“Numbers should not remain the business of a few experts”

The cross : Numbers have been present in our societies for a long time.How has their use evolved?

Oliver Martin: There has been an intensification of the use of numbers recently, but this should not be taken as something new. The 19th century already experienced a phase of intensification: more numbers began to be produced for statistical, accounting, administrative or scholarly purposes. Industrialization also gave rise to standards and numbers. Then the new public management appeared in the 1970s, with the aim of leading the administration and businesses with indicators of quality and efficiency. The use of numbers no longer concerns only the factory, but also the service sector.

Finally, information technology has facilitated the creation of numbers, their comparison, their circulation and the creation of databases. In addition, with personal computing and smartphones, everyone is equipped with everyday measurement tools. We all become producers and look for figures.

In information technology, we are dramatically becoming producers of “evaluative and comparative” figures. How do they differ from statistical numbers?

Omg: Institutions like INSEE make measurements of broad collective phenomena (demographic, social, economic). Subsequently, “evaluative and comparative” numbers are more associated with individuals or small groups, and they have positive or negative connotations. This is the case of reviewing restaurants or delivery people, for example. These numbers can cause individuals to act differently because they have the ability to create a reality that does not exist in the minds of individuals, to make it solid and strengthen it. Therefore, they have very good dimensions.

You say that numbers come from social conventions and power relations. Does this mean that there is no objectivity and any figure is just an opinion determined by society?

Omg: No, the figure is not just subjectivity. There are objective criteria for the relation of a figure, dependent on the method used in its construction, which must be known and explicit. Especially since institutions play their legitimacy by producing numbers and should pay attention to methodological rigor.

However, we should not give up on asking the numbers. Returning them to their context of production gives them greater relevance. For example, a figure given by a political power immediately acquires an indisputable dimension, while its objectivity is not guaranteed.

How about establishing a good social convention to build a figure?

Omg: When a convention is discussed and built in society, citizens, trade unions or NGOs, we can consider it less subjective. Then we can have numbers that are more consensual. Regarding the unemployment figures for example, even if they are not perfect, they come from a history and from negotiations with the social partners. Ideally, the numbers should therefore be built with the citizens.

You mention “statactivism”, which consists of producing statistics in parallel with official institutions for political purposes…

Omg: “Statactivism” constitutes either alternative statistics or non-existent statistics. This may be because public authorities are not responding to certain issues. The most notable example is feminicide, which is independently recognized by several feminist associations. The Ministry of Justice produces statistics on spousal murders, but they can only be qualified as “feminicides” after an often lengthy legal process. The figures produced by the associations are useful because they provide information that is relatively immediate, possible though imperfect, on this reality.

How to move from a more “quantitative” world to a “qualitative” world?

Omg: I do not believe in a society without numbers: our societies are possible because we use numbers. But it seems to me that we should allow ourselves to grow more and ask for others. Indeed, ironically, we find a qualitative society by multiplying the use of numbers. For example, in the case of a hospital service, summarizing its efficiency in one indicator – waiting time – can be misleading and lead to a loss of investment in this service. You need to have other indicators: return rate, recovery rate, etc.

By multiplying them, we find a better assessment, because it is less unidirectional, less clear. Finally, there needs to be a better education in numbers, which will increase the vigilance of citizens in the analysis of numbers, so that they do not remain the business of a few experts.

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