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Numbers vs. nuance

  • 19 September 2023
Winter can be a time of gloom. In my case this year the proliferation and worship, of numbers contributed to it. Part of the problem was that many of the numbers punctured my hopes. The incessant polls on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament registered a steady decline of those voting Yes. The analysis of stats, a growth industry in most sports, has foretold the demise of my AFL team in the finals. The stream of numbers about inflation, debt, housing, inequality, climate warming and voting intentions have all pointed both to the need for radical reform and the unlikeliness that any Government will have the courage to respond to it.

Collecting numbers, of course, offers an important tool. It helps us to evaluate the challenges we face as families, groups and as a society and to reflect how to meet them. It also tests the prejudices on which popular attitudes and government policies are often built. Evidence-based reviews of the harmful effects of putting people into jail, for example, suggests that there must be a better way.

Numbers become a problem only if we regard them as decisive. We are then likely to miss the larger questions and the possibilities to which we should attend. We might neglect, too, the radical unpredictability in human affairs that make all counting of numbers provisional. And we would also be more likely to become passive in accepting as a given the injustice and cruelty that we should resist even against apparently overwhelming odds.

How could we survive during this flood of numbers? A Noah’s Ark would not do – we would have to spend our time numbering the animals. But why not instead treat our times as a secular Lent? We could give up numbers for six days a week and focus instead on what matters and who matters in our world. And luxuriate on numbers on the seventh day. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.