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How Do We Know What Our Measurements Mean?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 27, 2011
How Can Happiness and Community Be Quantified?

We have sophisticated ways of measuring physical dimensions, weight, bulk, cost, time, and speed, the real objects and properties tracked by governments and businesses. We have a harder time measuring intelligence, health, welfare, and happiness.


Robert P. Crease, a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University, says in a splendid New York Times article "Measurement and Its Discontents" that confusion about measurement seems to be a characteristic of modern life.


"Ontic" measuring, which Crease says tells how big or small something is, was named for the word philosophers apply to real objects and properties. Then there's another kind of measuring he calls "ontological," after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists. He says it's a kind of measurement Plato called "fitting," and it's a complex experience rather than something we do with a scale, ruler or clock.


He notes Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens's Hard Times is one of the many modern literary characters who illustrate the dark side of wrong-headed measurement. He tries to reduce all human nature to segments and quantities, but makes a mess of his own life. Crease alludes to the popular and interesting website The Quantified Self, which provides tools for amassing minute data on every aspect of daily life. We tend to measure intelligence by IQ, and educational effectiveness by test score.


The lopsided focus of ontic measuring, he suggests, "leaves us disappointed and frustrated, drowned in carefully calibrated details." He says we need to continually ask how wise we are in choosing instruments of measurement and interpreting the findings.


In another provocative New York Times article about measurement, Redefining the Meaning of No. 1, author David J. Rothkopf raises more issues. For one thing, he thinks Americans are "more interested in finishing first than we are in figuring out what race we ought to be in." He says some of the metrics we rate as most important, such as the G.D.P., and financial data, are not only flawed but dangerous distractions. He asserts "markets are oceans of teaming emotions that make the average hormone-infused high school look calmly rational, and much of the 'data' that moves markets is just bunk."

The economist Simon Kuznets warned decades ago that measurement of national income can't describe the welfare of a nation. While we focus on G.D.P., Rothkopf writes, median American incomes have fallen seven percent since 1999, and incomes of the top one percent of the population have gained dramatically. Nearly one in four kids live in poverty and unemployment is high.


He quotes economist Carol Graham as saying happiness is a more complicated concept than income, but a laudable policy. She notes different approaches to happiness, with some societies focusing on equal opportunity and others more on contentment. Rothkopf says Graham is among many thinkers who believe we need to rethink how we measure performance and set goals.


Rothkopf writes that the British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Columbia economist Jeffrey D. Sachs are among those studying that issue. One compelling example of the effort is the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which since 1972 has set a goal of raising the Gross National Happiness. A spokesman for the Center for Bhutan Studies says the people's happiness does not rest on the nation's economic wealth, but on the notion of wholeness embedded in Buddhist culture. According to the website the G.N.H. is based on assessment of psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, living standards, time use, community vitality, and good governance. It is tracked through a survey of 1,300 people done twice a year by the center. Many scholars think a G.H.N. could be helpful in non-Buddhist countries if the assessment were culturally adjusted.


Adam Kramer, a University of Oregon psychologist, has developed a G.N.H. model based on positive and negative words used in 100 million Facebook social status updates anonymously gathered over two years. Read the New York Times account of his work here.


Note: Gradgrind, forced to re-evaluate his life, made his facts and figures subservient to faith, hope and charity.

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