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‘.
Lunch with the FT – Rebecca Solnit by Rana Foroohar in FT Weekend 10/11 February 2018
Desperate measures by Tim Harford in FT Weekend 27/28 February 2018
Muller JZ, The Tyranny of Metrics, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.
A few weeks ago we visited the Marks of Genius exhibition in the recently refurbished Weston Library which is part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is a remarkable exhibition with an overwhelming collection of riches in terms of manuscripts and rare books. You might expect to see a copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton. But one of the items that bowled me over was the original manuscript of ‘An Essay on Criticism’ written in Alexander Pope’s own hand and used by the printer to prepare the first edition in 1711. It was open at the first page and you could see Pope’s annotations and corrections. Pope instructed the printer to put the following lines at the top of the second page:
Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own
I think he would be astonished at our ability today, not only to believe but, to publish our judgments in blogs. We might have the technology to synchronise our time-keeping devices, whether they are watches or smart phones, but there is still a huge diversity of opinions.
The other item in the exhibition that fascinated me was an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen of a novel called ‘The Watsons‘. It is tempting to think that the prose written by great authors flows effortlessly onto the page. However, this was clearly not the case for Jane Austen as can be seen from the many crossings out and insertions in this handwritten manuscript. It should perhaps encourage my students who frequently have reports and manuscripts returned to them containing a similar level of my deletions and additions [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015].
The Bodleian Library has digitised the entire exhibition so you can see exactly what I have written about above by following the links to their website:
Alexander Pope’s manuscript
Jane Austen’s The Watsons manuscript