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It's (not) a Numbers Game?
Knowledge, not information. Evoke, not instruct
5 June 2023 . 6min read

I'm not the best at numbers. What I mean to say is that I'm actually quite good with numbers, just not the "do it in your head" part. The way I think about it is that for hundreds if not thousands of years, we've been able to use tools to mitigate the need to do calculations in your head. Why does my head need to know how to calculate the square-root of 22? Don't get me wrong, I'm not in any way anti-maths, far from it; it's super important to be able to have a random-stab-in-the-dark as to what an answer might be. Kind of like a sanity check. I guess you could call it an estimation. I may not know what the square root of 22 is, but I can tell you it's certainly less than 22! I'm a firm believer that if there's a tool to help, then you should at least try to use it. Sure, if the tool is too complicated, then you either need a different tool or maybe just give up on the calculation bit & guess, I mean estimate.

Now, with all that unnecessary preamble out of the way, why am I talking about numbers? Like it or not, we, and by that I mean humanity, in a broader sense, use numbers. Numbers are everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean that it's baked into our language.

I remember watching a documentary by Dr Jonathan Miller back in the 90s. He was attempting to unpick the origins of language. Further, he wanted to reconstruct what the original root language may have looked like. He presented a delightful mix of science and a philosophical, based view. One particular detail that struck me was around the use of numbers. He deduced that the root language may have had words for "one", "two", "few", "many". Not exactly comprehensive, but it perhaps gives an insight into the fundamental importance of numbers.

With numbers being so important to us, it is remarkable how easily we choose to ignore them. It happens all the time. It almost seems to be baked into us.

Let's take the Climate Emergency. The raw data and analysis is 100% clear. If we do nothing, then we are all screwed. Screwed in a find-another-planet kind of screwed! Yet in the face of that, whilst most of us are making slight changes, those changes are lethargic at best.

If numbers are such a basic part of our psyche, why don't we act based on them?

Remember that early language bit? Those people who were figuring out how to take thoughts and turn them into noises that could be repeated to others? Yeah, that bit. Well before that was all clearly resolved, those very early people were most likely not at the top of the food-chain. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were quite sensibly sheltering in caves.

You see, here is the point. If they were to look at the statistical likelihood of getting trashed by a nasty animal, then they wouldn't have taken a step out of that cave. But they did. Sure, they were careful about, but despite the numbers, they still made that step.

I think those wanting to evoke change often miss this point. All the numbers in the world, whilst provoking thought, do not appeal to that step-out-of-the-cave instinct.

Sometimes the numbers are indeed enough. Most of us have seen the massive increase in energy costs, and after seeing if we can do the quick-fix of moving to a cheaper tariff, the mathematical element of us may simply conclude that another way to reduce our energy cost is just to use less. The numbers have worked.

Numbers work on a local scale; "one", "two", "few", "many".

However, and it's a planet-sized "however", what if you want to prompt change on a global basis? Numbers just ain't going to cut it.

Global change doesn't need numbers. Global change needs to tap into whatever made us take that numerically stupid step outside of our cave.

Having said that, the advantage that we have over our ancestors is that we have raw data to help aid that step-outside decision. Which can be a fantastically complicated problem too.

When I was a student living in Rotherham, I lodged with a guy who sold The Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was 1992 and although The Internet (yes it had a capital T back then) was around, the World Wide Web wasn't. The extent of searching was via a curious service called Gopher. It was a "thing" that jumped from server-to-server looking for whatever you asked for. Search engines hadn't even been invented yet. If you wanted to know something, then you needed to connect to a known server and manually find it. You get the picture. Anyway, at that point, The Encyclopaedia Britannica was the definitive guide of knowledge. Sure, it didn't cover everything, but you knew that at the very least the information in it had gone through the hands of an editor. I remember the guy, who's name escapes me (if you're reading this, I'm sorry about that but I have fond memories of you. I remember chatting about the new book Good Omens whilst sitting in the tiny back room on the broken 3-seater, with the insert-money-pay-phone in the corner. I also remember you getting sunburn standing all day trying to sell copies – if you read this, get in touch). It was an investment to buy the collection; you were investing in "knowledge".

Back then there was a sense, at least from my perspective, that you needed to invest something to get knowledge. Be that time or money.

That is not the case now.

Information seems to drip out of our phones and computers. Out of our TVs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… (etc.).

However, there is a distinction between "Information" and "Knowledge".

Anyway, I seem to have somehow drifted off my point. Oh yes, my point. Back then in the cave, action was based more on instinct rather than hard facts and knowledge. Yet that instinct moved us all forward as a species.

As a collective, we all need to move forward. I am not talking about whether to buy Salad Creme or Mayonnaise. I'm talking about the large-scale problems.

Large-scale problems need more than numbers. Sure, numbers help to define the scale of the problem. To remove the vagaries and to provide an indisputable definition. But I think change requires something more.

If we are to move forward on these problems, we need to not only "instruct" but also need to "evoke" change.

In a world driven by data and information, it's not enough to "know" that I should use my car less. I need to "feel" that I should use my car less.

I love how the owner has removed graffiti from their garage door, but left the art on the surrounding walls. Taken in Bristol, 2023.


Profile photo of Nigel Derbyshire

I'm a carbon-unit who writes; a Carbon Writer. Life & culture are my default topics, mixed with a little English wit & sarcasm. Full of mostly true stories, I occasionally remember to write them down. Found in a crowd, or contemplating in a corner. Habit of talking to anyone. Author.
- Nigel Derbyshire