The late Stanislav Andreski (1919-2007) British Professor of Social Sciences, in one of his vintage passages in ‘Social Sciences as Sorcery’, reminded us of the power of persuasion by ‘the numbers’, or, in his case a mathematical formula that provided the full legitimation of an argument. And what kind of argument? Not other than the existence of God.
During his stay at the court of Catherine II of Russia, the great Swiss mathematician Euler got into argument about the existence of God. To defeat the voltairians in the battle of wits, the great mathematician asked for a blackboard in which he wrote:
(x + y)2 = x2 + 2xy + y2 , therefore God exists
Unable to dispute the relevance of the formula which they did not understand, and unwilling to confess their ignorance, the literati accepted his argument.
We all have Eulerian moments in organizations, and they come in the form of magic ROIs, magic Risk Analysis and sophisticated financial statements that not many people question. Don’t question the numbers! The numbers are the numbers!
It’s the ‘in God we trust, others bring data’ argument.
The popularity of surveys and rankings, come from the legitimization of an argument via a score of some sort. There is nothing wrong with numbers and scores. What is wrong is us accepting them blindly, uncritically.
Also, any number, score, percentage, can be read in more than one psychological context. ‘20% of teenagers get drunk on Fridays’ sounds horrible; a serious problem. Probably it is. But, that also means that 80% of teenagers don’t get drunk on Fridays. Which ‘facts’ you pick depends on what message you want to get across.
In the battle of Gantt charts, scores and tables, the power of the Army may overwhelm us. Our daily organizational questions may not be about God’s existence, but our reaction might be quite similar to the people in the court of Catherin II: Unable to dispute the relevance of the formula which they did not understand, and unwilling to confess their ignorance, the literati accepted his argument.