Numbers, Motives, and Rainbows: Let’s Try to Relate these Three Seemingly Unrelated Things, Shall We?

The original name of this post was “Lying with Numbers,” but for some reason that didn’t sound cool (or long?) enough. Anyway, while I was typing this post, the lines to Kermit’s Rainbow Connection kept playing through my mind. Here’s a link to the original from 1979.

Actually, that link might not work. And even if it does, it’s 3-and-a-half minutes long. So here are the lyrics:

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

“Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us star gazing
and what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

“All of us under its spell. We know that it’s probably magic.

“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

But I didn’t begin this post to talk explicitly (thought on retrospect, if we wanted to, I suppose we could still say that the ideas are implicit–but let’s not go there right now) about rainbows. Sure, some have chosen to believe that “Rainbows are . . . only illusions, and . . . have nothing to hide.” But I want to write about something else that “Somebody thought of . . . / and someone [else] believed.”

One of the things we’ve been told, often enough that we sometimes believe it, is the idea that “The numbers don’t lie,” or, it’s near equivalent, that “Numbers speak for themselves,” as if numbers were things that necessarily were honest all the time. Almost as if they were, well, pagan gods or something. But really? Gods? Numbers?

This is sort of what Plato believed. No, Plato didn’t think that numbers were the same thing as gods, but he does say in his Republic that numbers and mathematics at least lead us towards Truth, with a capital T, because numbers are abstract concepts, and we can’t see, hear, taste, or touch what the true “essence” of a number is. But I’m not here to either refute or support Plato. Whether or not numbers really do lead us towards Truth because they are purely symbolic and do not refer to anything that is specifically “here” is beyond the scope of this post (cf. Plotinus. Or not.). Whether or not Plato was right, numbers as we now have them certainly do not speak for themselves. Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.

No. They’re not gods, either. But god-terms, on the other hand? Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to say no to something that seems infallible.

But numbers, whatever they are, are used by human beings, and we know that human beings have motives, desires, passions, emotions, and attitudes. Human beings think and feel. Human beings are not computers, machines, or dictionaries, and when we see numbers, we would do well to remember that, as long as we’re mortal, there is always a person behind those numbers. Numbers do not speak (cf. Hoffman). Human beings speak, and human beings use numbers when they speak because numbers have a strong persuasive value behind them.

We see this a lot in advertising. We’re given numbers so that we’ll be persuaded to choose product A over product B.

Let’s look at an example, Gmail’s homepage. Here’s what it looks like:

This isn’t anything new; you’ve seen this before. But check out the left side of the screen:

There it is. The “Lots of space” thing is really interesting to me. But my picture doesn’t do it justice. Not only does it have a number that tells me how much space I get if I have a Gmail account, but on the actual website that number constantly counts up (while the picture says “Over 10329.002272 megabytes (and counting) of free storage,” when I look at the website right now it says 10329.007630–it’s counted up since I’ve taken that picture).

Of course, one might say that the number is just telling us things as they are–Google is simply just telling possible users how much free storage they get if they have a Gmail account, and that’s just the way things are. But if we look a bit deeper, we can see a motive behind behind the numbers–as long as there are mortals, there will always be a motive behind the numbers. Google wants people to use their services, so they put a number on their homepage as an attempt to persuade users. Google is certainly using numbers as a means of persuasion. Numbers are a powerful persuasive tool because they’re hard to disagree with.

Of course, it’s not just the number that is being used, but the fact that the number is constantly increasing. Sure, the number is probably accurate–why would Google want to lie to us? But by using a number that is constantly increasing, it’s as if Google wants to argue that by using their services, we’ll be using a service that is constantly improving, never stale, stagnant, or static. Dynamic. Since more is better, the service is always getting better all the time. By themselves, the numbers don’t (or wouldn’t) say this, but the human beings behind the numbers are using the numbers to say it.

I have nothing against Google, by the way. I’m using Blogger (which is owned by Google), and I also use Gmail. I just think their homepage is interesting.

I want to repeat what I said earlier, that numbers do not speak for themselves because there are human beings behind the use of numbers. Of course, if we could gather all the data in the universe then perhaps numbers really would speak for themselves. (After typing that sentence, I suddenly think it may have been more “correct” to write it in passive voice: “Of course, if all the data in the universe could be gathered, then perhaps numbers really would speak for themselves.”) But then, the infinite result would likely be impossible for our mortal minds to grasp, anyway. Unless we could become immortal. I believe there’s a way, but now I’m hinting on something that I didn’t intend to write about, so we’ll save that one for another day.

[Originally, I wanted to end this post on, “But then, the infinite result would likely be impossible for our mortal minds to grasp, anyway,” but I felt that it seemed a bit pessimistic, so I added the last two sentences. I don’t believe that humanity is doomed, nor do I think that death is the end. And I don’t know why I’m telling you that at the end of this post.]

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