Numbers are meaningless


Although not the nicest of men Francis Galton was also a bit of a hero of numbers, drawing them into the human domain, and developing ideas such as correlation. Unfortunately, an heir to Galton, Steve Jones did not employ the same subtlty in a recent article:

Type the phrase “scientists find the gene for” into Google and 68,000 results appear. Most of the hits are about human beings – which is a pretty impressive number, given that we have only 20,000 genes altogether.

Francis Galton: The man who drew up the ‘ugly map’ of Britain   Steve Jones

We have become used to numbers swirling about us, we talk so often about their power, that we forget that on their own they are meaningless. Meaning must be added, and we need to be careful when comparing, as he did, two numbers that come from different contexts.

We give meanings to numbers in many different ways, sometimes only using some of the abstract properties. House numbers make full use of the ordering on numbers, but No. 23 does not combine with No. 41 to make No. 64.  Yet think about how we teach number. Nearly every primary school has a number line, it might start with one apple, two bananas, three oranges. Yet, while one apple plus two bananas might be one smoothie, it is certainly not three oranges. So remember the old saying!

The ultimate form of abusing numbers is the bogeyman of numerology, diving into the abstract world of mathematics and jumping out again in different contexts to pull some conclusion out of thin air. So I might surprise you by coming to its defence.

A classic method is to turn a written idea or just a single word into a number. Then look up that number to see what other words come to the same value. Perhaps, for some, the meaningless of the number stage is preceisely the purpose. The ideas connected in this way will have no obvious connection. The game then becomes finding something that draws them together. Not to see something of cosmic significance, but to stretch the imagination and get creativity and thoughts flowing. Creating a space for creative randomness.

So to bring this to some form of a conclusion, remember to be careful with numbers; but do not be afraid of them. Think about, play with and subvert the meaning that they are given. Perhaps you might even get lucky in your random connections and realise something about yourself or the world.

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