Why do governments put so much faith on numbers? | Belicons

Why do governments put so much faith on numbers?

Posted on: 
Tuesday 26 February 2019

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Why do governments put so much faith on numbers?

Photographer: Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay

In the last few years we hear more and more numbers from governments about what would be a burden for us and what not. But often, we have very different experiences than the numbers of the government say. Take for example the noise pollution of airports. The numbers of governments can say that the noise pollution is within the limits, but people who live in the neighbourhood of an airport can have different experiences.

Or take measurements for climate change. Most governments realize that they need to take action, but they argue, based on calculation models, that they do enough already. However, other calculation models show that they do not take enough action. Nevertheless, they trust their own models.

This idea of the government telling us how things are based on their numbers, probably rings some bells about what your government is doing in your country. What should we think about this? Does the government mislead us with their numbers in purpose? Should we not trust numbers at all and do governments not understand this? Or is there soemthing else going on?


Peiling: De overheid heeft teveel vertrouwen in cijfers

Peiling: De overheid heeft teveel vertrouwen in cijfers

Poll: The government has too much trust in numbers

Poll: The government has too much trust in numbers

Read the blog that goes with this poll https://www.belicons.nl/en/blog/numbers-and-governments

Body 2: 

Normally in my blogs this would be the moment at which I take a look at the arguments of the person with whom I don’t agree. By reading his or her arguments I can see whether (s)he has a point anyway of not. But in this case it isn’t easy to gather some arguments, so instead I’ll try to emphasize with the governments.

I can imagine that some governments do try to mislead their people with numbers. But at the same time, I also think that many governments are wrong with their numbers, but not because they try to mislead their people. I think that the problem here is that governments do not realize well enough that calculation models contain presuppositions too and that they just really want certain things to happen.

Calculation models aren’t neutral. If you use a model, then you use that model as a filter to watch at the world instead of watching at the world directly. That is a major difference. A model decides which factors are included in the calculation and which aren’t and how important the various factors are. This could give an idea about how things are, but a model could be wrong too.

Of course calculation models are important. If you want to know what the impact of a certain measurement in the future will be, you cannot take a time machine to go into the future to see what will happen. For that reason, it is important to use calculation models in order to try to predict what will happen. The same that goes for large areas. It is expensive and a lot of effort to measure how the impact of something exactly will be and thus calculation models are necessary.

So I’m not against the use of calculation models. But, sometimes there are indications that the outcome of some calculation is not correct. For example because many people are complaining about the noise pollution or because other calculation models have a different outcome. In that case they should take that seriously and start to do measurements or to take the other models seriously in order to check their own calculations.

I think that this is where it goes wrong. When governments get indications that something is not right, then they often keep their faith on their own calculations and don’t check them. Even when they do real measurements, the results are often not taken seriously. This is not correct.

So, it is very important that ministers and secretaries of state realize that their calculation models can be wrong and that they are honest about how much they want something to happen. For, if they really want something, and their calculation models show that it is okay, but they do not realize that their models could be wrong, then a discussion with them becomes very difficult.

For that reason, I think that an obligatory course philosophy of mathematics for ministers and secretaries of state would be a very good idea. Then they will learn that their models contain presuppositions too and that their models sometimes need to be checked with measurements or other models. Moreover, they will learn that those measurements should be taken very seriously.

Then the only question is whether they are willing to stop doing something if the impact turns out to be too too big after all. Whether they will do that is something we can discover by listening to them carefully: do they hold on to their calculation models or do they take measurements or other models with different outcomes seriously?

What do you think? What is the best way to tell our ministers and secretaries of state that they should take the experiences of people seriously, despite what their calculation models tell them? Share your opinion on the forum or below!

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