Trust in Numbers

Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers, The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton 1995

Review for the Digital Humanities

Preliminary remark: Numbers are an important element in the Digital Humanities. The Frankfurter Allgemeine even writes, in connection with the Digital Humanities Conference 2012 in Hamburg, Germany, of the empirical turn in the humanities. High time, then, to read the book of Theodore M. Porter on numbers as well as the book of Alain Desrosières on statistics (please see my separate post) again.

Porter seeks to understand the growing importance of quantification in politics and science. He analyzes this development as part of a communication strategy, which has to do with the social identity of researchers. Quantification is a technology of alienation. It minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust. It is a trend that gives science authority in the political life. Porter shows this using historical examples.

Objectivity means to follow certain rules, implies personal restraint and refers to fairness and independence. It is an ideal of knowledge and moral value. Why quantitative expertises have gained so enormous importance in the political decision-making? The expertise is a relationship between science and politics. It must be objective and quantification is a way to correspond to this requirement. Objectivity gives political or administrative measures authority without making decisions, Porter says.

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Which facts and figures are true? Scientific knowledge is a collective product. Norms of scientific communication demand that knowledge is authorized by specialists of a scientific discipline. This is evident for example in peer review. Knowledge travels along networks: what appears to be universal valid is, in fact, a “triumph of social cloning”. Positivist science classifies facts carefully, compares their relationships and consolidates them into a formula. Such approach means rather managing the world, than to understand it. But this bureaucratic unification of standards and norms was essential to transform local practices in general knowledge. The result is objectivity, the victory of the quantitative over the qualitative element of the pre-industrial world.

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Statistics are capable to describe the social reality in part because they help to define it. In the Soviet Union, the party has not predicted the future, but planned it. History was then an attempt to conform to the plan. Accounting is less mapping conditions than to steer and control behaviour in large institutions. Codes of profitability or return on investment are the basis for self-discipline. They are “technologies of the soul” (Nicholas Rose). They provide administrative decisions legitimacy because they set standards against which people judge themselves: “Numbers turn people into objects to be manipulated”, Porter says. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno criticized positivism; it would replace concepts by using formulas and causes by probability. Objectivity is thus characterized by what it missed out. What is missing is the unique, interested, localized individual. So desires, expectations and meaning go lost.

Scientific knowledge is not alone formalized theory, but also practical knowledge. Objectivity is here an alternative to personal trust. Standards and norms supersede local practices with formalized procedures in order to minimize conflicts and avoid stalemates. Porter illustrates this finding from using historical case studies on sizes and weights, accounting and cost-benefit analysis of infrastructure projects in France and the USA.

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 “Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge”, Max Weber wrote. In the 1960s and 1970s, quantitative methods have been increasingly important in policy decisions. This corresponded to a trend in the sciences, where objectivity was ultimately a know­­ledge that has been produced conform to prevailing standards in scientific practices. Objectivity is a classical ideal of science: impersonal, fair, universally, without prejudice. Science is a community with its own rules, a meritocracy of free discussion and informal negotiations. Much of this happens silently due to common expectations and shared interpretations. Formalization and standardization will address then uncertainty and variability in new or exposed areas.

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 What does it mean for the Digital Humanities to read Theodore M. Porter’s book on numbers and trust again?

We learn about the growing authority of quantitative methods both in sciences and politics, a social and political phenomenon. Porter sees scientific knowledge as made by communities. His thesis: the quantification is associated with objectivity, impersonal knowledge. It is used when it needs to gain trust universally. The need to standardize goes along with the growth of the state and the development of a large-scale economy. Porter shows how such pressures to quantification have also operated in science.

Porter shows how closely state, administration and research are cooperating in certain fields of knowledge and sciences. Who in social and human sciences is dealing with numbers and their importance for the society, state and sciences is very well served with this interesting book.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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