Skip to main content

2019 | Buch

Science, Numbers and Politics


Über dieses Buch

This study explores the dynamic relationship between science, numbers and politics. What can scientific evidence realistically do in and for politics? The volume contributes to that debate by focusing on the role of “numbers” as a means by which knowledge is expressed and through which that knowledge can be transferred into the political realm. Based on the assumption that numbers are constantly being actively created, translated, and used, and that they need to be interpreted in their respective and particular contexts, it examines how numbers and quantifications are made ‘politically workable’, examining their production, their transition into the sphere of politics and their eventual use therein. Key questions that are addressed include: In what ways does scientific evidence affect political decision-making in the contemporary world? How and why did quantification come to play such an important role within democratic politics? What kind of work do scientific evidence and numbers do politically?


Chapter 1. “Working Numbers”—Introductory Remarks
This introductory chapter outlines the volume and introduces the concept of “Working Numbers”. It is argued that numbers are much more than “pure maths”: they are constantly (and actively) being created, translated and used and therefore need to be interpreted in their respective and particular contexts so that their significance in actual political contexts can be better understood. This active, conceptual understanding of “numbers” is encapsulated in the idea of “Working Numbers”. Put systematically, the triad of “science, numbers and politics” can be seen to correspond to that of the “production”, “transfer/translation” and “use” of numbers.
Markus J. Prutsch

Historical Genesis of the Relation Between Science, Numbers and Politics

Chapter 2. Historical Genesis of the Relation Between Science, Numbers and Politics—Part I Introduction
This piece introduces the four papers written for the history section of Science, Numbers and Politics. It outlines some of the problems that confront writing historical sociologies of quantitative information, focusing on the historicity of the rules that shape the production and usage of statistics. It then presents short prefatory remarks on the papers.
Kelly L. Grotke, Stephen Hastings-King
Chapter 3. “Lies, Damned Lies and State-istics”: Counting “Real Inhabitants” in the Census (Belgium, 1846–1947)
This chapter focuses on the premises underlying one of the main instruments that states have used to “embrace” their populations, viz. the modern population census. In many nation-states, statisticians opt for the household in its résidence habituelle or “habitual place of residence” as the census’ basic unit of observation. By analyzing the residential categories in the Belgian census, this chapter seeks to illuminate governmental and societal expectations regarding membership and belonging. Its focus is on the period between the first Belgian population census (1846) and the tenth, which was taken shortly after the Second World War (1947), a time frame within which de jure specifications of residence and resident populations have come to define the state-istical representations of the nation-state.
Kaat Louckx
Chapter 4. “What Use Is It in the Long Run to Resist Something That Is Bound to Happen Anyway?” The Statistical Mind Settling in Nineteenth-Century Politics
This chapter demonstrates the tough but inevitable emergence of “working numbers” in politics in an expanding and modernizing society. It discusses the settlement of official statistics in the Netherlands after 1850. The more democratic political system created a demand for information to get insight in the intervention of government in society, which was increasingly carried out by an expanding civil service. The involved politicians and officials had been introduced into statistical thinking at the university. The developments were accompanied by a new way of thinking, which meant a passion for a systematic collection and processing of observations of external reality. The new approach distanced itself consciously—and not without struggle—from styles of thought that based themselves on the unique case and the deductive method.
Ida H. Stamhuis
Chapter 5. Science, Numbers and ColonialismColonialism in the African Great LakesAfrican Great Lakes, 1820–1910
Society in the Great Lakes consisted of a complex web of polycentric cultural, political, and economic systems. European invaders heavily relied on Cartesian mappings to achieve their primary goals of expropriating economic resources, establishing political dominance, and claiming cultural superiority. Though colonial scientists constantly needed Great Lakes people for information and supplies, they had little regard for Great Lakes society. The numbers they generated originally omitted Great Lakes people. Later on, they applied mapping techniques to human bodies to legitimize exploitation and violence. Phrenology is now often dismissed as “pseudoscience”. But what is science? As recently as 2016, the American Statistical Association warned that statistical significance tests are widely misused across scientific disciplines. Colonial data acquisition caused brutal violence. Though colonial scientists were frequently embedded in military operations, structural features that made science complicit ran much deeper and included recruitment and training. Earlier maps reveal militaristic origins during violent episodes in Europe. From the mid-eighteenth century, military commanders had demanded large systematic land surveys and detailed topographic maps to control people within Europe.
Axel Utz
Chapter 6. The Emergence of a Global Economic Order: From Scientific Internationalism to Infrastructural Globalism
The objective of this paper is to trace the chronological process of establishing global infrastructure of economic order, beginning with the foundation of scientific organizations at the turn of the century and the years following World War I, through the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, until the construction of economic statistics commissions at the League of Nations, and later on, the United Nations. The paper examines this global development which is bound by two main processes of standardization, a transition from local voluntary initiatives of scientific societies to better the world with science and to improve coordination between countries, titled “scientific internationalism”, to the establishment of coercive international institutions that reinforce global economic order during the postwar era, termed as “infrastructural globalism”. The first part of the paper centers on Canada and its role in leading the standardization of economic statistics around the British Empire. A pivotal moment of this initiative was a conference held in 1920 in London and titled “First Conference of Government Officers Engaged in Dealing with Statistics in the British Empire”. The conference dealt with the establishment of imperial statistical bureaus in the British colonies. The second part of the paper, dealing with infrastructural globalism, describes the construction of the SNA and its dissemination as a direct consequence of the Bretton Woods Conference and the economic world order it established.
Anat Leibler

