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Trust in Numbers:
The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life
Theodore M. Porter

Winner of the 1997 Ludwig Fleck Prize, Society for the Social Studies of Science

Paperback | 1996 | $49.95 / £34.95 | ISBN: 9780691029085
324 pp. | 6 x 9
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400821617 |
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This investigation of the overwhelming appeal of quantification in the modern world discusses the development of cultural meanings of objectivity over two centuries. How are we to account for the current prestige and power of quantitative methods? The usual answer is that quantification is seen as desirable in social and economic investigation as a result of its successes in the study of nature. Theodore Porter is not content with this. Why should the kind of success achieved in the study of stars, molecules, or cells be an attractive model for research on human societies? he asks. And, indeed, how should we understand the pervasiveness of quantification in the sciences of nature? In his view, we should look in the reverse direction: comprehending the attractions of quantification in business, government, and social research will teach us something new about its role in psychology, physics, and medicine.

Drawing on a wide range of examples from the laboratory and from the worlds of accounting, insurance, cost-benefit analysis, and civil engineering, Porter shows that it is "exactly wrong" to interpret the drive for quantitative rigor as inherent somehow in the activity of science except where political and social pressures force compromise. Instead, quantification grows from attempts to develop a strategy of impersonality in response to pressures from outside. Objectivity derives its impetus from cultural contexts, quantification becoming most important where elites are weak, where private negotiation is suspect, and where trust is in short supply.

Review:

"The essence of science is quantification, and this is what holds Porter's fascination. The book is an engaging attempt to account for the prestige and power of quantitative methods in the modern world."--Ann Oakley, British Medical Journal

". . . provides a powerful means for understanding quantification in a variety of different contexts."--American Journal of Sociology

"Porter's book is compelling, beautifully written, and makes an important contribution to our understanding of one of the most fundamental features of modernity: the rise of quantification."--Contemporary Sociology

"A highly original series of historical and philosophical reflections. . . . "--M. Norton Wise, British Journal for the History of Science

"Porter delivers a fine, scholarly account of how numerical measurement is used both to standardise results and to communicate them unambiguously."--Jon Turney, New Scientist

"A closely reasoned, densely written historical account of how nonscientific people came to use numbers for political purposes. . . . When there is nothing else to trust, it seems, people trust numbers."--Rudy Rucker, Scientific American

Endorsement:

"Ted Porter's work on the history of quantification transforms our understanding of the social meaning of numbers, and of the social meaning of objectivity."--Evelyn Fox Keller, MIT

"A fine, scholarly account of how numerical measurements are used both to standardize results and to communicate them unambiguously."--Jon Turney

"This book is a wholly original contribution to both political science and moral philosophy, written with the precision of an historian skilled at bringing to life the dustiest of bureaucratic archives."--Ian Hacking, University of Toronto

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