cover image Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters

Deborah Stone. Liveright, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-63149-592-2

The recourse to supposedly neutral, objective statistics warps social policy in subtle yet egregious ways, according to this incisive treatise. Political scientist Stone (Policy Paradox) examines a variety of controversial political issues in her investigation into how numbers are shaped by human perceptions and shape them in turn, including the Constitution’s infamous reckoning of slaves as three-fifths of a person; the Census Bureau’s present-day counting of racial categories (why, she wonders, is Barack Obama counted as “a black man with a white mother instead of a white man with a black father”?); and GDP estimates that count the paid labor of prison guards as an economic plus but not free child care by parents. She also describes how computerized parole algorithms estimate not the actual chances of recidivism but the racial assumptions of police and courts, and how educators game school-performance numbers by “artfully managing” which students take state-mandated standardized tests. Stone distills a wealth of thinking about statistics and their psychological and social foundations into lucid, engaging prose, illustrated with piquant graphics and cartoons, though her critique of cost-benefit analyses gives short shrift to their role in spotlighting unintended consequences of policy. Still, this is a stimulating layperson’s guide to the pseudo-mathematical rationalizations behind so much of what governments do. (Oct.)