Descartes, while numbers and sciences remain certain –

Descartes, in his
First Meditation, questions our reliance on senses to determine what reality
is; while numbers and sciences remain certain – “whether I am awake or asleep,
two plus three makes five” (Descartes, n.d.). Truth should be
objective, and should not differ in opinion from person to person; while
numbers provide such objectivity and standardization as mathematical logic
cannot be falsified. Therefore, it may seem logical that the truth is always an
amount.

 

Today, numbers are
used frequently in the media, because it is universal and easy to communicate;
for example, “Strong manufacturing drives Singapore GDP growth to 4.6% in Q3” –
reading the headline would immediately communicate ‘good performance’ in the
manufacturing industry to the reader (Kit, 2017). Numbers are used to
communicate truth, because it is
effective, quantifiable and drives better understanding across the general
public – regardless of your social background or education. However, reliance
placed on numbers can be questionable, as truth
behind numbers may change – one clear example was the Clinton and Trump
presidential election in 2016 where the numbers pre-election that predicted
that Clinton would reign, suggesting that more US citizens were supportive of
Clinton; resulted in Trump being elected with majority votes ultimately, which
now suggest that more US citizens were supportive of Trump. The question here
is then – if numbers cannot be proven falsifiable, how does truth change with numbers?

 

The world today
compared to 1997 is vastly different. With the proliferation of the Internet
and technology, we are constantly loaded with information and data – so behind
all these numbers, which of these actually present the truth? Behind these numbers, there are different methodologies with
multiple limitations used, while numbers have been interpreted by different
organizations or people with diverse interests. For example, in 2016, Singapore
was ranked the happiness country in Asia Pacific with a score of 6.739 by a
survey conducted by United Nations; while an alternate view was presented in
several local websites and forums, where many unhappy Singaporeans expressed
their displeasure on various aspects, including the competitive culture,
elitism and high cost of living (TODAY Online, 2016) (Tan, 2017). These negative
sentiments however, would not be reflected in the numbers – what people saw was
the highest score amongst other countries in Asia Pacific. Moreover, the
priorities one have and the attributes constituting ‘happiness’ differ person
to person – how then would the score of 6.739 generated by the responses of
3,000 people quantify how happy individuals in Singapore really are? Who
decides that these metrics define happiness, such as per capita GDP and freedom
to make life choices; and do these factors really matter to every citizen
universally? These numbers contain underlying assumptions that can be debuted.
On the contrary, another study conducted in 2016 by Jobstreet.com shows that
Singaporean workers are the unhappiest in South-East Asia, with an average
score of 4.93 on a 10-point scale (Chua, 2016). With different
data, representing different outcomes, how then do we decide which is the truth?

 

The focus on numbers
today also seems to suggest that majority is power, where decisions are made
stemming from majority’s opinion. Capital punishment, for example, has been a
long debated topic across many countries around the world. Based on a poll
conducted by a government feedback agency, 80% of Singaporeans support Capital
punishment; suggesting that capital punishment is socially accepted in
Singapore practice (Rashith, 2016). This provides
additional affirmation to law enforcers to carry on with this practice; but we
do know that capital punishment has its flaws, especially because it can lead
to loss of innocent lives – which could be why the minority polled wanted its
removal. However, there has been no issue raised about it because majority of
Singaporeans surveyed believe in it. Moreover, numbers are often reflective of
the majority’s status, and less for the minority. For example, when looking at
the economic development of a country, the common metric used is ‘per capita’ GDP
or GNP, which looks at the results on average. Even for median and mode
calculation, these would almost always fall within the majority. Therefore, if
we take the number as they are, it seems to suggest that the people from
nations with high GDP per capita would all lead good and prosperous lives –
what we fail to see are the people who are homeless, seeking government aid,
earning below the minimum wage and living day by day. Numbers often show us about
the majority only.

 

Nonetheless, Chambers
may still be right that the truth is
an amount. However, the truth we see
today is a constructed truth others
want us to see. Assuming full accuracy in the data collected – numbers in
itself has no wrong; but how these numbers are presented to us is usually the
determining factor whether or not this is indeed the truth. One simple example is social media – Instagram and Facebook
likes may not be a true indication of how popular one is, but can create a
perception of one’s popularity. The origin of these numbers must come from people
in the first place – and they themselves would have their own thoughts and
biases on how these numbers should be derived, affecting the type of numbers
they obtain in the first place. Moreover, most numbers we see today are often
presented to us in a way that helps others make a point, signifying that the truth we get out of numbers is indeed
the interpretation of what others believe should be what the numbers signify,
more than the truth in the number in
itself.

 

There is some reliance we can place on the
numbers today – but we have to recognize that these numbers are what others
perceive as truth, and that they may
not necessarily represent the whole truth
of the matter. However, given the multiple streams of information today, it
would be unlikely for truth to be
universally agreed upon anyway. Therefore, contrary to Descartes argument, we
have to use both numbers and our personal experiences to shape the truth we know today. 

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