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GDP drives our economies. Stock market indices flood our media and national debates. Statistical calculations define how we deal with climate change, poverty and sustainability. But what is behind these numbers? In this book, Lorenzo Fioramonti sets out to show how numbers have been used as a means to reinforce the grip of markets on our social and political life, curtailing public participation and rational debate. Stuart Astill finds it to be a well written book, blending together knowledge from different fields into a coherent and readable whole. Of interest to economists, statisticians and especially those studying all aspects of power and politics.

How Numbers Rule the World - Lorenzo FioramontiHow Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics. Lorenzo Fioramonti. Zed Books. January 2014.

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During my time as a government statistician I had literally no idea that I was not, as many people thought, an oxymoron, but rather I was a tautology. I have discovered amongst many other things, thanks to Lorenzo Fioramonti‘s book, that statistics were originally created for the express purpose of governing and reforming the state, hence the ‘stat’ part of the name.

However, the title of the book, “How numbers rule the world”, is much closer to describing the content than is the subtitle, “the use and abuse of statistics in global politics”. Fioramonti’s main concerns are economists and, perhaps even more, the people who ask questions of economists and statisticians. He intelligently explains how he despairs of people who abuse their technical knowledge or their advantageous position to turn the world to their own ends rather than the common good. This is not surprising: the author holds a Chair in Governance at the University of Pretoria and applies governance thinking through his work on topics around development, alternative economies and social progress measurement.

This book is consequently largely about power, rather than numbers: it illustrates a subset of abuses of power that have numbers at their heart. It is in some ways a psychopath’s guide to bullying the world by numbers – pretending that everything is ‘rational’, ‘independent’ and ‘objective’ and building fortresses of power around these intentional misrepresentations.In a provocative and fascinating first introductory chapter Fioramonti outlines his take on the world of ‘official’ numbers – perhaps best summed up where he says “Experts who use numbers have become the guardians of [this] social trust… citizens, elected representatives and other stakeholders… are held hostage by experts…”

The main chapters are quite specific techno-politico-historical investigations into four areas; ‘New global rulers: the untameable power of credit rating’, ‘Fiddling while the planet burns: the marketization of climate change’, ‘Measuring the unmeasurable: the finacialization of nature’ and ‘Numbers for good? The quest for aid effectiveness and social impact’. He concludes with ‘Rethinking numbers, rethinking governance’. The whole is well written, blending together knowledge from different fields into a coherent and readable flow with a good number of ‘light bulb’ moments.

As a slight criticism from a purist, Fioramonti occasionally blurs the undeniable neutrality of mathematics and the more qualitative issues that necessarily sit around it. Economics and, to a slightly lesser extent, applied statistics consist of assumptions first and foremost, plus mathematics. I would have preferred to have seen clearer isolation of elements that are unquestionably objective and true – there is only one way for a statistician to calculate where the 90th percentile lies and only one way for an economist to carry out a simple linear regression. What Fioramonti is discussing is not just mathematics, but numbers in the real political world that sit as the filling in a sandwich. On either side of the pure mathematical filling is the sometimes rotten bread. In statistics we have on one side the definition of the statistics under consideration and the selection of the methodology that will be used – on the other side a slice of presentation and selective highlighting (or subtle downplaying). In economics, even more crucially, the fundamental assumptions that define the model (the most famous of which is the General Equilibrium, or ‘free market’ model) make one slice of the bread, while the presentation and choice of weighting empirical evidence with pure theory form the other.

Mathematics is the neutral servant of the assumptions but the assumptions can and should be stated and debated independently. I have always argued that the crucial step in analysis is to come back to our clearly stated assumptions and test them in view of our results against the real world. We must embrace a qualitative depth even in the most apparently quantitative pursuits. Professor Fioramonti has shown in a passionate and convincing way the global importance of this aspiration. His unarguable clarion call is for clarity, transparency and widespread, gentle and constructive scepticism.

Credit: LendingMemo. CC BY 2.0

I would add that we must make a great push for wider numeracy and understanding of scientific philosophy. In our world it is possible for a senior public servant to say “I don’t do numbers”, despite ‘analysis and use of evidence’ being one of their core competencies. As long as the public and the politerati do not have the skills to engage with (note, not in) quantitative analysis we cannot escape the traps that are so vividly described by this book.

Another lesson illustrated clearly by Fioramonti in this book is to embrace ambiguity. From a practitioner’s point of view it is crucial to consider how integrity can go hand in hand with progressing the use of numbers in a beneficial way. I was particularly taken by the chapter ‘Numbers for good? The quest for aid effectiveness and social impact’ which illustrates Fioramonti’s theme particularly well, showing how the undeniable power of numbers to reduce the inconceivable reality of the world to manageable proportions can lead to dangers, especially when exercised in the realm of human behaviour. The sharpness of his argument is summed up when he says that “the complexity of social relations is lost through the cracks of mathematical algorithms”.

His dismay at models being ignorantly lifted from the world of business and planted in non-profit development sectors is clear and well evidenced. There is a wonderfully familiar feeling to a quote in the chapter on aid effectiveness where the author is commissioned by his development-sector client to “improve their impact assessment tools”. Fioramonti offers them a coherent and balanced strategy with a methodology that is sensitive to the needs of the client and, hopefully, inclusive and beneficial to those in the developing countries. The CEO of the commissioning organisation listens and then baldly states: “Dr Fioramonti, there must have been a misunderstanding… we want you to develop one number which can tell us if what we do works or doesn’t. As simple as that.”

To have integrity, practitioners must recognise the right of commissioners of work to voice such a demand, whilst to the best of their capability working to a conclusion that, at worst, does no harm. At best the practitioner’s conclusion improves the world, moves forward the client’s understanding and improves the shared body of knowledge. Not easy when there are practitioners out there with less integrity, ready to take money in exchange for work that may do harm.

The author shows us in the historical section of this chapter the devastating scale of the misguidedness (my polite phrase!) that can occur when poorly defined economic growth becomes the key measure of development; natural resources are over-exploited, countries grow, but fail to adequately develop democratically, in human capital terms or in the most basic health, poverty and human rights areas. Even when/if aid makes it to the correct destinations it may well merely be used to prove someone’s (flawed) economic theory. Philanthropic ventures, the author argues, are often backed by the kind of people (technocrats, those from the business world), who like their money to be spent according to simple methodologies with hard numbers that ought to be seen as widely discredited given the events of the last financial crisis.

However deep the numbers can take us they cannot take us to the true problem, which is also the heart of the solution: power. In the end it seems that most of the problems in this book come down to something simple and very human: desperation for certainty combined with a need for simplicity in a confusing world. The challenge then is to move forward constructively and honestly while responding to and understanding that impossible desire.

This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Stuart Astill – IOD PARC
Dr Stuart Astill is Principal Consultant at IOD PARC where he works with organisations to achieve sustainable value-for-money improvements and embed change to better achieve their aims. He is a research associate with the LSE Public Policy Group. He has over twenty years’ experience in Civil Service and consultancy roles in the UK and EU as an economist, policy analyst and statistician and has taught widely on government, politics and economics at LSE, as Visiting Lecturer at Sheffield University and on the MPA programme of Sciences-Po (IEP), Paris. Read more reviews by Stuart.

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