Avalanche of Numbers

Strategies of statistical rhetoric.

In the last few weeks, a report has been circulating in the online fora of the ultranationalist Indian diaspora. Its author, Shantanu Gupta, an ideologue closely associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatya Janata Party, ‘tracked the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in India of 6 global publications – BBC, the Economist, the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times and CNN – via web search results over a 14-month period’. His argument is that these outlets have distorted and exaggerated the effects of coronavirus in India. On what does Gupta base this thesis? On the fact that all these sources have used absolute numbers rather than cases per million. By the latter metric, we are told, ‘India is one of the better performing countries on the global map’. Here he is undoubtedly correct.

Countless times this spring we’ve seen the dramatic, record-shattering daily death counts from India, as it reportedly became the country with the third highest Covid deaths in the world. A quick look at these records: deaths in India reached their highest level on May 18th, with 4,525 per day. The USA topped this morbid leaderboard on January 12th with slightly lower numbers: 4,466. The UK reached its peak on January 20th, with 1,823 daily deaths; Italy on December 3rd with 993.

The problem is, India’s population stands at 1.392 billion. The USA’s is just 332 million, while the UK and Italy have 68 and 60 million respectively. If, then, we were to count the number of deaths per million inhabitants, ranking the highest daily death count yields quite different results: the UK holds a strong lead, with 28 deaths a day per million inhabitant; Italy is in second place with 17; the USA follows with 14; and India comes last, with just 3 per million inhabitants. Regarding the total number of deaths per million since the beginning of the pandemic, each country is almost identical, the only change coming at the very top: Italy clinches gold with 2,091 deaths per million, the UK 1,873, the USA 1,836, and India just 243.

One might argue that Indian statistics are unreliable (a fair objection, no doubt), due to the impossibility of accurately recording deaths in slums and other deprived areas. We now know that the true Covid death count in Peru was around triple the official figure. But multiply the Indian death count by four and it would still be inferior to that of more developed countries with far higher per capita incomes such as the USA, UK and Italy.

So has the pandemic in India been a bed of roses, as Modi has repeated for around a year, and as Gupta still maintains? Not at all. Try selling this to the families brought to ruin buying oxygen tanks on the black market or rooms in facilities with ventilators, or to the millions of precarious workers sent back home on foot, without a penny or subsidy to speak of. Even if, epidemiologically, Covid has not hit India more violently than other countries, it nonetheless spelled catastrophe for the health service and the wider economy. The numbers presented to underscore India’s Covid ‘tragedy’ in reality told an entirely different story. They were a testament to the brutal inequality of Indian society and the awful state of its health service: underfunded, staffed with underpaid workers, and lacking all kinds of vital equipment.

India’s pandemic casualties are but a macroscopic example of how numbers can be made to say anything, often conveying the opposite of what they really mean. In this past year and a half we’ve been submerged, buried, asphyxiated by an ‘avalanche of numbers’, as the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking terms it. In his exceptional The Taming of Chance (1990), Hacking examines the fervour for statistics that took hold of Europe in the 1800s, following the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Statistics, he argues, were endowed with a double dimension: by the 19th century they emerged as pillars of a new mode of governance, and underpinned a colossal epistemological revolution in science (just think of statistical mechanics, the kinetic theory of gases, and the attendant appearance of unsettling concepts: entropy first, the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics after). It was this ‘avalanche’ that gave rise to the human sciences. Modern sociology was made possible by the availability of statistical data; Durkheim couldn’t have written his foundational text on Suicide (1897) without the mass of information provided by censuses. Our contemporary image of human beings derives in large part from the means developed to count them – an image that omits all that cannot be counted or indexed.

Statistics – numbers, that is – were obviously the primary tool for enacting what Foucault termed ‘biopolitics’, a form of governance in which it is essential for the sovereign to know the average life expectancy, the mean age of marriage relative to level of education, the number of possible conscripts at any given time, how long the state would have to pay a life salary, and so on. But a discipline cannot be an instrument of government without becoming a weapon of politics. The manipulation of statistics was born alongside statistics itself, hence the unforgettable, lapidary maxim from Mark Twain in his Chapters from My Autobiography (1906): ‘there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’.

