Descartes, in hisFirst Meditation, questions our reliance on senses to determine what realityis; while numbers and sciences remain certain – “whether I am awake or asleep,two plus three makes five” (Descartes, n.d.). Truth should beobjective, and should not differ in opinion from person to person; whilenumbers provide such objectivity and standardization as mathematical logiccannot be falsified. Therefore, it may seem logical that the truth is always anamount.
Today, numbers areused 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 themanufacturing industry to the reader (Kit, 2017). Numbers are used tocommunicate truth, because it iseffective, quantifiable and drives better understanding across the generalpublic – regardless of your social background or education. However, relianceplaced on numbers can be questionable, as truthbehind numbers may change – one clear example was the Clinton and Trumppresidential election in 2016 where the numbers pre-election that predictedthat Clinton would reign, suggesting that more US citizens were supportive ofClinton; resulted in Trump being elected with majority votes ultimately, whichnow suggest that more US citizens were supportive of Trump. The question hereis then – if numbers cannot be proven falsifiable, how does truth change with numbers? The world todaycompared to 1997 is vastly different. With the proliferation of the Internetand technology, we are constantly loaded with information and data – so behindall these numbers, which of these actually present the truth? Behind these numbers, there are different methodologies withmultiple limitations used, while numbers have been interpreted by differentorganizations or people with diverse interests.
For example, in 2016, Singaporewas ranked the happiness country in Asia Pacific with a score of 6.739 by asurvey conducted by United Nations; while an alternate view was presented inseveral local websites and forums, where many unhappy Singaporeans expressedtheir displeasure on various aspects, including the competitive culture,elitism and high cost of living (TODAY Online, 2016) (Tan, 2017). These negativesentiments however, would not be reflected in the numbers – what people saw wasthe highest score amongst other countries in Asia Pacific. Moreover, thepriorities one have and the attributes constituting ‘happiness’ differ personto person – how then would the score of 6.
739 generated by the responses of3,000 people quantify how happy individuals in Singapore really are? Whodecides that these metrics define happiness, such as per capita GDP and freedomto make life choices; and do these factors really matter to every citizenuniversally? These numbers contain underlying assumptions that can be debuted.On the contrary, another study conducted in 2016 by Jobstreet.com shows thatSingaporean workers are the unhappiest in South-East Asia, with an averagescore of 4.93 on a 10-point scale (Chua, 2016). With differentdata, representing different outcomes, how then do we decide which is the truth? The focus on numberstoday also seems to suggest that majority is power, where decisions are madestemming from majority’s opinion. Capital punishment, for example, has been along debated topic across many countries around the world.
Based on a pollconducted by a government feedback agency, 80% of Singaporeans support Capitalpunishment; suggesting that capital punishment is socially accepted inSingapore practice (Rashith, 2016). This providesadditional affirmation to law enforcers to carry on with this practice; but wedo know that capital punishment has its flaws, especially because it can leadto loss of innocent lives – which could be why the minority polled wanted itsremoval. However, there has been no issue raised about it because majority ofSingaporeans surveyed believe in it. Moreover, numbers are often reflective ofthe majority’s status, and less for the minority. For example, when looking atthe economic development of a country, the common metric used is ‘per capita’ GDPor GNP, which looks at the results on average. Even for median and modecalculation, these would almost always fall within the majority. Therefore, ifwe take the number as they are, it seems to suggest that the people fromnations 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 aboutthe majority only. Nonetheless, Chambersmay still be right that the truth isan amount. However, the truth we seetoday is a constructed truth otherswant us to see. Assuming full accuracy in the data collected – numbers initself has no wrong; but how these numbers are presented to us is usually thedetermining factor whether or not this is indeed the truth.
One simple example is social media – Instagram and Facebooklikes may not be a true indication of how popular one is, but can create aperception of one’s popularity. The origin of these numbers must come from peoplein the first place – and they themselves would have their own thoughts andbiases on how these numbers should be derived, affecting the type of numbersthey obtain in the first place. Moreover, most numbers we see today are oftenpresented to us in a way that helps others make a point, signifying that the truth we get out of numbers is indeedthe interpretation of what others believe should be what the numbers signify,more than the truth in the number initself. There is some reliance we can place on thenumbers today – but we have to recognize that these numbers are what othersperceive as truth, and that they maynot necessarily represent the whole truthof the matter. However, given the multiple streams of information today, itwould be unlikely for truth to beuniversally agreed upon anyway. Therefore, contrary to Descartes argument, wehave to use both numbers and our personal experiences to shape the truth we know today.