David Boyle teases out the limitations of measurement and statistics in capturing the complexities of human happiness and well-being. I like his two healthy antidotes to numbers running riot to the detriment of meaningful human exchange: tell stories and ask difficult questions.

So, send me a story and a difficult question (and no, I won’t promise to give you an answer).

‘What isn’t yet clear is what we can do instead, how we can retain some of the human complexity that measuring tries to remove, how we can create institutions that build real human contact rather than the fake numerical kind. Having lived with this problem for some years now … I’ve a feeling it’s all about telling stories and asking difficult questions.  Telling stories, because they can often communicate complex, paradoxical truths better than figures.  Asking questions because they can devastate more political statistics.  Yes, the carbon monoxide rate has reduced, but is the air cleaner?  Yes, our local university professors have produced a record number of learned published papers, but is their teaching any good?  … Numbers and measurements are as vulnerable as the Emperor’s New Clothes to the incisive, intuitive human question.’

See also Jorge Luis Borges on the stories of Turkestan, and Karen Blixen on stories as therapy.  


Source: David Boyle, Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy (London: Flamingo, 2001), p. 231

Photo credit: Jonathan Simcoe, unsplash.com


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