Book Review: Counting – How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters, by Deborah Stone

Numbers enjoy an aura of objectivity and precision unwarranted by their origins. They are always products of human judgment, even the numbers that seem to spring from computers untouched by humans.

Counting – How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters (2020), by Deborah Stone (MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning), examines the process of counting, a process fundamental to understanding our world. She is interested in how counting and measurement influence society and public policy. Stone notes that the book “explores how counting works in the social world and why numbers can’t do everything we wish they could.”

Counting is something we learn at an early age and take for granted as adults. We assume that it is a simple and objective process, but Stone shows that it is both complex and subjective. Her book steps back and reflects on the process, providing insight that will change the way you think about counting and measurement.

The book starts with the interesting observation that “to count” has two meanings: one “to tally” and the second “to matter or have importance.” We count what is important for us to bring meaning to our lives, even if imperfectly.

Using examples from Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street, Stone deconstructs the counting process into two tasks, classifying and tallying. While tallying can be a challenge, classifying is the important first step. 

Classification determines what is included in a group to be counted. We count things as being in a group even though they are not necessarily identical. When Cookie Monster counts cookies, they differ in size, shape, and color. The concept of belonging to a group is fundamental to understanding why counts and measures are not objective. They rely on the definition of a group, a human construct.

Stone’s accounting of the United Nations (UN) years-long attempt to develop indicators for violence against women provides a cautionary tale on groups and inclusion. Initial input from representatives from Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand was considered, but assessed as insufficient, due to the limited representation. The UN later solicited input from those not included and received culturally-specific insight into violence. 

Bangladeshi women added acts of physical violence that included burning, throwing acid, being thrown from a height, smashing hands, and needling fingers. These represented their highly personal, daily experiences of violence. Despite being “in-the-room,” the input from the Bangladeshi women was not included in the 2014 report; these acts were not included in the group to be counted. As a result, users of the data are left to question the true meaning and value of the data. 

Stone recommends examining the origin stories of counts and measures. As she says “The best way I know to find out whether a measure is valid is to travel back to the moment of creation and nose around.” Using the example of unemployment, Stone highlights the importance of understanding the origin stories of numbers in order to better understand their meaning. 

Unemployment statistics date back to 1873 and Carroll Wright’s time as head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a time of financial unrest, his goal was to produce a measure that would reduce the panic caused by high unemployment numbers and potential political unrest. 

The result was a measure that did not count anyone under age 18 or women, but only included able-bodied men who “wanted” to work. As a result of the “classification,” the numbers came back low, exactly as Wright wished. 

Wright’s “willingness to work” criteria remains an essential component of unemployment assessment today, demonstrating the importance of understanding origin stories. “Willingness to work” is a tricky concept. Today, if you are not working and have a job interview, you are unemployed, while if you are not working but scanning job notices and networking, you are not unemployed. 

The story of the classification of slaves as three-fifths of a person reinforces the importance of understanding the origin of numbers. A pressing issue for the Founding Fathers was whether slaves were property or human. “If slaves were counted as items of property, their owners would be taxed on them; if slaves were counted as people, the Southern states where almost all of them lived would get more representatives in Congress.” The dilemma for the Founding Fathers was that the South would have to pay substantial taxes if slaves were property, and the North would have reduced representation if slaves were people. Stone recounts the tragic and twisted compromise outlined by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, No. 54, that ultimately resulted in slaves as being counted as three-fifths of a person.

The violence against women counts, unemployment statistics, and classification of slaves represent the thrust of Stone’s argument: numbers are subjective and best understood by examining their origins in order to discern their meaning, context, and relevance. In the course of the book, she presents many examples about how numbers get their clout, how they can change hearts and minds, and the ethics of counting.

While Stone enumerates the limitations of numbers, counting, and measurement, she does not despair. Her parting thought is:

If I have one message about counting, it is: Stay humble. Numbers are the products of our poor power to make sense of our lives. They aren’t truth meters. We shouldn’t use them as arbiter of political conflicts or as answers to ethical quandaries.




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