…the whole audit culture rests on a superstition about numbers. As soon as numbers come into play, we are all liable to fall into what Oscar Wilde called ‘careless habits of accuracy’. A number holds out the promise of definiteness, exactness and objectivity. But a number is a signifier like any other, a way of representing something. We appeal to numbers as a way of replacing imprecise, subjective human judgment with precise, objective measurement, but in fact we are just swapping one language system for another. (And in fact not a whole ‘language’, just a limited vocabulary: almost any use of numbers, outside certain areas of mathematics and science, will be embedded in words that specify what the numbers are supposed to stand for.) The existence of any statistic is the outcome of a process of human judgment. The digital revolution has brought with it a huge increase in quantifiable information, the very existence of which provides a constant temptation to metric misbehaviour. If there are numbers to be had, we come to feel that we must have them, even though they may mislead us into thinking we have solid information about something important when in reality all we have is the precise and selective misrepresentation of something insignificant. Muller again has some wise words: ‘Measurement is not an alternative to judgment; measurement demands judgment: judgment about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured, whether rewards and penalties will be attached to the results, and to whom to make the measurements available.’ Some people speak numbers better than others and, as always, knowledge is power.
From: Stefan Collini, ‘Kept Alive for Thirty Days’, London Review of Books, Vol. 40 No. 21, 8 November, 2018, pp. 35-38