happy new year, and I wish you and yours well.

  4. jim says:

    I guess one could have a nice little feedback loop between "improving" teacher evaluations and the ever-increasing numbers of A grades handed out.