The public life of numbers

The truth is that counting has proved to pay.
—"Then do you want to say that 'being true' means: being usable (or useful)?"
—No, not that; but that it can't be said of the series of natural numbers—any more than of our language—that it is true, but: that it is usable, and above all, it is used." 

— Wittgenstein, 1956, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.

Project description

This research aims to improve the public communication of statistics, by understanding how those working with public numbers think about their work, and the lifecycles of numbers in public debate.

Modern policymaking is increasingly reliant on numbers, as all kinds of quantified evidence are used in every stage of introducing, framing, comparing, evaluating and ranking alternative options. Over the past few centuries, there has been a shift from decisions made on moral or value judgements, to decisions made on statistics.

In Australia, our increasing demand for statistics is tied to public advocacy for more evidence-based policymaking from policymakers and researchers alike. However, while statistical techniques have been crucial in improving the lives of their studied subjects, they can become powerful tools used to define how we think about certain issues. Statistics, either in their usage or abusage, are potent in politics. 

Drawing from semi-structured interviews with a range of professionals, this research analyses the challenges and potential solutions for communicating statistics in public debate. Particular focus is given to the clashing aims and values that make broad improvement attempts so difficult: Whose responsibility are public numbers in Australia?

Project files

ANU Human Ethics Protocol 2019/266.

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