The true mystery of the word is the visible, not the invisible.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Who is Penumbra ?
“…That makes nearly ten years now, that we have been gradually building this non-institutional space with a multifaceted name, Penumbra, which now counts some 500 members. It is a collective and perfectly empirical attempt to shed some light on the social life of numbers in public debate, with the deliberate intention of not being simple observers, but rather to influence the quality of democratic exchanges in our country. We do this through journals (a White Letter and a Gray Letter), a book (Chiffres en folie), whose title may be translated as ‘Number follies’, an Internet homepage (run out of Lausanne), participation in television and radio programs, ad hoc study groups and public forums (Penumbra’s late-night meetings).
Our motto, adopted from the first, is “One’s own turpitude is never something to boast of”. Specialists are encouraged not to hide in the shadowy area of the constraints attached to their discipline, their job or their position in the hierarchy. They are invited to leave their “natural” environment, and to put their profession’s customs aside, at least temporarily. Our equation is : support differences, multiply viewpoints and eliminate sterile divisions. The association’s activities, including writing, discussions in groups, large or small, reacting publicly to current social-political and/or media-created issues as well as ‘pro-active’ initiatives, are intense, playful and increasingly visible. Whenever possible, Penumbra attempts to steer wide of the austerity that usually characterizes scientific work and quantitative approaches in particular. Seducing people who “don’t like figures” – as well as those who do – sometimes requires humor, a touch of the literary, and sometimes even recourse to fiction.
The chances are that the problems encountered by the twosome formed by producers and consumers of statistics in other countries with different social, political and/or geographic contexts probably have much in common. Initiatives similar to Penumbra probably exist in other parts of the world. It is our hope, then, that this Seoul conference of the International Statistical Institute will provide us with an opportunity to learn about them, and perhaps to develop others.”
Pierre V. Tournier
Seoul, ISI 53rd session
Penumbra, 2001 June