Why statistics tend not only to describe the world but to change it

Lorraine Daston

  • The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning by Alain Desrosières, translated by Camille Naish
    Harvard, 368 pp, £27.95, October 1998, ISBN 0 674 68932 1

Is the Gross Domestic Product real? How about the unemployment rate? Or the population of the United Kingdom? These are entities that hover between the realms of the invented and the discovered. On the one hand, they are creatures of classification and calculation, of conventions of coding, modelling and sampling. It is the artifice of definition that makes them cohere – or unravel. Depending on the method by which GDP is reckoned (e.g. sum total of all rents, wages, profits, interest and dividends as against national expenditure on goods and services), or how unemployment is defined (without a job? without a job and actively seeking one?), different numbers result. More disturbingly for common-sense realism, these entities come into being (and sometimes pass away) in specific historical circumstances that don’t satisfy the usual criteria of solidity and permanence for bona fide things in the world. Why did the category of ‘unemployment’ supersede that of ‘poverty’ around the turn of this century? And why are international population and medical statistics so hard to standardise? On the other hand, statistical entities are robust and vigorous: GDP and the unemployment rate guide government planning and affect the outcome of elections. Actuarial statistics, which correlate the risk of car accidents primarily with horsepower in Germany but with the age and sex of the driver in the United States, set the price of policies and are the foundation of vast fortunes for insurance companies. The categories of national labour statistics are only approximately translatable, even among the homogenised economies of the European Community: to be a Beamter or cadre or manager is not just to assume a label, but to take on a distinct persona. If they are not part of the durable furniture of the world, the same everywhere and always, statistical entities nonetheless change the world. They are, as Alain Desrosières puts it, ‘things that hold’.

Desrosières’s book is a philosophical and sociological reflection on the history of statistics, the most matter-of-fact of all disciplines. He draws liberally on the dernier cri sociology of science (in the mode of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon), on medieval philosophy (he is especially enamoured of the 14th-century debates between realists and nominalists), and on standard political histories of Britain, France, Germany and the US in order to retell the convoluted story of the science and practice of modern statistics and how the qualitative descriptions used by early modern states to keep track of their subjects and wealth eventually merged with the mathematical theory of probability to bring it about. Desrosières himself is the kind of hybrid that perhaps only the French system of education, with its emphasis on philosophy and mathematics, could have produced. He is Administrateur at the Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (INSEE) in Paris, i.e. a practitioner of the arcana of government statistics, as well as the author of several historical and sociological studies analysing the conceptual and political preconditions for doing government statistics.

Desrosières has no intention of debunking the tools of his trade. Rather, he wants to understand what he calls the ‘paradox’ of things that are simultaneously real and conventional. He is rightly puzzled by (but also admiring of) the techniques of categorising and manipulating data that have overcome their often bizarre and controversial origins to become reliable and unassailable. His history is honestly presented as mostly a synthesis of the work of those scholars – Ian Hacking, Marie-Noëlle Bourguet, Theodore Porter, Stephen Stigler, Mary Morgan and others – who have, since the 1980s, richly documented the development of probability and statistics. What is original about Desrosières is that he narrates the story from the point of view of a statistician-cum-metaphysician.

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