The Triumph of Numbers by Bernard Cohen

The entire digital world in which we’re steeped, not to mention the power of technology and all modern convenience is all based on numbers. I Bernard Cohen’s ( book here shows how this relation to our world only developed gradually.

The author begins with the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which formulated the laws of nature as mathematical relationships and applied numerical tests to validate them. He continues to Florence Nightingale’s harnessing of her ‘passion for statistics’ to sanitation reform in the 19th century. In between, he chronicles the application of numbers to everything from medicine to demographics and the growing penchant of governments for collecting statistics and using them to guide policy.

Quantification spilled over in unexpected directions. One Enlightenment philosophe reduced ethics to an algebraic equation, and one statistician analyzed the quality of plays by the age of the playwright. The spread of statistics, Cohen shows, undermined belief in free will, fingered impersonal social conditions rather than individual agency for crime. The ‘average man’ began to appear as a construct in social thought, whilst the numerical elevation of ‘head’ over ‘heart’ inspired a backlash from critics like Dickens, whose Hard Times is a manifesto against the statistical way of life. Full of intriguing observations, this well-written, accessible study introduces us to intellectual debates that continue to dominate the modern era.

Check if this excellent thought provoking book is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at

224 pages in W.W. Norton & Co.

First published 2005

ISBN  978-0393057690

I. Bernard Cohen

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