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Limits of the Numerical

The Abuses and Uses of Quantification

This collection examines the uses of quantification in climate science, higher education, and health.
Numbers are both controlling and fragile. They drive public policy, figuring into everything from college rankings to vaccine efficacy rates. At the same time, they are frequent objects of obfuscation, manipulation, or outright denial. This timely collection by a diverse group of humanists and social scientists challenges undue reverence or skepticism toward quantification and offers new ideas about how to harmonize quantitative with qualitative forms of knowledge.   

Limits of the Numerical focuses on quantification in several contexts: climate change; university teaching and research; and health, medicine, and well-being more broadly. This volume shows the many ways that qualitative and quantitative approaches can productively interact—how the limits of the numerical can be overcome through equitable partnerships with historical, institutional, and philosophical analysis. The authors show that we can use numbers to hold the powerful to account, but only when those numbers are themselves democratically accountable.

304 pages | 2 halftones, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics

History: History of Ideas

Philosophy of Science


Limits of the Numerical shows with compelling detail, theoretical vision, and political urgency just how and why numbers matter. As J. L. Austin and Judith Butler showed us how we do things with words, the authors of Limits of the Numerical show us how we do things with numbers.”

Chad Wellmon, University of Virginia

“The availability and power of numbers in our ‘data-driven world’ have never been greater, and, for just that reason, are greatly contested. Limits of the Numerical explores the paradoxes of quantitative reasoning that have arisen as a corollary of its power and recognizes that a blind reverence for numbers undermines expertise as much as it supports it. These stories of numbers are inescapably human ones.”

Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

“In the confusing context of both the pandemic and global warming, this compelling book is a timely unraveling of the uses and abuses of statistical models, quantified measures, big data, and numerical targets. Limits of the Numerical paves the way for renewed scientific controversies and public debates on the work of quantification and its politics.”

Isabelle Bruno, University of Lille and Academic Institute of France (IUF)

Table of Contents

List of Figures, Tables, and Box
Introduction: The Changing Fates of the Numerical
Christopher Newfield, Anna Alexandrova, and Stephen John

Part I
Expert Sources of the Revolt against Experts
1. Numbers without Experts: The Populist Politics of Quantification
Elizabeth Chatterjee
2. The Role of the Numerical in the Decline of Expertise
Christopher Newfield

Part II
Can Narrative Fix Numbers?
3. Audit Narratives: Making Higher Education Manageable in Learning Assessment Discourse
Heather Steffen
4. The Limits of “The Limits of the Numerical”: Rare Diseases and the Seductions of Qualification
Trenholme Junghans
5. Reading Numbers: Literature, Case Histories, and Quantitative Analysis
Laura Mandell

Part III
When Bad Numbers Have Good Social Effects
6. Why Five Fruit and Veg a Day? Communicating, Deceiving, and Manipulating with Numbers
Stephen John
7. Are Numbers Really as Bad as They Seem? A Political-Philosophy Perspective
Gabriele Badano

Part IV
The Uses of the Numerical for Qualitative Ends
8. When Well-Being Becomes a Number
Anna Alexandrova and Ramandeep Singh
9. Aligning Social Goals and Scientific Numbers: An Ethical-Epistemic Analysis of Extreme Weather Attribution
Greg Lusk
10. The Purposes and Provisioning of Higher Education: Can Economics and Humanities Perspectives Be Reconciled?
Aashish Mehta and Christopher Newfield


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