By and For Numbers: Meaningless Without Theory

We have always lived in interesting and challenging times, filled with reports of numbers indicating what is happening – life expectancy, births, deaths, and most likely millions of other numbers representing important and probably not so important events. Currently, we are living in what many people regard as an especially interesting and challenging time, with numbers about the coronavirus pandemic dominating news reported in the print, radio, television, and internet media. Most recently, numbers about climate change have taken almost center stage as the “hurricane season” occurs. .

I confess to checking the coronavirus pandemic numbers every day, especially for the state of Maine, where I live and now also work during this time of remote teaching and scholarly work. I also keep track of what is happening with hurricanes, which occasionally do make landfall along the coast of Maine and can create many tree downings and power outages, beach erosion, and flooding.

Numbers are perhaps especially important to researchers who conduct quantitative research to test hypotheses. Thinking of numbers within the context of hypothesis testing requires theoretical thinking. Thus, even if implicit, theory is paramount to the interpretation of numbers. Of course, it would be more significant if the numbers were interpreted using explicit theory.

It is, unfortunately, not unusual to read reports of hypothesis testing research conducted by nurses with no mention of any theory that might have guided the research and articulation of the hypothesis. Should we then assume that the researchers are not thinking theoretically? Or, are they unable or unwilling to tell readers what theory was used? As I wrote in a 2019 blog, it is impossible to think atheoretically. Why, then, are so many reports of numbers devoid of any theoretical perspective?

How are we to understand the meaning of numbers about the coronavirus pandemic or climate change without some theoretical perspective? I maintain that it is all nursologists’ responsibility to place all numbers in some theoretical context. For example, nursological conceptual models and theories about primary prevention provide understanding of the extent to which numbers for the coronavirus pandemic are or are not responding to primary prevention interventions (see In addition, all nursological conceptual models include attention to the environment, which could easily be extended to encompass the issues surrounding climate change (see my September 24, 2019 post). Furthermore, Nightingale’s theory provides an important nursological perspective for interpreting both pandemic and climate change numbers (see

Nightingales’ theoretical perspective of the importance of numbers and the environment is evident in that she “recognized the need to provide an environment conducive to recovery, [and] that data [i.e., numbers] can prompt innovation” (Hundt, 2020, p. 26), and that the effectiveness of theoretically-based innovations is supported by numbers. In particular, for all nursologists “advocating for public policy and conducting research, [theoretically-based numbers] help frame two questions: “How can we improve the health of our communities? Are our interventions making a difference?” (Hundt, 2020, p. 28).

Aula’s (2020) caution about “misplaced trust in numbers” underscores the importance of not only using theory to interpret numbers but also to be wiling to allow the numbers to support rejection of the current version of the theory. Willingness to reject the theory – or at least a hypothesis derived from the theory – is consistent with Popper’s (1965) philosophy of science, which indicates that rejection of the theory leads to a better theory.

“May you live in interesting times” (Wikipedia, 2020) is a widely used saying that may or may not be a positive wish—perhaps it is better to wish to live in uninteresting times that are characterized by tranquility and harmony. I would like to paraphrase a positive interpretation of the saying and offer the wish that all of us may always live in nursological theoretical times and always interpret numbers within the context of nursological theory.


Aula, V. (2020, May 15). The public debate around COVID-19 demonstrates our ongoing and misplaced trust in numbers.

Hundt, B, (2020), Reflections on Nightingale in the year of the nurse. American Nurse Journal, 15(5), 26-29.

May you live in interesting times (2020, June 3), In Wikipedia.

Popper, K. R. (1965). Conjectures and refutation: The growth of scientific knowledge. Harper Torchbooks.

6 thoughts on “By and For Numbers: Meaningless Without Theory

  1. Thanks for this post: By and For Numbers: Meaningless Without Theory
    Indeed, it is impossible to think a-theoretically. As nurses, we can rethink connecting to valuable nursing models and theories.
    Maria Müller Staub

  2. Thank you Dr. Fawcett for bringing attention to revisioning the concept of environment, including climate collapse and the importance of nurse theorizing about numbers in the pandemic and beyond. I would also propose that nursology driven theory to address improving the health of communities include critical analyses of our current theories, building on foundations and assumptions of antiracism as the numbers continue to reveal deeper and deeper inequities in both areas–health implications of climate injustice and in pandemic mortality.
    I am inspired by the upcoming series of chats hosted by @NURSEMANIFEST
    Overdue Reckoning on Racism in Nursing
    I also hope that curriculums in nursing education and that the academy in general will continue to hold space for thinking, theorizing, debating and writing about these important topics. Thank you for the post. Peace.

  3. Jane, Thank YOU For your comment. I hope that nursologist educators rise to the challenge of creating curricula that include a great deal of attention to inequities and the impact of environment on wellbecoming. Best regards, Jacqui Jacqueline Fawcett

  4. I mourn the demise of nursing knowledge and the theory we develop. I, too, read literature and wonder, “Where does this come from?” I think it may be from abandoning our own discipline in favor of medicine: making medical diagnoses and prescribing drugs has become the new nursing aim. We can reach much higher.

  5. Thank you very much for your comment about the demise of nursing knowledge. As long as we refer to nursing judgments as diagoses (knowledge of diseases), we are following the lead of the trade of medicine (medicine has no distinctive knowledge, so cannot be considered a profession or discipline). Why nurses (who do have distinctive knowledge, as evident in the content of and, therefore, is a profession and disciple). Why we would want to do that is a major question for me–perhaps Carol Anderson was correct (in a several years ago editorial in Nursing Outlook) that nurse tolerate being oppressed. Perhaps we receive secondary gains from playing the role of victim????
    Myra Levine indicated that the correct word for nursing judgments if trophicognois–we need to get this word into our regular language.
    Why should nurses prescribe medications? Pharmacists and pharmacologists are the healthcare team members with the most complete and accurate knowledge of medications
    We certainly can reach much higher!!!!

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