I trade in numbers, and am passionate about them. From crime rates to the climate, we need them to describe and make sense of the world around us. But I’ve also learned to be very cautious in their company. They don’t just help us to interpret the world, they can be powerful enough to change it too—and not always for the better.
A focus on one number, a shock balance of trade deficit that was published three days before a general election, is said to have done for Harold Wilson’s premiership in 1970. A particular measure of public borrowing caused the British government to bring in the IMF to bail it out in 1976. More recently, a net immigration figure in June 2016 played a role in the EU referendum decision, as of course did the most famous number of recent years: the £350m a week that we supposedly send to Europe.
The full version of the article can be read on the Prospect website.