RECAP: “Victorians & Numbers,” End of Year Colloquium w/ KICD Senior Fellow Lawrence Goldman

While April was a month of conferences and seminars—including an April 29 send-off MRSEAH for longtime friend of the Kinder Institute and former KICD Distinguished Visitor Dan Mandell, who retired from Truman State in May—there was no way the spring semester was ending without one last Friday colloquium. And who better to close the term than Kinder Institute and St. Peter’s College (Oxford) Senior Fellow Lawrence Goldman, in town, among other things, for a May 6 presentation on his 42-years-in-the-making magnum opus, Victorians and Numbers: Statistics and Society in Nineteenth Century Britain, published in February 2022 by Oxford University Press.

Explaining why a project so long in the works found itself completed over the last two years, Prof. Goldman highlighted two aspects of the pandemic that intersected with his work. For one, we’ve spent our recent lives inundated with data, validating it, in a way, as a subject worth writing a history of. He also cited how the heightened racial concerns of 2020 and beyond underscore a certain tension in his work. Some of the figures who come up late in his book—Francis Galton and Sir Ronald Fisher—were very much on the wrong side of this history. At its origin point, however, the statistical revolution he examines was a liberal, universalist project, animated by social reform, progress, and environmentalism.

Of the five visages that don the cover of his book, each of whose legacies he would touch on, four attended the 1860 Festival of Statistics in London, a hugely invested in gathering of cutting edge minds that was the talk of the town for over a week (some, without proof, have deemed it the first single-subject, disciplinary conference in British history). But why a Festival of Statistics? Why in Britain? The answers, Prof. Goldman argued, lie in the “avalanche of numbers” from the 1820s-30s that emerged part-and-parcel with the development of commercial and industrial society; widespread demographic change; a more professional public administration; and the growth of science and independent intellectual life. We can, he continued, more precisely trace the dawn of this so-called statistical moment—which coincided with the end of the ‘Ancien Regime’—through a series of legislative acts passed by the newly-in-power reformist Whigs. The Great Reform Act of 1832, which began the democratization of British politics by redistributing parliamentary seats from the overrepresented South to the underrepresented industrial North, depended on data that could justify redrawing the electoral map. The Emancipation Act of 1833—notorious for the compensation paid to enslavers—required numerically-intense census work. And finally, the Civil Registration Act of 1836 led to the creation of the General Register’s Office, inaugurally headed by William Farr, one of Prof. Goldman’s cover portraits, whose work compiling statistics related to birth and death rates was instrumental to the success of subsequent public health reform.

And with such legislation came the rise of various forms of statistical societies. The Manchester Statistical Society was formed by cotton capitalists in 1833, not with a liberal intellectual agenda but rather a mission to protect free trade and profit, though a proper system of elementary education did result from their efforts. The Statistical Society of London (now the Royal Statistical Society) followed in 1834 as politicians’, lawyers’, and civil servants’ response to the state’s burgeoning need for bureaucratic expertise (or, alternately, in response to the presence of “Whigs and Lords in abundance”). Predating them all, however, was the London Statistical Society, founded in 1825 by central figures in the inductivist push to use numbers in the field of natural science: the great networker William Whewell; the great astronomer John Herschel; economists Richard Jones, a theorist of surplus value celebrated to this day by Marxists, and James Kay-Shuttlesworth, author of The Moral and Physical Conditions of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in London (a fore-text to Engels); and Charles Babbage, who also graces the cover of Victorians and Numbers and who attempted to build the first mechanical computer.

Through these and other figures—importantly including the artisan statisticians of the day who were attempting to manipulate numbers in their favor—the liberal, universalist outlines of the statistical moment start to become clear. As for those artisans, the work of watchmaker John Powell, for example, inspired the London Statistical Society to publish his findings in Statistical Illustrations of the Territorial Extent and Population: Commerce, Taxation, Consumption, Insolvency, Pauperism and Crime in the British Empire, which greatly served the interests and helped improve the conditions of the working class. Soon after, shipwright and fellow statistician John Gast founded the General Association of Trades and led the first successful labor strike in British history, inspiring Iorwerth’s seminal Artisans and Politics in Early-Nineteenth Century London: John Gast and His Times. Returning to the luminaries on the cover of his book, Prof. Goldman described how Babbage and his pupil-slash-expositor Ada, Countess of Lovelace’s work to build an analytical engine not only anticipated the modern computer but was also driven by a desire to provide relief from—and thus make progressive use of—the overwhelming incumbrance of numerical data. “How many precious observations remain practically barren for the progress of the sciences,” Ada wrote in her 1843 “Sketch of the Analytical Engine,” “because there are not powers sufficient enough for computing the results.” Florence Nightingale, inspired by the work of Belgian sociologist L. A. J. as well as her experience in the Crimean War, deployed social statistics toward a form of modern nursing insistent on health and welfare reform. “God,” Nightingale declared, “dwelt in the Numbers.” And though more figurehead than quantitative innovator, Albert, Prince Consort—husband of Queen Victoria—delivered the keynote address at the 1860 Festival of Statistics, one of the greatest ever on social reform and modern data methodologies.

The movement, though, wasn’t without its failures, detractors, and manipulators. Among the failures, Henry Thomas Buckle’s attempt to craft a data-driven, scientific History of Civilization in England fell prey to determinism, while Dr. John Simon’s environmental research on housing, nutrition, poverty, and disease in mid-Victorian England lacked the proper scientific basis necessary to actually achieve its goals. Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Thomas Carlyle were included among the politicians and cultural notables who satirized and led an assault on a world made numerical that they believed un-humanizes us (while Twain wasn’t quoting Disraeli with “Lies, damn lies and statistics,” he may as well have been). And then there was Galton, whose use of anthropometric data in service of his interest in artificial selection moved him beyond the study of genetic inheritance and toward the eugenical belief in human perfectibility: “the science and practice,” he wrote, “of improving the human stock.”

Like so many movements of its kind in the 19th century, Prof. Goldman noted in closing, the statistical moment was by no means contained to one side of the Atlantic. Union Army Major and early Black Nationalist Martin Delany, for example, was also at the 1860 Festival of Statistics, where he applauded leading British abolitionist Henry Brougham’s public decrying of the U.S.—and former Polk Vice President George Mifflin Dallas, in attendance as well—for remaining a slaveholding nation. Frederick Farr, son of the aforementioned William Farr and an embodiment of the liberal politics at the heart of the statistical movement, stowed away to Portland, ME, and joined the Maine Cavalry during the Civil War. The younger Farr was himself a statistic—one of 19 of his company to die in a Confederate prison camp—and in writing to Edward Jarvis, President of the American Statistical Association, after emancipation, his father noted how the younger Farr “would have rejoiced had he lived to see these days.” Jarvis, too (a pattern is forming, it would seem), was at the 1860 Festival in London, and after his return to the States founded the American Social Science Association to address the “three great matters” that occupied him most: insanity, mortality, and statistics. Regarding some historians’ exceptionalist narrative that Jarvis roots the origins of social science in the United States, Prof. Goldman declared “balderdash,” as it was his trip to Europe to explore British statistical models, and the many other exchanges like it, that best tell this story.