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 lifecycle 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, these technologies originating in accountability can become powerful tools used to define how we think about certain issues. 

There is growing research on the production of statistics, and the cognitive factors involved in their reception. What is missing is the practical choices linking the two: the public life of numbers. How are statistics conceptualised by those who communicate them? What decisions are made in their public communication? Do these decisions shift with role, motivation, time and place? 

These questions will be investigated via a series of semi-structured interviews with those who work in public statistics.

This project was begun in March 2018 and is set to conclude March 2021. 

Project files

ANU Human Ethics Protocol 2019/266.

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