Animals and Beggars: Imaginative Numbers in the Real World

Title: Animals and Beggars: Imaginative Numbers in the Real World

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Abstract: Data are commonly represented as numbers. What do numbers mean? What do numbers tell us about the correspondence between our ideas and the world out there?  What do numbers tell us about data quality? I will use several examples to explore the different things that quantitative renderings of facts and phenomena—numbers—may actually be telling us—and hiding from us.

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To describe something with a number is to make a claim about a direct correspondence between the thing being represented by the number, and the real world out there. However, many numbers are the product of trans-science (Weinberg, 1972): they purport to use science to answer a question that cannot be answered scientifically. Such numbers may serve vital social functions, but it is unclear what they actually tell us about the world. Because such numbers inappropriately borrow cultural status from conventional science, Democracies need to cultivate competition, from other sources of imagination, to the numbers of trans-science, to assure that the public imagination—and thus our options for the future—are not constrained or stunted.

Biography: Daniel Sarewitz’s work focuses on revealing the connections between science policy decisions, scientific research and social outcomes. How does the distribution of the social benefits of science relate to the way that we organize scientific inquiry? What accounts for the highly uneven advance of know-how related to solving human problems? How do the interactions between scientific uncertainty and human values influence decision making? How does technological innovation influence politics? And how can improved insight into such questions contribute to improved real-world practice? His current activities include a project (with writer Lee Gutkind) on harmonies between science and religion.

Sarewitz edits the magazine Issues in Science and Technology, and is a regular columnist for Naturemagazine. His article “Saving Science,” a broad assessment of the current crisis of quality and public value in the American research system, appeared in the summer 2016 issue of The New Atlantis magazine. His most recent book is The Techno-Human Condition (MIT Press, 2011), co-authored with Braden Allenby. Visit the CSPO online library for more.

From 1989 to 1993, Sarewitz worked on R&D policy issues as a staff member in the US House of Representatives, and principal speech writer for Committee Chairman George E. Brown, Jr. He received a doctorate in geological sciences from Cornell University in 1986. He now directs CSPO’s office in Washington, DC, and focuses his efforts on a range of activities to increase CSPO’s impact on federal science and technology policy processes, and its contributions to public dialogue on the social and political aspects of scientific and technological change.