David Boyle

Numbers

with Anita Roddick

Anita Roddick Publishing (2004)

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Introductory article by David Boyle and Anita Roddick

It is increasingly difficult to persuade children to study maths at higher levels these days, or so they say – yet at the same time, when they get outside the classroom, there are numbers absolutely everywhere.

We have pin numbers, passport numbers, NHS numbers, licence numbers of all kinds. We have statistics every day for breakfast with our newspapers. Soon no doubt, under our government’s benign neglect of civil liberties, we will be given ID numbers without which we are liable to arrest.

Retailers collect numbers in strange combinations – the number of young mothers who buy salmon on Tuesdays in the rain, for example. The government collects them too – anything from the mathematical abilities of eight-year-olds to the state of sailor’s teeth in the Royal Navy.

So when you wonder a little more why children find dealing with numbers so difficult, you realise that we all do: they have become the tools that control us. They are the playthings of technocrats; the dull, dutiful tools of oppressors and empires.

You know governments just measure the world as if it was like they say it is: they measure the number of servicemen killed in Iraq in great detail, but don’t bother counting the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed.

And if they are not actually infuriating, you only have to listen to screeds of statistics, targets and indicators to feel your eyelids begin to droop.

You know it’s important. You know it means some things will become possible and some impossible. You know that people will rise or fall in their careers – often quite unfairly – because of what the numbers say, but heavens … what was it again?

The trouble with this kind of numerical world is that it misrepresents numbers. They don’t have to be that dull.

So don’t let’s abandon numbers altogether to our masters, because they have qualities to them which we don’t want to throw out with the bathwater.

First of all, they are fun. Even statistics can be amusing. Did you know, for example, that 39 people end up in casualty every year after accidents involving tea-cosies?

Or that 58 per cent of British men believe in aliens.

Or that there are 158 verses in the Greek national anthem. Important information, that would have been.

Second, numbers can make us angry, and that’s important too. That 80 million people have been forced from their homes over the past century because of damaging projects to build dams. Or that 60 million people could be provided with clean drinking water for the cost of one nuclear submarine.

The Victorians called these ‘moral statistics’ and they can lift the lid on the world and take powerful people by surprise.

Finally, numbers have a traditional significance beyond themselves. They mean more than just numbers; some people even see them as colours.

The philosopher Pythagoras believed they were the source of music. The story goes that he was listening to a blacksmith hammering and heard the musical notes made by the anvil, and realised that they were generated by different lengths of hammer. Another story says that he learned this from the mysterious Magi after he was taken captive and put in prison in Babylon.

In the East, numbers have particular mystical significance – they can tell the future and are the key to the secret harmonies of the universe. They can also make us angry, or make us laugh or cry.

The psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz once told a traditional Chinese tale about eleven generals who had to decide whether to attack or retreat in a battle. They got together and had a long debate, at the end of which they took a vote. Three wanted to attack and eight wanted to retreat – so they attacked. Why? Because three is the number of unanimity.

That is a whole different, and deeper, sense of numbers than anything we manage to find in an average ministerial statement. It’s a different kind of reality behind the numbers.

It is time to reclaim the humour, the rage and the spirituality of numbers from the men with clipboards.

Numbers are peculiar animals after all. They can unlock secrets, split atoms, reveal the inner workings of people and machines, or draw patterns of outstanding complexity and beauty, for anyone who wants a different way of looking at these abstractions that dominate our lives – or just for people who want to know how many times you can circle the globe with the toilet paper used in Japan.

When you know how many dimples there are in a golf ball (336), it may not help you navigate your way around the world any better.

But if you know exactly how much the women and children in the sweatshops of the Far East are paid for making the shirts we wear, that’s one number that might still have us storming Parliament or Congress.

 

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title: books by David Boyle
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