Science and Politics Today

Chapter 7. Science and Politics Today—Part II Introduction
The relationship between politics and the scientific community as well as different aspects of “working numbers” in the current state of politics and scientific policy advising are the main focus of Part II. The demand for more relevant, more accurate and more timely statistics for use in policy making has made the issue of credibility of such data more important over time. The production of numbers and how this is affected by the motives and interests of the relevant actors, and the conditions and institutional setup of number production, provision and translation are examined in this part.
Kathrine von Graevenitz, Georg von Graevenitz
Chapter 8. Politics and Policies of Statistical Independence
The issue of scientific and professional independence is a central concern of National Statistical Offices (NSOs). It pertains not only to scientific and methodological dimensions, such as definition of concepts, or design of surveys and questionnaires, but also to issues such as data release policies, definition of the overall statistical program, nomination or dismissal of the chief statistician, an NSO’s position within government architecture, as well as budgetary discretion. Independence is now an explicit feature of statistical acts and codes of practice in many countries and appears as a condition for securing the public’s trust. After describing the range of formal and informal means developed for protecting statistics independence in OECD countries, this chapter sketches three interpretations of the independence drive: the principal-agent, the independent expert and the technocrat-guardian models.
Jean-Guy Prévost
Chapter 9. Measuring, Modeling, Controlling the Climate? Numerical Expertise in U.S. Climate Engineering Politics
This contribution explores the role of quantified scientific expertise for U.S. geoengineering politics. Drawing on empirical evidence from federal proceedings, it assesses how climate measures, models, targets, and thresholds have shaped the trajectory of geoengineering within U.S. climate policy between 1990 and 2015. The analysis distinguishes three stages, in which this “career” of geoengineering has been advanced, each pointing to distinct capacities of quantified expertise: from contesting the “discernible human influence” on the climate, to quantifying the size of this challenge, all the way to devising an “emergency tool”. Going beyond the specific case of geoengineering, this contribution thus illuminates how context dependent not only our understanding of societal problems is, but also our comprehension of the kinds of responses we deem legitimate. Specifically, it demonstrates how numbers “work” in communicating global challenges, and how they guide the choices we make in seeking to address them.
Julia Schubert
Chapter 10. What Counts in the Politics of Climate Change? Science, Scepticism and Emblematic Numbers
Scientific data is frequently presented in climate policy in the form of targets, thresholds and other “emblematic numbers”. Emblematic numbers provide putatively accurate, easily graspable units of comparison. Their use, however, belies the complexity of climate change and scientific data and threatens to mask the political decisions that operate behind them. Those interested in disrupting policymaking are able to expose and exploit this masked politicisation. This contribution unpicks the ambiguous politics of emblematic numbers. A Qualitative Content Analysis of the 2015 NIPCC report reveals the tactics of a climate change denial organisation to target the politics behind “97%” and “95%”. The contribution thus highlights a serious dilemma: to streamline policymaking by using emblematic numbers or to avoid the risks created by using them.
Amanda Machin, Alexander Ruser
Chapter 11. Kings and Indicators: Options for Governing Without Numbers
Given the inevitability of using indicators for governance in the modern state, but considering also their considerable drawbacks, this essay looks at alternative options within contemporary government systems. It finds these potentially in three Asian places with a powerful monarchy with a spiritual happiness mandate and popular legitimacy which also have developed a heterodox development approach: Thailand, Bhutan, and Yogyakarta. The analysis shows, however, that, while heterodox additions to standard indicators are feasible, completely reneging on them does not seem to be desired or possible.
Wolfgang Drechsler

