The History of Quantification

My undergraduate seminar in the history of science focused on the history of quantification the last time I taught. I really enjoyed the course, and will likely offer that focus again. Here is the course description:

We live in a world consumed by numbers. From astronomy to physics to actuarial analysis to weather prediction, complex methods of calculation dominate our modes of knowledge production and consumption. No body of evidence is thought to be more persuasive—or deemed more objective—than quantitative data. And more data: according to Wired magazine, we have entered the “petabyte age,” the consequences of which “force us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later.” This is a brave new world with longstanding and established antecedents we would do well to better understand.

This course means to trace the story of how one method of representation—numbers, data, and quantification—virtually rendered theory and interpretation irrelevant. How is it that western understandings of truth came to be intimately and exclusively connected to statistics and mathematics? Seminar readings will begin by surveying the manner in which numbers became the foundation for social conceptions of truth. The second portion of the course—and student research projects—will concentrate on issues concerning the impact of this quantitative turn as it has influenced efforts to monitor the environment and understand environmental hazards. How did quantitative data transform the study of ecology? How or why did risk and environmental policymaking rely so heavily on numbers and not other, qualitative factors? How have we interpreted parts per million and parts per billion as information pertaining to climate change, body burdens, or risk? And how have mathematical models shaped the science of environmental prediction? Underpinning each of these questions is a deeper social inquiry into the connections inherent in science, politics, and authority that invites investigation into the historical relationship between knowledge, expertise, and power.

Better than most of my course offerings—even those explicitly focusing on environmental history or the history of sustainability—the readings and investigations zeroed in on my specific research interests. I was also fortunate to have an exceptionally strong group of students, many of whom subsequently went on to do graduate studies. That helped make this a rich teaching experience.

But I bring this up not just to reminisce. Just the other day, I came across a particularly interesting and provocative read online, which offered eight of the most “shocking” prognostications about the future. This from the World Future Society‘s site, which is often worth a look. Recall Wired‘s ushering in the petabyte age, and consider Vinod Khosla’s prediction that “big data will replace the need for 80% of all doctors.” It’s worth reading beyond the link’s short synopsis of his assertion to get your head around this, but it does seem to be championing the advent of big data as already here. Which is maybe not news, though its repercussions will continue to startle and amaze. There are lots of ways to think about this. It reminds me of this interest in the history of quantification, but it also has distinct connections with the history of the future, too.

Almost as a sidebar, the other good number news is that McMaster University has just introduced a new combined honours program between History and Mathematics. Exciting opportunities lie ahead.

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