A basic human tendency in our culture is to enumerate our experiences. Because people attempt to abstract those elements that they recognize as repeatable, they often end by describing their experiences in terms of “how much” or “how many.” This tendency to attach numbers to observations of everyday life, however, has some inherent dangers.
The tendency to oversimplify is one danger. Another is to imagine that experience can be accumulated, as if one experience is equal to another. Yet another danger occurs when we enumerate the characteristics and experiences of others. In other words, in describing other people numerically, we summarize their experiences, characteristics, and behaviors in terms of linear scales. A fourth danger is that we forget to look at human beings and look instead at quantities.
Numbers, best thought of as symbols or as abstract concepts, are a very useful device. When we assign a numerical value to some event, behavior, observation, or pattern of tick marks on an answer sheet, we are symbolically representing a human process. Counting may be done mechanically or electronically, but the schema is an extension of the thought process of some person or persons. Numbers can be talked about; manipulated statistically and arithmetically; and seen in an abstract, conceptual way. The primary value of numbers, then, is to extrapolate from and summarize
In practice, however, there is a tendency to assign more value to our numbering than to the quality of human interaction needed to solve social problems. The logic of numbers is not the syntax of human experience, even though ample evidence exists that we treat people as though they were numbers. People who feel that they are being subjected to such inhumanity are almost uniformly offended by it. When a person feels that he or she has been treated with less dignity than that accorded to punched cards, that person usually feels helplessness and bitterness.
People are not numbers, but their experiences can, nevertheless, to a degree, be collected, accumulated, and used as a basis for prediction. The important humanistic consideration is that in using numbers we not violate the integrity of the people whose human experience we are abstracting.