Trust & Numbers: Part 1

Anjie Rosga
5 min readSep 12, 2019


This series of posts are based on a talk I delivered at Evaluation 2018 — a conference for evaluators and those supporting social sector organizations in understanding their work.

The series circles around four key terms: Trust, Power, Objectivity, and Truth. I’ll discuss some ways that numbers can function, first, as stand-ins for trust, second, as especially powerful ways to communicate evaluative findings and, third, as a means of representing a kind of disinterested, disembodied, god’s-eye view of objective truth. I’ll end the series on a note about love.

As I work my way through, I’d like you to keep four claims — or maxims — in mind:

It is important to speak truth to power.

Neither truth, nor power, is singular.

But some things are truer than others.

To speak truth(s) to power(s) in credible, persuasive ways, we must cultivate trust.

Before we dig into some of this more abstract territory in my next post for this series, I’ll begin with something more personal, and very much more embodied: a story about my brother Scott.

Scott was born unexpectedly early, 6 weeks premature, and weighing only two pounds. This was back when advanced NICU’s were, well, less advanced. It’s a lot more common now for preemies to survive. But then? It was miraculous he lived. Unfortunately, his survival came at the cost of severe neurological damage.

Scott had cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, a condition in which the fluid that normally protects the brain and spinal column, instead builds up inside the skull, generating painful and damaging pressure on the brain. To relieve this pressure, neurosurgeons installed a series of silicone shunts, or artificial valves, to move the fluid out of Scott’s head and into his abdomen.

Scott’s brain damage meant he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t get himself into a sitting position, though he could eventually hold himself up seated. He spent his days lying on a big pink blanket surrounded by toys and the sheets of newspaper, which he used to love to crinkle up in front of his face, giving himself an adorably ink-stained nose. Inevitably, after a few months, each shunt would fail, leading to increasingly frequent and severe seizures. As the painful pressure in his head built up, he would roll himself around the floor seeking out furniture to bang his head against.

Our mother threw herself into his full-time care. She taught my sister and me that Scott’s disabilities were just another form of human diversity. “Everyone has at least a little something that makes them ‘disabled,’” she’d say. “Just look at all the people who need glasses to fix their vision.”

One day, my mom took my brother for an eye exam and came home with a story that for many years shaped my understanding of my brother’s consciousness.

“You’ll never guess what happened,” she said. “The eye doctor said Scott is legally blind. Just as the doctor said that, Scott reached out and pulled the doctor’s glasses right off his face!”

And with this apocryphal tale, I came to believe my brother, far from being the profoundly brain damaged child who could do almost nothing for himself, was a kind of idiot savant. My heart swelled with pride in this brother of mine. Not only is he smarter than the doctor, I thought, but he had deeply cloaked super powers. Scott pulling the glasses from this doctor’s face seemed like the very definition of speaking non-verbal truth to power. Without uttering a word, my brother had not only proved the doctor wrong by showing that he could in fact see, but he had demonstrated the truth my mother spoke of: that disabilities are just a facet of human diversity.

At the time, no one in my family understood the distinction between blind-as-a-bat-blind, and “legally blind.” The doctor calling my brother “legally blind” was clearly mistaken or, worse, he was just lying. Much later, I learned that legal blindness is defined not by a total lack of vision, but by a number: 20/200.

If this is an eye chart as seen by someone with perfect 20/20 eyesight:

Then someone with legal blindness actually sees the eye chart like this:

What is the interpretive work that moves us from the numbers 20/200, to these images to, to the concept “legally blind”? That interpretive work is invisible.

Scott had his 13th and final surgery at age four; he lived another three years after that. I was 12 years old when he died. My sister was eight.

These numbers are facts. They can be documented. They are not in dispute. There is an agreed upon meaning for these numbers; they signify how many, how long. How many surgeries? How long a life? One source of the power of numbers is that they can mean the same thing to different people — regardless of language, geography, or culture. Their very abstractness makes numbers transferable. Numbers make the interpretation, discretion, and judgment behind them disappear: numbers are powerful in part because they render invisible the human choices that create them.

Numbers shield us from the perceived the illegitimacy of “mere anecdotes.” Yet, many of us still harbor doubts about the ability of numbers to represent the truth; hence this quote from Benjamin Disraeli, popularized by Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

I want to reassure those of us who’ve survived the tired quantitative vs. qualitative debates: this is not a screed against statistics. Rather these posts are a meditation on the role of trust and relationships in determining what gets to count as credible evidence in the field of evaluation. What gets to count as valid and reliable knowledge? Who gets to count as a credible purveyor of valid knowledge? And, for whom is evaluative knowledge valuable? In what ways?

In Part 2 of this series: How we came to trust numbers.