I disagreed with David Boyle's premise, deplored his conclusions, and enjoyed The Tyranny of Numbers immensely. Of two minds, his diatribe against numbers and people like me who revel in them was summed up in his 227-page book as: 'We could try measuring more and we could try measuring less. In fact, we can probably do both'.
Boyle's thesis is that too many people spend too much time collecting too much data and not parsing it into information and thence into knowledge and thus deriving wisdom. He's right, but then it could be argued that too many people spend too much time painting or writing and to too little effect, because they are not good enough at what they do. Life's like that.
Boyle has really written two books in one. In alternate chapters he strikes out at examples of foolish number-crunching (eg, 'number of floppy discs BT believes can store a digital version of every experience in an 80-year life: 7,142,857,142,860,000'. Surely they can be more precise! It's like the Lewis Carroll story of the boy who comes up with a figure of 1,004 pigs in a field. 'You can't be sure about the four,' he is told.
'And you're as wrong as ever,' says the boy, 'it's just the four I can be sure about, 'cause they're here, grubbing under the window. It's the thousand I isn't pruffickly sure about.'
The high points for me come in the alternate chapters of brief, ironic histories of the great number-crunchers of history: Jeremy Bentham (attempting to measure 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' and failing, after distributing a questionnaire of some 3,000 questions and having only a handful returned); John Stuart Mill ('hard to warm to Mill, or any of the unemotional Utilitarians'); James Anyon ('giving advice to young people - in the 19th century at the dawn of the accounting profession - the well trained and experienced accountant of today ... is not a man of figures. He is rather a man of facts and truths, and figures become subordinate and are used only as a means of expressing such facts and truths'); Thomas Potter (father of the first British census, not counting the Doomsday Book!); the wonderful monomaniac Edwin Chadwick (fixated on cleanliness of both the body and the body politic); Charles Booth (mapping what he called the 'terra incognita' of London); Shaw and the Webbs ('the obsession with facts led to the foundation of the London School of Economics in 1895'); and Thomas Stewart and Lloyd George, and Seebohm Rowntree, and a wonderful chapter on John Maynard Keynes, and many others.
How he missed out Churchill setting up the Central Statistical Office I can't imagine.
Boyle's attacks catch me on all fronts: he berates McKinsey & Co ('What's really important can't be measured, perhaps we should call that the 'McKinsey Fallacy''), the LSE (he says happiness can't be measured - I do it all the time), and my trade (although, to be fair, it's the 'hard' data that seems to dismay him most: 'We are increasing-ly silenced by the number-crunchers - unable to make up our minds or take control of the future in the increasing cacophony of measurements and statistics'; and: 'The hopeless dream of number-crunchers is still to reach the perfect objective non-political decision, to take all that human prejudice and error out of politics or management. It is a dream from the foundation of the London Statistical Society whose first rule of conduct was to 'exclude all opinions'').
Still, I think it's a wonderful book, even if Boyle needs to get hold of himself, and to realise and recognise that numbers, like ies. , are the tools we use to communicate, and have no right or wrong of their own, but only how people use them.