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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Tyranny of Measurement

Let us say that you are an anthropologist who has found a people who were obsessed over everything green.  They paid great to anything green they could spot in their vicinity, watering it, feeding it, cleaning it, maintaining it, as appropriate. This is extraordinary to you, as all of the grey buildings, their brown animals, their red flowers, and so on, and completely neglected. When you point this out to them, they tell you, "You are being irrational! Naturally enough, if all of the green things are getting better, we must assume everything else is as well!"

They have a cult of greenness, and the very thing that is making everything that isn't green get worse, their fixation on what is green, they believe to be also the best way to attend to non-green things.

Well, Western Civilization has been increasingly caught up in a cult of measurement for the last 400 years. BUt, I have learned it is irrational to think that being fixated on what can be measured might lead us to neglect what can't be: instead, paying no attention to what can't be measured is the very way to insure it improves!

10 comments:

  1. Ah, but if you had added the phrase "Bayesian priors" to your initial description, then the green-loving people would seem sophisticated and your analogy would fall apart.

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  2. How can you know what improvement is unless you can perceive change? And, if you can perceive that change, does that count as a measurement?

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    1. Well, Ryan's thesis is about numeric measurement. If I merely perceive that, e.g., my relationship with my friend is getting better, that would hardly count.

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  3. Refutation by doubt. How sophisticated, Gene.

    I say "probably," you say "COUNTEREXAMPLE" and "NOT NECESSARILY."

    And I think "okay?" and wonder how hard you are trying to miss the point.

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    Replies
    1. Not doubt, Ryan. I've showed your thesis is not probable, as you claim, but extremely improbable.

      However, as Bob said, I missed on the opportunity to put "Bayesian priors" in my post, at which point you would have immediately quadrupled your sophistication estimate of the post.

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    2. You provide one particular circumstance where I would agree with you factors other than the ones I point to are probably more important.

      Okay?

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    3. But that particular circumstance illustrates a general principle: by fixating on one category of thing, other things are likely to get worse, not better. And there is no reason to think this should be different when the category is "Things you can measure."

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  4. That is a really odd post. Am I misunderstanding, or at the end is he saying that everybody knows that EVERYTHING is getting better, so obviously entertainment must be also? This would be amusing, because for a utilitarian subjective happiness and satisfaction are extremely important (which would explain the importance of entertainment in understanding everything else). Yet subjectively we are in general miserable (or on drugs) and getting more so. The only way we can carry on is by thinking about life without technology, a life which most think wouldn't be worth living. So this must be progress.

    This is a more general statement of the problem created by monetizing EVERYTHING, thinking if it doesn't have a price tag, it has no value.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, just so, Gabe. We can stand the increasing misery because, "Hey, life expectancy has gone up, and now we have two cars instead of one!"

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    2. I was just reading a post by a world traveler who was saying Americans are the most unhappy people he has encountered anywhere on the planet.

      But hey, we have more stuff we can measure, so we MUST be happier!

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