Fellow Will Deringer will give a talk today, February 25, at 6 pm at NYU Gallatin. The title of his talk, "Facts and Figures: The Birth of Numerical Objectivity," focuses on the usefulness of and reverence for numbers as a medium of knowledge.
The first published use of the phrase “facts and figures” in English appears to have come in 1727, courtesy of the British politician and political economist William Pulteney. “Facts and Figures are the most stubborn Evidences,” he explained, “they neither yield to the most persuasive Eloquence, nor bend to the most imperious Authority.” Pulteney articulated what had, over the previous four decades, become a central premise of Britons’ civic epistemology: that numbers constituted a superior medium of knowledge, particularly for navigating contentious political issues. This distinctive reverence for numbers is a familiar feature of modern public life—perhaps at no time less than the twenty-first century—as well as a prominent theme in historical and STS scholarship. Yet Pulteney’s invocation of it is unexpected for at least two reasons. First, it comes too early, as scholars have generally argued that such “trust in numbers” was born in the 19th century. Second, it emerges in a somewhat strange place. His first invocation of “Facts and Figures” arose in a technically arcane yet politically hostile pamphlet on public finance, in which he sought to impugn Prime Minister Robert Walpole for mismanaging the National Debt. But for its own time, this first ode to “Facts and Figures” was highly representative. Numerical objectivity was born as a recognized epistemic virtue at the turn of the eighteenth-century, amidst such bitter and partisan contests over public money. The belief that numbers were a distinctly honest and disinterested form of knowledge was the consequence of eighteenth-century calculators using numbers to do highly interested political things. This talk will outline this process—the subject of my current book project—and discuss how this alternative narrative transforms our understanding of quantification and objectivity in the modern age.