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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.