William Deringer

Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

William Deringer is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society. He received his doctorate in the History of Science from Princeton University, where his research focused on the history of economic knowledge. From 2012 -' 15, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University, before joining the MIT faculty in 2015. He is particularly interested in the history of the social sciences, in historical and social studies of finance, and in the role of numbers in politics and public discourse.

Deringer's first book, Calculated Values: Financial Politics and the Quantitative Age, 1688-1776 (in progress), is a political history of numerical objectivity: the idea that numbers never lie or, as one early-modern accountant put it in 1718, that "Truth and Numbers are always the same." Calculated Values argues that a pervasive, public reverence for "facts and figures" first emerged in Great Britain following the Revolution of 1688, amidst bitter partisan debates about public finance. It explains how a common belief in the honesty and disinterestedness of numbers grew, accidentally, out of a political culture in which calculators used numbers to do cynical and highly interested things. In doing so, Calculated Values explores the entwined histories of modern numerical trust and numerical distrust-of the idea that numbers never lie and that there are, in fact, only three kinds of lies: "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

For his second book, Deringer plans to look at the very long history of a single computational problem: present value, the problem of determining what future property out to be worth today. (How much would you pay today in exchange for $100 a year from now? Ten years? One hundred years?) Over the past three centuries, one preeminent technique for solving that problem - exponential discounting-has become perhaps the single most important calculation in modern economic life. It is also a calculation that encodes a powerful and sometimes disconcerting view of the future, with peculiar implications for how we think about economic value, public welfare, intergenerational ethics, and rationality. It is a calculation that has only gained more significance, and scrutiny, amid contemporary debates about the present costs of climate change. That project is tentatively titled Discounting: A History of the Modern Future in One Calculation. Deringer's other research interests include the history and epistemology of financial bubbles, the history of computational technologies in 20th-century finance (from stock-price charts to spreadsheet software to the HP-12c calculator), and the history of forensic accounting.

Deringer received his A.B. summa cum laude in History from Harvard University (2006) and his M.A. (2009) and Ph.D. (2012) in History of Science from Princeton University, with a stint as an investment banking analyst at the Blackstone Group in New York in between. At Princeton, he was awarded the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton's highest honor for graduate students.