This whole process gave rise to a new artform, as the rhetorical use of numbers ripened into a veritable ‘rhetoric of the number’. The media spectacle we’ve witnessed in the last 17 months has deployed this numerical rhetoric to the full extent of its powers; instructive, threatening, persuasive, dissuasive, distortive. It’s opportune, then, to examine this rhetoric a little more closely. We could begin by asking, as Jacques Durand did in his first, pioneering treatment of the subject: ‘What is a number? Is it a word amongst others, an integral part of language? Or is it a purely scientific object, extralinguistic in nature?’

We may not realize it, but we’re perennially bombarded by numbers used in what might be termed an ‘extra-arithmetic’ register: The One Thousand and One Nights, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, The Seventh Seal, Ocean’s 11, Agent 007, 7-Up, 7-Eleven, the ‘number of the beast’ 666. In politics, the rhetorical use of numbers derives ‘from the fact that numbers and statistics – even from official sources – do not hold a mirror to reality but instead reflect, and deflect, it’. Precisely because of this function, numbers produce an effect of irrational persuasion. If I’m told that thousands of people have died in some disaster, I can accept this or I can remain sceptical, but if I’m told that the death count is 12,324, I must take it or leave it in toto. Numbers thus retain a persuasive force comparable to that of an image (‘worth a thousand words’). At the same time, numbers serve to decontextualize and absolutize.

We’re so inundated with numbers that we tend not to perceive just how much of the information we are presented with is superfluous and arbitrary. When we were told, for example, that Malaysia registered a record number of 5,298 cases on the 30th of January, nobody interrogated the reason why this figure was chosen. Why have we never been given daily updates on tuberculosis cases, even if every year it causes the death of around 1.7 million people? Think of the 1.4 million people who die every year in car accidents. Why are we not informed of roadside fatalities in Chile or the Philippines every evening? It’s curious that during Covid’s second wave all mention of deaths in nursing homes vanished; they have literally disappeared from mass media, yet the elderly continue to die in great numbers. The hypocritical sobs for the ‘tragedy of the elderly’ and the crocodile tears for ‘our grandparents’ have now been muted.

So, the first mechanism the rhetoric of numbers employs is the choice of which figures to include and which to omit. To declare the accumulation of total deaths, rather than the rate of mortality relative to the size of a given population, is a shining example of this numerical rhetoric. Rarely does the news – broadcast or print – use relative figures; it generally deals in absolute tallies. Less lethal but just as serious is the doctoring of statistics relating to work, with many curious stratagems at play in assessing the rate of unemployment (in the US, for example, people are not counted as unemployed if they worked just one hour the previous week). Then there are the various figures of speech which we do not have sufficient space and time to analyse at present. With numbers you can use antithesis: ‘A €700,000 fine for missed payment of €1.20’, ‘Murder for €20’; tautology: ‘2021 is not 2001’; repetition: ‘in 12 days, with 12 bottles, your face is 12 years younger’; enumeration: ‘buy two, pay for one’ (a shoe advert) , ‘one exceptional offer, two lifestyles, three advantages’; accumulation: ‘920 tonnes at 920 km/h’. This doesn’t even cover rhetorical devices that mix words and numbers. The list is long.

It’s evident from this brief excursus that numbers are not words like any other, nor are they completely extralinguistic signifiers. Strangely enough, their logic recalls (to come full circle) the use of Hindi words in English-language Indian dailies, which are replete with local terms that communicate what in English would be inexpressible. They represent an exotic solecism embedded in standard English and hark back to a shared local heritage. In everyday consciousness numbers surely enjoy a similar exotic fascination, owing partly to the general public’s imperfect grasp of arithmetic.

What remains to be evaluated is the intention behind this particular wielding of numbers. There’s little doubt here: general panic amongst the population was a poorly-concealed – if not declared – objective of the pandemic response. I don’t wish to say that the pandemic wasn’t to be feared. I do, however, think that authorities around the world considered instilling a long-lasting panic amongst the general public necessary in order for much-needed lockdown measures and curbs on civil liberties to be accepted with such acquiescence. A well-dosed and administered media panic was, and still is, far less costly and intrusive than police measures. And for this aim the rhetoric of numbers has no match.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Geographies of Ignorance’, NLR 108.