Numbers are fascinating, because they are so incredibly easy to manipulate.
We’re taught that they’re firm and solid, and when they are thrust in our face, we can believe what we’re told, especially when the person doing the telling and thrusting is an expert. Numbers from experts are Science, which, today, shuts up any further discourse (especially by lay people; our job is to accept, not ask questions).
Years ago, I worked at a college bookstore, and in conversation with the textbook buyer, I learned a little something about numbers: they’re fluid.
It had to do with textbook markup, which the store associate assured me was 33%.
“Oh, so a book with a wholesale price of $10 will then sell for roughly $13.33, because you take a third of the $10 and add it to make retail, right?” I asked.
“No, actually the book sells for $15. We add $5, which is one-third of $15.”
“But wouldn’t that be a 50% markup, because $5 is 50% of $10, the wholesale price?”
“That’s not how we do the numbers.”
It was a good lesson, one I’ve never forgotten. I’ve seen numbers manipulated in everything from the standard mass media “news” to a church meeting, when the pastor went into great detail explaining the difference between how people arrayed themselves in pews versus chairs. There were charts and tables and percentages, a vast array of erudite sounding information that you could tell, from the glazed looks in people’s eyes, the audience wasn’t properly processing.
The artwork, September, is a reminder to us that numbers are not as firm and incontrovertible as we are told. In this still life of autumn fruits and flowers, there are many elements, many items we could count: but we’d have to define what we’re counting.
Are we counting only flowers?
All flowers, or just a certain variety?
And if only certain ones, whole flowers only or partial ones as well?
You see, in order for the numbers to be meaningful, we have to define our parameters, fully disclose what it is we are counting, and how. It requires transparency and honesty, essential elements to truth.
Too frequently, we laughingly say we don’t see transparency and honesty in many arenas of our lives, but when those arenas start talking numbers, we suddenly and magically believe.
Perhaps it would be best to question first, before we believe.
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All the images used in my blog are by fine artist Steve Henderson, who creates paintings celebrating beauty, hope, goodness, joy, thinking, and questioning. You can buy his work as prints at Steve Henderson Collections.