The 18th-century prodigy Jedediah Buxton revealed himself to be the most calculating of theatre critics when he went to see a performance of Richard III. On being asked whether he had enjoyed this masterpiece of evil and corruption, his answer was short, sharp and reductive: there had been 5,202 steps during the dances and 12,445 words spoken by the actors. As an illiterate labourer who had been catapulted into polite society because his swift mathematical mind made him the Carol Vorderman of his time, his criticism by numbers was in one way far from surprising. But although his answer was impressively correct, it also raises obvious questions about the absurdity of a brain so numerically restricted that it had failed to grasp the significance of this disturbing mirror of human nature.
For anyone who finds themselves amused by this story, beware - in David Boyle's statistic-exploding The Tyranny of Numbers, Buxton's no doubt autistic response is cited as "a fearsome symbol" of our modern age. HarperCollins has timed the publication of this book perfectly: at a time when politicians are preparing to bombard us with blizzards of dehumanising statistics in the run up to the next general election, Boyle has decided to shine a spotlight on to how cold and insubstantial they really are. Despite the success of creative ventures such as Tate Modern or the Lowry Centre, he argues that our society is overwhelmingly obsessed with "scientific" figures that have wrongly become more real than reality: whether they are NHS waiting-list targets; libel awards; or pointless surveys like the University of Michigan study which "revealed" that children with a fondness for junk food and an aversion to exercise tend to be fatter. It is as if through measuring a phenomenon numerically, it can somehow be understood and brought under control - true to a point, but when numbers start hiding the human faces, the dangers of over-simplification and distortion loom large.
Art and creativity are strong recurring themes in this wide- ranging book, which leads the reader on a gently humorous dance through the lives of great thinkers and reformers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Edwin Chadwick and Charles Booth, who thought that numbers might be the measure of all men. In a cafe across the road from that familiar combination of painstaking measurement and spiritual inspiration, St Paul's Cathedral, Boyle admits it initially came as a surprise to him that he found himself returning repeatedly to our need to maintain an artistic vision. Citing the British poet, David Whyte, who runs courses in corporate America and has written a book called The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he explains how phenomena such as poetry at work, art in prisons and stories in the surgery are proving increasingly popular in the USA. And advocates of this more holistic approach in the UK, where "chopping problems up into neat pieces [and] measuring them" is rejected, find that the resulting trust and confidence among staff can boost profits.
Boyle explains how this need to maintain an essentially creative approach first leapt out at him when he was researching the origins of utilitarianism. "Once you start researching the life of Jeremy Bentham, you realise that it is an issue - the problems that he failed to grasp were about creativity and spirituality." Bentham famously believed it was possible to measure human happiness scientifically, but was dismissed by Marx as an "insipid, pedantic leather-tongued waste", and by Nietzsche as "overwhelmingly mediocre", and most overtly exposed his somewhat robotic mentality in a letter to Lord Holland, in which he described …