In his 1997 book Whose Reality Counts? Robert Chambers, himself an economist wrote:
Economists have come to feel What can’t be measured, isn’t real.
The truth is always an amount –
Count numbers; only numbers count.
20 years on, is Chambers still right? If so, does it matter? If so, what can be done about it?
The topic of the poem, the ‘truth’, is a complex one. Truth in an economic context, the kind of truth Chambers discusses, is approached differently than truth in a political or religious context. Moreover, one of these truths does not necessarily exclude the other. The concerns that spontaneously came to mind when reading Chambers’ poem point to the fragility of ‘truth’ and the degree to which truth is relative to a situation or a vision. It is safe to say that for economic-minded people, at least part of the truth was found in numbers already in 200 A.D., in 1997 and still is today. Sea shells, gold, stock shares, or bitcoin, everything that has value and can be exchanged is counted in some way in order to measure wealth and facilitate trading. In that sense, the statement of Chambers still stands today.
Even when we move away from economics and look at the broader societal picture, numbers definitely are tied to truth or can be used as an indication and proof of the underlying truth. Today, more than ever, we look at statistics and data before making decisions. The process of counting and analysing numbers became more accessible due to the digital uptake and innovations in data management. Counting behaviour and drawing mean scores in order to show the preference of the people is a well-established practice in any company or political system. It seems that in the last couple of years, every company is working on ‘big data’. Jobs as ‘data scientist’, ‘number cruncher’ or ‘data wizard’, common today, would have sounded ridiculous just a couple of years ago. This is only one of the indications of a society that is increasingly interested in numbers and counting to find truth.
The last couple of months, the earlier described ‘fragility of truth’ became more apparent. Next to the trend towards finding truth in numbers, a different approach to truth surfaced: truth as something that can be shaped and created. Examples are found in politics, from the press release on the size of the crowds at the US presidential inauguration to the calculated increase of millions of pounds in NHS funds during the UK’s Brexit campaign1. In commerce, when horse meat is advertised as beef in lasagne’s2. The internet has also been struggling with created truth, as the big social media channels are increasing their efforts to ban fake news from their platforms3.
Even in this case, numbers often play a crucial role. The act of leaving out numbers, selecting numbers as seems fit or representing a number in a more convincing way, is hardly a novel practice. Yet, in these recent examples, we saw that numbers can also be created ‘from scratch’, implying that numbers are not ‘measured’ anymore. Numbers are found in isolated cases, or in rough estimations by individuals. These numbers are then used as a vehicle to communicate a message, while subsequently moving the focus away from the numbers and towards the emotions or convictions from the sender – you may remember, emotions work better than rationality when convincing people4. Thus, a new truth is created, one that the Oxford dictionary describes as ‘post-truth’5. This truth is not measured, and therefore, in Chambers’ terms, not real. Yet, we saw that when this new truth is shouted via a channel with a wide reach or via a person with great influence, the truth can easily become very real for many. It seems that nowadays, truth is something that you either can prove, or can win.
The recent uptake of truth creation inspired me to add a paragraph to Chambers’ poem:
What can be done about this trend towards ‘truth creation’? Let me first emphasize that conscious misrepresentation of facts is nothing new. Churchill (or was it Twain?6) already knew early 20th century that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” We are solely faced with a new aspect of false information in the form of ‘post-truth’. In our age of connectivity, it is easy to shout loudly. We should become aware of the existence of these different truths to be able to choose the most qualitative one. We should build up some reservation when receiving information and approach new information with a critical mind-set. This is not only a task for the receiver of the message, but also for the people, organizations and institutions that act as aggregators and diffusers of information. Those we trust to serve us the truth, should provide transparency on the three building blocks of truth creation:
- The initial question asked.
Often based on a world view, history or culture.
- The objective facts that allow to answer the question.
The truth is ultimately always an amount, yet sometimes the amount of one.
- The representation of the facts.
This can be text, a single number, an image, a graph or any other representation.
Only by offering transparency on the truth finding process, fact-checking can be done and a qualitative truth can be guaranteed. Only this way, we have the tools to be able to distinguish found truth from created truth and we can be sure we end up with a real truth, or, in Chambers’ terms: a truth we can count on.