Paper pub. date
October 2015
ISBN 9780870717765 (paperback)
ISBN 9780870717772 (ebook)
6 x 9, 272 pages. 40 B&W Photographs and Illustrations. Notes. References. Index.

Numbers and Nerves

Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data

Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic
Preface by Robert Michael Pyle

We live in the age of Big Data, awash in a sea of ever-expanding information—a constant deluge of facts, statistics, models, and projections. The human mind is quickly desensitized by information presented in the form of numbers, and yet many important social and environmental phenomena, ranging from genocide to global climate change, require quantitative description.

The essays and interviews in Numbers and Nerves explore the quandary of our cognitive responses to quantitative information, while also offering compelling strategies for overcoming insensitivity to the meaning of such information. With contributions by journalists, literary critics, psychologists, naturalists, activists, and others, this book represents a unique convergence of psychological research, discourse analysis, and visual and narrative communication.

At a time of unprecedented access to information, our society is frequently stymied in its efforts to react to the world’s massive problems. Many of these problems are systemic, deeply rooted in seemingly intransigent cultural patterns and lifestyles. In order to sense the significance of these issues and begin to confront them, we must first understand the psychological tendencies that enable and restrict our processing of numerical information.

In the past two decades, cognitive science has increasingly come to understand that we, as a species, think best when we allow numbers and nerves, abstract information and experiential discourse, to work together. This book provides a roadmap to guide that collaboration. It will be invaluable to scholars, educators, professional communicators, and anyone who struggles to grasp the meaning behind the numbers.



Homero Aridjis
Betty Aridjis
Rick Bass
Annie Dillard
Paul Farmer

Kenneth Helphand
Chris Jordan
Nicholas Kristof
Robert J. Lifton
Marcus Mayorga
Bill McKibben
Greg Mitchell
Robert Michael Pyle
Vandana Shiva
Paul Slovic
Scott Slovic
Sandra Steingraber
Daniel Västfjäll
Terry Tempest Williams

About the author

Scott Slovic is professor of literature and environment and chair of the English Department at the University of Idaho. The author, editor, or coeditor of twenty-two books, he served as founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and has edited ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment since 1995. His other recent books include Currents of the Universal Being: Explorations in the Literature of Energy and Ecocriticism of the Global South.  

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Paul Slovic is president of Decision Research and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He studies human judgment, decision making, and the psychology of risk. He is past president of the Society for Risk Analysis and in 1991 received its Distinguished Contribution Award. In 1993, he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, and in 1995 he received the Outstanding Contribution to Science Award from the Oregon Academy of Science.

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"We live in a world of cascading information. Data crash all over us like detached avalanches or unhinged landslides. We have always sought to organize chaos. Otherwise we simply cannot cope. Father and son Paul and Scott Slovic have produced a set of challenging essays and fascinating interviews with artists, activists, and writers. These indicate that we are prone to numb our moral sensitivities and emotional outreach when confronted with too much despair among others..."

Tim O'Riordan, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development

"Numbers and Nerves is a book worth reading, which well informs the reader of some of our most frustrating psychological limitations to responding adequately to large numerical data. These psychological mechanisms are examined and demonstrated well in Part I. Although Part II and Part III are more tentative, they do actively bring the reader into a conversation around what may very well be the most important questions of our time: Why are we not responding as we should to large numbers which quantify human suffering and environmental collapse? And how, then, might we work around these limitations?"

- Anne M. W. Kelly, Scholar Commons

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