The hidden power of a number

You don’t have to go that far back in time, for reading printed material to be the main source of information for most people.  Books in libraries were sought after by those studying for exams, trade magazines and society journals provided up to date information on advances in your industry and exchanges of the latest research was communicated by letters before being published.

For those of us who remember the world before we could just “google the answer” or “ask Alexa” there was a slower pace at which we could access and assimilate the information available to us.  It was also a time when, in many ways, it was easier to decide which sources of information you inherently trusted.  There were authors, journals and news sources you went to first, and you also knew where to go for the counter-argument.  These days, it’s not nearly as easy to understand which information sources should be trusted.  I’d argue that this is especially true for those of us who work with data and numbers, and I think that the fundamental reason for this is that there is little more emotive than a number.

When you think of people being moved at their very core by emotion you may automatically think of pieces of art – I can still vividly recall in minute detail the first time I saw Degas Little Dancer Aged 14 and Picasso’s She-Goat.  More recently I found my feet stuck to the ground in Waterloo train station as I read Rupi Kaur’s Sunflowers.  It seems that the positive emotions involved with maths is not nearly as often communicated.

At their very best, numbers and statistics are an art form.  There is an elegance and beauty in a proof that is magical.  Are there fewer people who appreciate this than a famous painting?  Possibly not.  Either way, there are an awful lot of people who are moved by a single number, a single statistic in the newspapers.  From the percentage of people living in poverty, to the number of women in FTSE boards, a single number has the power to move people, to call them to action.  This is the crux of why understanding if a number is trustworthy, they are a powerful emotive force.  It’s not what the number tells you, it’s what it compels you to do.

Presenting numbers and statistics is a huge privilege which comes with an equal amount of responsibility.  That includes checking and checking again that the numbers we share are trustworthy: you never know the hidden power of a number and what it might start.

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