THE SUM OF OUR DISCONTENT: Why Numbers Make Us Irrational

David Boyle, Author . Texere $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-58799-060-1

The flood of numbers in the modern world often obscures more than enlightens, hence the demystifying classic How to Lie with Statistics and its progeny. But according to Boyle the problem is irremediable and fundamental. "[P]oliticians can't measure poverty, so they measure the number of people on welfare. Or they can't measure intelligence, so they measure exam results, or IQ. Doctors measure blood cells rather than health, and people all over the world measure money rather than love." Boyle revels in such broad indictments, damning entire professions for popular or politicized misperceptions, whose complex origins he reduces to numbers themselves and the influence of a few seminal figures—Jeremy Bentham, Robert Malthus and Frederick Taylor primarily—whose personal quirks loom far larger than the historical forces that shaped their thinking and made the world receptive to it. Boyle is more persuasive discussing Keynes and how his heuristic approach to macroeconomics became rigidified, undermining his original intentions, but even here he entirely ignores the political forces involved. Adding confusion, he occasionally approves some uses of numbers, calling for bringing "common sense to bear on the dead world of figures, so we can see patterns again," as if this wasn't the point of using numbers all along, from Pythagoras to Kepler to chaos theory. Chapters dealing with ethical investing, alternatives to conventional economic indicators and Edgar Cahn's "time dollars" further muddle matters. (June)

Forecast: With a $50,000 promotional budget, the publisher plans national radio and TV campaign, national advertising, and a tie-in with author speaking engagements. But this title won't pose much competition for How to Lie with Statistics, still in print after all these years.

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
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