WTMC Summer School 2012 – Seeing Through Numbers with Helen Verran

Seeing Through Numbers, with Helen Verran (University of Melbourne)

Numbers surround us wherever we go. We have phone numbers, speed limits, house numbers, population numbers, alarm numbers, bank accounts, and public statistics. We have numbers about our health, about our work, our families, our friends, or the house we live in. These numbers have become highly naturalised: most of the time, we rely on them blindly, even though we may be vaguely aware of uncertainties or problematic assumptions. Children are taught how to count almost as soon as they learn how to speak, but though we are aware that children are taught different languages, we rarely realize they may also learn different numbers – until we see Indian children count to 12 on their finger bones where the same hand gets a Dutch child up till 5. Unravelling what is precisely involved in counting itself has puzzled some of our greatest minds.

WTMC Summer School 2012

Numbers through laboratories, statistics agencies, boardrooms…

Science and Technology Studies (STS) has questioned naturalised numbers, following in the tradition of perceptive philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, or adventurous anthropologists studying radically different counting cultures. STS scholars have developed tools and concepts to analyse how numbers depend on material networks that register, encode, and translate bits of the world into numbers. We have investigated how numbers are based on categorisations of the world, chopping it into countable bits, and we have followed numbers through laboratories, statistics agencies, boardrooms, and into ministries and living rooms. At the ontic level of social life, we have discovered a world with quantum-like characteristics, where numbers congeal in a complex mix of facts and values, of symbolic and material practices, of contingency hidden behind a public appearance of unquestionable certainty.

Helen Verran and  Annemarie Mol

This summer school’s anchor teacher was Helen Verran, who teaches in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne. Helen Verran was awarded the Ludwick Fleck Prize by the Society for Social Studies of Science in 2003, for her influential book Science and an African Logic, a study of counting practices among the Yoruba of West Africa. The book analyses counting and its relation to social ontology based on her lengthy field observations as a mathematics teacher in Nigeria during the 1980s. She describes her sudden realisation of the radically different nature of Yoruba counting as a gestalt switch: suddenly the streaming numbers around you are no longer natural, but show their constructed nature, just as Neo perceived the illusory nature of his Matrix world.

Other guest lecturers at this summer school included another winner of the same prestigious Fleck prize, Annemarie Mol (for her book The Body Multiple, one year later).