Book Review: Numbers and Nerves (Oregon State UP)

»We know from the start that we are creatures of compassion and feeling, but also animals of analysis and measurement. Which way of seeing and expressing the world actually achieves our desires, meets our needs, and satisfies our lives to a greater extent?«

Statistical analysis provides a very specific way of understanding large scale phenomena. Statistics is complexity, expressed in large amounts of data. The human mind, however, is quickly numbed by information presented in numbers.

“Numbers and Nerves. Information, Emotion and Meaning in a World of Data” introduces us to the problem of statistical numbing and suggests ways for dealing with it when trying to communicate statistics to a general audience.

888,246 red ceramic poppies in the Tower of London represent all of the individual soldiers of the British Commonwealth who had died in WWI. Installation by Paul Cummins, 2014.

“As we enter the 21st century, many of the important issues that occupy news headlines and capture the attention of world leaders and ordinary citizens require us to use the best available statistical information—gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, numbers of fisherman put out of work by the disaster, billions of dollars made available in an effort to stem the economic damage and compensate the local residents—to asses various situations and mitigate problems,”

write Paul and Scott Slovic in their intro to the book “Numbers and Nerves.” Statistical reasoning is our primary way of collecting information about complex problems: about societal issues such as demographic change, global migration or conflict, but also about the footprint we leave on this planet, such as climate change or major environmental incidents such as the one mentioned above. This is closely connected to a clear cultural preference for numbers in Western societies:

“We’ve come to believe that truth inheres in numbers, and people who speak (and write) the language of numbers appear to know what is going on in the world.”

A multicolored bar graph representing several chunks of the US federal budget runs through the center of the University of Oregon campus. Eugene/OR installation, 1985.

However, our ability to fathom and process the information provided in numerical form is rarely questioned. So much work in the field of data visualisation is based on the never-challenged assumption that the meaning of some piece of information would jump right into our eyes if only the numbers were represented correctly and tellingly enough. But apparently, this is not how we work. Paul and Scott Slovic, the editors of the book, cite American activist Terry Tempest Williams for describing our most likely reaction to complex statistical analysis (however beautifully visualized):

“When I hear of all the statistics, the losses we are incurring, the truth and weight of issues like genetically manipulated foods, a population of 6 billion and rising, the loss of diversity of species and land, the control wielded by global corporations, I become mute, my spirit crushed by information that becomes abstracted into despair. My human frame cannot accommodate it all. I become listless, apathetic, impotent and turn inward, turn to pleasure, to distraction, to anything that will move me away from what I perceive to be the true state of the world.”

And let’s be honest, we all know this feeling. For me, this book was invaluable in that it has brought to my attention that there is a general problem in how we perceive and communicate with numbers. I used to think it’s just me. And probably everybody else has thought so, too. But this seems to be part of our human condition – we’re made for savoring human stories, not abstract data. Numbers, specifically when relating to problematic issues, tend to numb our brains, and make us turn away from the issue at hand—instead of taking action, as we should be doing.

So what’s in the book? 

The book tackles these issues in various ways, and from a variety of angles. Paul Slovic, one of the editors, is a professor of psychology, who studies human judgement and decision making. In PART ONE, he and several colleagues present their findings as to how people relate to sensitive statistical information.

This includes the unsettling insights about what he called statistical numbing: when hearing reports about situations of conflict and war, people tend to become less and less sensitive the more lives are at stake. When hearing a personal story about one human individual in danger, we react much more eager and alert than when we hear about 84 people at risk. Also, we react much more to reports about identified humans with a face and a name than to unidentified statistical victims. What is more, the awareness that there are many people out of our reach will make us feel bad and thus curb our readiness to help the ones in reach.

The installation “Street Folk” by Detroit-based artist/activist Tyree Guyton shows the number of homeless population in Detroit. 2011

PART TWO of the book presents multiple takes on and strategies for how to deal with these problems. How can we overcome feelings of helplessness, frustration and numbness when communicating difficult issues around conflict or climate change? One core aspect is to provide a way to zoom in on or relate to the individual story. Mosaics of personal symbols, or masses of individual objects – in which both the sheer amount as the individual item are easy to perceive are one strategy (see the poppies installation in London above).

Another strategy is to incorporate visual representations to the physical environment, and therefore allow something like an embodied experience of the numbers, such as in walk-along installations and monuments (see walkable bar chart above). Another factor which accommodates understanding of statistics related to human wellbeing is to try to connect the numbers with symbols or information about individual human beings. For instance, the installation above takes shoes as symbols for human individuals, thereby representing the number of the homeless population in Detroit. PART THREE of the book then concludes with a selection of interviews, in which professionals share their experiences and strategies communicating “difficult data”, while also urging people to act.

Why this book? 

I highly recommend it. It is an academic reader, and certainly not all of its contents and insights are easy to apprehend and to process. But I am deeply convinced that, within the data visualisation community, we need to be aware of the enormous pitfalls of communicating statistics. Communicating numbers (and in many cases numbers which will make us uncomfortable) is at the core of our business, so in every project we must consider whether and how we can actually reach our audience in representing those numbers. The book provides excellent training for looking beyond the horizon and try to take the audience’s perspective.

The book was edited by Paul Slovic and Scott Slovic and released from Oregon State University Press. More information and material can be found on the accompanying website The Arithmetic of Compassion. All photos were taken by Kenneth Helphand and are used here by permission. As a brief intro, I recommend listening to the Data Stories episode 84 with Paul Slovic. Please explore Tyree Guyton’s inspiring work on his website. Disclosure: The publisher provided a complimentary copy for this review.  

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