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The Sum of Our Discontent (Cloth): Why Numbers Make Us Irrational Hardcover – June 17, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The flood of numbers in the modern world often obscures more than enlightens, hence the demystifying classic How to Lie with Statistics and its progeny. But according to Boyle the problem is irremediable and fundamental. "[P]oliticians can't measure poverty, so they measure the number of people on welfare. Or they can't measure intelligence, so they measure exam results, or IQ. Doctors measure blood cells rather than health, and people all over the world measure money rather than love." Boyle revels in such broad indictments, damning entire professions for popular or politicized misperceptions, whose complex origins he reduces to numbers themselves and the influence of a few seminal figures Jeremy Bentham, Robert Malthus and Frederick Taylor primarily whose personal quirks loom far larger than the historical forces that shaped their thinking and made the world receptive to it. Boyle is more persuasive discussing Keynes and how his heuristic approach to macroeconomics became rigidified, undermining his original intentions, but even here he entirely ignores the political forces involved. Adding confusion, he occasionally approves some uses of numbers, calling for bringing "common sense to bear on the dead world of figures, so we can see patterns again," as if this wasn't the point of using numbers all along, from Pythagoras to Kepler to chaos theory. Chapters dealing with ethical investing, alternatives to conventional economic indicators and Edgar Cahn's "time dollars" further muddle matters. (June)Forecast: With a $50,000 promotional budget, the publisher plans national radio and TV campaign, national advertising, and a tie-in with author speaking engagements. But this title won't pose much competition for How to Lie with Statistics, still in print after all these years.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Boyle, a writer and journalist specializing in economics, feels that much of our difficulty in understanding economic and sociological problems can be traced to our attempts to describe complex systems by simple statistics. He points out that since most things in real life are multifaceted, one must almost automatically fail when trying to reduce such things to a single number. He also makes the very good points that what we choose to count tells us more than the result of the count, that many of our measurements are inaccurate, and, most importantly, that the measuring process affects the very things that we are trying to understand. However, whether our failures result from statistical oversimplification that may be correctable or from the inherent impossibility of the task is debatable. Boyle's book features short biographies, interesting in their own right, of people like Robert Malthus and John Maynard Keynes who have helped move us in the direction of greater quantification. For academic and larger public libraries. Harold D. Shane, Baruch Coll., CUNY
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Texere; 1 edition (June 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1587990601
  • ISBN-13: 978-1587990601
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #443,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
David Boyle has written an excellent book that would merit five stars were it not marred by a major misreading of the approach to probability,statistics,mathematical expectations,decision theory,and economics supported by John Maynard Keynes(Boyle,pp.131-149).Boyle has fallen for the canard that Keynes was against, or opposed to ,the use of measurement(quantification using numbers)in analysis or public policy except for very general descriptive statistics.Boyle appears to be basing his conclusions,not on what Keynes actually wrote,but on the confused and confusing claims of the historian,Robert Skidelsky.Skidelsky has no training in mathematics,probability or statistics.In fact,Skidelsky is basing his assessment of Keynes's views on quantification on the highly misleading and error filled reviews of Keynes's A Treatise on Probability(1921)written by F P Ramsey in 1922 and 1926.Supposedly,Keynes did not believe that numbers could be used to estimate probabilities except in very rare situations.The opposite is the case.Keynes's approach is that it takes two numbers,not one,to estimate a probability.Keynes is the founder of the interval estimate approach to the estimation of probabilities.The same conclusion would hold,obviously, for the calculation of mathematical expectations. Two expectations,a lower bound and an upper bound,would be required.Keynes supports the use of "inexact numerical approximation"(Keynes's own description of his approach made in chapter 15 of the TP)and not the use of exact,precise,definite single number answers which usually turn out,in economics and business analysis,to be exactly,precisely and definitely wrong.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Its obvious that Mr Boyle has issues with measurement, and anyone who has any background in to the history of measurement will fully recognize the issues that he is highlighting. Although perhaps he has overly sensationalized some of the issues, it is clear that measurement is not the cause of the problem, But the fact that people as a whole do not understand the power and limitation of measurement, and many want to use measurement as a substitute for intellectual capacity and as an absolution for bad ethical and improper decision making. Read this book to balance your view and you will understand that measurement is an important and invaluable tool that complements our other mental faculties, but it's important to have more than one tool in your toolkit!

The key paragraph in the book is at the beginning of Chapter IV. "...numbers are an absolutely vital tool for human progress. They mean we can test hypothesis, seek out the fraudulent and inefficient. They give us control over our unpredictable world ..", ".., but they are not the final answer, and they dull out good sense and intuition."
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By David C. Hill on June 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While Boyle dishes up some fascinating mini-biographies, and some solid (if sometimes poorly-organized and repetitive) examples of how, when we measure too much, we measure nothing completely and little of that well, the book falls apart toward the end, as we get to hear about how civilization will be saved if only we ... measure different things than what we're already measuring. The closer this book comes to the present, the more dated it feels.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A. G. Plumb on February 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I struggled to find this book under the alternative title 'The Tyranny of Numbers' of the HarperCollins edition that I read. But it was too good not to review.
OK, from a mathematician's point of view there is no proof here that numbers and counting will never make us happy. But the sequence of efforts described by Mr Boyle - from Jeremy Bentham to David Pearce - have all met the same fate. A definite improvement in our understanding of ourselves and our social condition (although not without serious misrepresentation too). But, in the end, there is always the realisation that the initial objectives - so powerfully believed in - are not achieved, that the shortcomings in each method of analysis leave us crying out for just another try. Will we ever tire of trying? Will we just give up and move on to other human endeavours?
As I read this book, and met historic characters I probably hadn't given a thought to since I did High School British History, I couldn't help thinking that there is another book to be written. 'The Tyranny of Bits: Why computers can't make us happy'. For all their achievements computers, like the tools of analysis described by Mr Boyle, can't help exposing their own shortcomings. But does the world - especially the politicians - know this yet? Computer output is so seductive - we desparately would like to have some sort of tool that will take away - reliably - some of our own fallible judgement that we so often have to rely on. As Mr Boyle shows it is not numbers that can do this - I suspect its not computers either.
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