European and International Education Policies

Chapter 12. European and International Education Policies—Part III Introduction
This chapter argues that education has become an increasingly important policy area both at the European and international level, and that the growing political importance of education in Europe and internationally is accompanied by an active use of numbers. This is manifest, for example, in policy objectives being formulated in numerical terms. The chapter also problematises in how far numbers can be seen as a convenient ‘universal language’ especially in the educational field to help transcending cultural and linguistic diversity.
Lars Lehmann, Markus J. Prutsch
Chapter 13. Higher Purpose and Economic Reason: An Essay Concerning the Role of Numbers in European Education Policy
This essay examines the role of numbers as an increasingly attractive means of designing education policy in the European Union. It describes its shift from being a concern of political visionaries to being an issue pertaining to experts. The key arguments behind this process were of an economic nature. Education policy is increasingly addressed as a reaction to economic challenges. Simultaneously, the use of numbers can be interpreted as the expression of a struggle for power at the European level. The changes in the European power structure, in the end, led to a shift in education policy, which today has new points of reference and is in particular oriented toward the labor market.
Jörg J. Dötsch
Chapter 14. Standardizing the Context and Contextualizing the Standard: Translating PISA into PISA-D
International large-scale comparisons struggle with the difficulty of maintaining standardisation in order to facilitate comparison, and at the same time being relevant and meaningful locally across diverse contexts. This study inquires into the practices involved in accomplishing these apparently contradictory tasks through an empirical case study of the OECD’s adaptation of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to make it relevant to low-income nations in the form of PISA for Development (PISA-D). Situated knowledges, political decisions, socio-material practices, subjective interpretations, and cultural imaginaries are folded into managing the tension between standardization and contextualisation. Local contexts are profoundly ‘re-contextualized’ to comply with global practice, and conversely, global practices must adjust and compromise to manage standardization from a distance as well as in the here-and-now.
Radhika Gorur, Estrid Sørensen, Bryan Maddox
Chapter 15. “Let’s Talk Numbers”: Parliamentary Research in Educational Affairs in Light of a Political Demand for Quantification—The Knesset in Comparative Perspective
Increasing demand for quantified data in the field of education, as well as prevailing concepts of desirable quantified policy advice to parliamentarians, raise questions concerning the role of (relatively unstudied) Parliamentary Research and Information Services (PRIS) within this field. This chapter focuses on the outputs of the Knesset’s (Israeli Parliament) research services dealing with educational affairs, while reviewing similar outputs of three other PRIS, European and non-European, in order to discover the ways in which quantified data is used and presented. Findings suggest that although there is no uniformity among different PRIS and different types of outputs, most papers submitted to parliaments handle quantified indicators with care and integrate it with additional sources of policy information that enable critical analysis and better contextual understanding.
Yuval Vurgan
Chapter 16. Science, Numbers and Politics: Concluding Comments
This concluding chapter summarizes the research findings of this anthology in three steps. In a first step, the three sections of this volume will be recapitulated by discussing the basic working hypotheses formulated at the beginning of the research project. In a second step, the underlying concept of “Working Numbers”, outlined in the introduction, will be taken up in the light of this volume’s contributions. Finally, a few “key lessons” drawn from the research findings will be presented, intended to provide a more practice-oriented outlook and suggestions as to how numbers should be managed more purposefully and realistically in the political realm.
Lars Lehmann, Markus J. Prutsch
Science, Numbers and Politics
herausgegeben von
Dr. Markus J. Prutsch
Electronic ISBN
Print ISBN