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Commentary

Words and numbers

/ 12:05 AM February 17, 2015

They go hand in hand, words and numbers, the two fundamental constituents of expression—meaning information and thought. They are inseparable in our everyday lives, and in this essay I explore the insights we can gain by thinking of them as separate entities and looking at how they have figured in our past and our present.

How exactly language originated is a long-running scholarly debate, but many scholars, like anthropologist Roy Rappaport, agree that language has been there from the very beginning. Others have implicated the emergence

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of language in the development of modern Homo sapiens.

Numbers have a more traceable genealogy. The Romans grappled with an unwieldy system of counting that still adorns some of our buildings today. The invention of “zero,” by the Babylonians, was a significant breakthrough, and culminated in the Hindi-Arabic system that we use today: an elegant system based on decimals that allow us to express billions and beyond.

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The sophistication of numbers has paralleled the sophistication of societies themselves. In some “primitive” societies, there are only three numbers: one, two and many. But with our far larger communities, bigger populations, and more resources, our numerical system allows us to deal with things on a larger scale.

Today, numbers are more important than ever before, but as I will illustrate in the following examples, it has not always been for

the better.

Consider the way our students are graded. In the past, report cards were literally “reports,” expressed in words tailored to describe an individual student’s performance. But as Ambeth Ocampo—who, in a recent

column in the Inquirer, wrote about how detailed Rizal’s report cards were—observed, “Our schools today send out report cards to parents that merely reflect a grade but do not detail progress, or the lack of it.”

This has led to the phenomenon of “grade consciousness.” Students can focus on areas with a higher percentage and pay less attention to the rest. When something is “not graded,” it is not worth the effort. Thus, it is conceivable to skip classes and just review for the exam, because that’s all that matters. The spirit of grade consciousness emphasizes ends rather than means.

In medicine, the quantification of illness also has some bad consequences. The advent of laboratory tests has caused many physicians to rely on them more than patients’ histories for diagnosis and treatment. Patients’ own feelings are seen as “anecdotal” and not given too much credence, ignoring the fact that a patient’s narratives are not just diagnostic but

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also cathartic and therefore therapeutic. This has led many medical school professors to admonish: “Don’t treat the laboratory values, treat the patient!”

Arguably, patients themselves have sought to quantify measures of wellness. We “measure” healthy according to the inches of waistline and kilos of body weight. Beauty, too, has not escaped quantification. Watch beauty pageants and you will see contestants’ height and vital statistics. Opening up the body as something to be “measured” risks creating uniform standards of beauty instead of celebrating its diverse forms.

Government officials often fall in the same trap. When President Aquino was criticized in the aftermath of Typhoon “Yolanda” for insisting on a lower death toll, he was thinking in terms of numbers, not of the incalculable tragedy that faced the nation. Such numbers as 7.9 percent or 6.1 percent are good GDP “growth rates,” but they do not do justice to the millions who have yet to benefit from the hoped-for “inclusive growth.”

In exchange for the need to quantify, what have we lost? Numbers have allowed us to grapple with the complexity of modern society, but I would argue that thinking in terms of numbers has stripped us of the ability to

capture and convey the richness and depth of human experience.

To be sure, numbers have an indispensable, invaluable place in our lives. But we must be mindful that words should not be left behind. We must (re)learn the importance of telling and listening to stories: of our students’ progress, of our patients’ feelings, of our people’s struggles. In the academe, this should inspire qualitative studies in fields that deal with human experience. Moreover, we should recognize that this tension is not in the academe alone, but in society at large.

For when grades become more important than learning, when laboratory results become more meaningful than what the patient says, when beauty itself is a matter of body shapes and measures, when success is measured by statistics, and when decreasing poverty rates mean more than stories and faces of poverty, then something is gravely amiss.

Indeed, a society is in trouble when numbers are greater than words.

Dr. Gideon Lasco is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and a mountaineer. He is working on his PhD in medical anthropology in Amsterdam.

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TAGS: column, Gideon Lasco, information, Language, numbers, thought, Words
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