Our world swirls with percentages, ratios, and graphs. These numbers are often presumed to be objective reflections of reality. But they are not. To measure a human-designed society requires human-designed measures, with all attendant foibles folded into them. Interpreting what statistics can and cannot tell us is crucial. Understanding why they were poked and prodded into being measured that way is just as significant, if not more so. Through examples, we see how subjectivity seeps into every aspect of measurement.

Chaitra H. Nagaraja is an associate professor of statistics at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University and author of Measuring Society, a history of government statistics. She currently chairs the American Statistical Association’s Scientific and Public Affairs Advisory Committee and is the book review editor for the International Statistical Review. Previously, she was a research mathematical statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau working primarily on the American Community Survey. Over the summer, she will be joining the mathematics faculty at the University of Exeter in the UK.