July 10, 2012

Numbers as Narratives: Review of World Economics Website

In popular imagination, narratives and numbers are opposites; the nebulous and imaginative versus the precise and factual. In public policy, narratives our political leaders often rest on numbers in the form of statistics, indices, averages, probabilities. Numbers are so compact, so easily legible, that it is easy to forget they are themselves stories: shorthand renderings of someone’s point of view about which facts are important and how to interpret them.

The World Economics website promises to put an end to any such complacency. The site, whose editor Brian Sturgess I met recently in Baku, has compiled a small mountain of counterintuitive and thought provoking challenges to clichéd uses of numbers to narrate what’s happening in the world.

Among a few of the site’s provocations:

  • In Making Enron Look Good,  Ian Ball and Gary Pflugrath argue that government accounting practices in many countries are so poor that governments can’t use their own budgetary data to make sound decisions
  • In The End of Population Growth, Sanjeev Sanjal tells us we can stop worrying about population growth. But we have something else to worry about, since “reproductively speaking, the human species will no longer be replacing itself within fifteen years.”

There’s much more on WorldEconomics.com to explore, much of it a fascinating reminder that numerical data is narrative, in our complex data rich world, and how much strategic leaders rely on those numerical narratives to make policy decisions.

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