There is a growing feeling that our use of metrics is doing more harm than good. My title today is a mis-quote from Rebecca Solnit; she actually said ‘tyranny of the quantifiable‘ or perhaps it is combination of her quote and the title of a new book by Jerry Muller: ‘The Tyranny of Metrics‘ that was reviewed in the FT Weekend on 27/28 January 2018 by Tim Harford, who recently published a book called Messy that dealt with similar issues, amongst other things.
I wrote ‘growing feeling’ and then almost fell into the trap of attempting to quantify the feeling by providing you with some evidence; but, I stopped short of trying to assign any numbers to the feeling and its growth – that would have been illogical since the definition of a feeling is ‘an emotional state or reaction, an idea or belief, especially a vague or irrational one’.
Harford puts it slightly differently: that ‘many of us have a vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgment‘. Advances in sensors and the ubiquity of computing power allows vast amounts of data to be acquired and processed into metrics that can be ranked and used to make and justify decisions. Data and consequently, empiricism is king. Rationalism has been cast out into the wilderness. Like Muller, I am not suggesting that metrics are useless, but that they are only one tool in decision-making and that they need to used by those with relevent expertise and experience in order to avoid unexpected consequences.
To quote Muller: ‘measurement is not an alternative to judgement: measurement demands judgement – judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured, whether rewards and penalties will be attached to the results, and to whom to make the measurements available‘.