Another evolving project takes my existing research on administrative dysfunction and energy policy in a comparative direction. As part of an interdisciplinary project on “The Limits of the Numerical,” I have been working with a team of climate researchers at UChicago and collaborators in Cambridge (on healthcare) and UC Santa Barbara (higher education) to understand the effects of numerical quantification in political, social, and ethical terms.
From the 2ºC climate target to the weekly £350 million promised by the “Brexit bus,” numbers are ubiquitous in contemporary politics. Existing scholarship stresses the rationalizing role that numbers play as tools of measurement and discipline. Yet 2ºC, the Brexit bus, and the persistently missed targets I observed in India do not fit this pattern: they were not technocratic attempts to reflect the world, but emerged in a far more haphazard and political fashion.
My new project Imaginary Numbers examines the political deployment of numbers as rhetorical rather than rationalizing tools. I have begun to develop “biographies” of climate targets in India, the United Nations, the United States, and Britain, alongside analysis of the populist numbers of the Brexit and 2016 American presidential campaigns. I plan to bring these strands together into a book-length treatment, comparing climate targets to immigration and economic growth targets. My hypothesis is that “irrational” or “imaginary” numbers are more significant than the literature recognizes—and not only in the “low-capacity” Global South or in the hands of populists. Such numbers are deployed as cheap signals of political intent, I suggest, but their detachment from technical expertise comes at the cost of clarity in implementation, and of a loss of popular trust. As with my India-focused work, the project uses humanistic approaches to shed new light on persistent policy underperformance, and to draw unexpected connections about the challenges to liberal democracy in the Global North and South.
I am the co-recipient of a Faculty Research Award from the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium to develop this research. A theoretical paper from this project that I co-authored with the philosopher Greg Lusk, “Reasonable Doubt: Deliberation, Unreliable Experts, and the Problem of Public Ignorance,” is at the revise-and-resubmit stage.