A t a dinner with the American ambassador in 2007, Li Keqiang, future premier of China, said that when he wanted to know what was happening to the country’s economy, he looked at the numbers for electricity use, rail cargo and bank lending. There was no point using the official GDP statistics, Li said, because they are ‘man-made’. That remark, which we know about thanks to WikiLeaks, is fascinating for two reasons. First, because it shows a sly, subtle, worldly humour – a rare glimpse of the sort of thing Chinese Communist Party leaders say in private. Second, because it’s true. A whole strand in contemporary thinking about the production of knowledge is summed up there: data and statistics, all of them, are man-made.
They are also central to modern politics and governance, and the ways we talk about them. That in itself represents a shift. Discussions that were once about values and beliefs – about what a society wants to see when it looks at itself in the mirror – have increasingly turned to arguments about numbers, data, statistics. It is a quirk of history that the politician who introduced this style of debate wasn’t Harold Wilson, the only prime minister to have had extensive training in statistics, but Margaret Thatcher, who thought in terms of values but argued in terms of numbers. Even debates that are ultimately about national identity, such as the referendums about Scottish independence and EU membership, now turn on numbers.