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Quantify this

Rob Rix argues that there is more to life than numbers

Our society seems to be in the midst of an effort to quantify at all costs, to try to explain and justify everything in terms of statistics. And frankly, I’m not buying it.

Although I am looking forward to technically being able to call myself a scientist, I think the prevalence of quantitative analysis in politics, and in general, may have come just a little bit too far. Trying to capture the complex and varied web of interactions at the heart of most interesting political phenomena in the form of regression models and coefficients is intuitively unsettling to me. While I accept that such methods can often provide concrete evidence for our theories, they can also lead to oversimplified and misleading conclusions.

It seems like such an easy solution to stick a number on something and say we understand it, but it is just not reality

So what is behind the rise of statistics? I think a large part of it is the attempt to gain the credibility that economics receives as a discipline. When you see an economist on the news, for example, he is generally treated with the kind of reverence a scientist might receive. Never mind the fact that economics as a discipline has proved to have very little predictive power (the Queens understandable letter asking economists why they had no idea the crash was coming), or that economists are infamously slippery in their analysis (President Truman asked for a one handed economist), they still seem to be treated as if they are translating straight from God himself. This has led to what is known as economics imperialism, the spread of economic methods to other spheres in order to get some of that sweet credibility and reverence.

This statistical mind-set has seemingly seeped into how we manage our major institutions and public services as well. A lecturer recently told me that the easiest way to get published is to include a bit of “quant”, and that professors are under increasing pressure to publish regularly to make the university look better and attract more fee-paying students. This stress on quantity inevitably impacts on quality, as these pressures lead to academics increasingly specialising on smaller niches within their fields, lacking the time to seriously tackle the bigger issues facing society.

Emphasis on quantitative data is present in hospitals too, as managers on huge salaries with no experience of day-to-day life in a hospital evaluate the work of nurses based on targets and numbers, leading to pressures which can run counter to what is appropriate patient care. Leaving emergency patients outside the hospital in order to meet waiting time targets is a worrying example of such a number driven rationale.

The mind-set is also prevalent in our schools. Teachers striving to achieve exam based targets end up teaching children just to pass exams, surely not all what we want education to be about. When the targets relate to particular subjects, like Maths and English, others invariably suffer. When the targets related to achieving a certain amount of A-C grades, teachers focused on students on a D-C borderline, and students above and below this bracket received less attention.

In America, where we inherited much of this stats based approach, the target driven methods of the police are having seriously detrimental consequences for society. The stop-and-frisk technique, which overwhelmingly targets black and Hispanic men, leaves them feeling humiliated and angry and will undoubtedly add to racial tensions in an already divided society. An NYPD officer, speaking anonymously, expressed the frustration many of his colleagues felt in having to carry out these searches instead of proper police work, but explained that if you didn’t hit your targets you can kiss goodbye to your career.

This highlights a common trend when organisations are subject to relentless stats driven assessment, of people trying to balance what they believe is right against achieving targets and preserving their careers. In the same way a professor is forced to churn out papers about niche topics instead of taking the time to tackle the big issues, a police officer has to perform endless stop and frisks in the hope of catching petty criminals instead of engaging with the community or building a case against the bosses of criminal organisations.

Using numbers and statistics can be very useful, but if we rigidly abide by them we miss out on so much of the texture of life. A regression analysis cannot hope to capture the complexities of civil war. Nurses and teachers impacts on people cannot be adequately reflected in tables and graphs. It seems like such an easy solution to stick a number on something and say we understand it, but it is just not reality. And we should be grateful for this, as it is because of our complex and varied natures that life is interesting. It is why our actions cannot be perfectly explained by equations, and why our institutions should not be governed by numbers.

Featured image credit: e y e / s e e

Quantify this Reviewed by on January 13, 2015 .

Rob Rix argues that there is more to life than numbers

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1 COMMENT

  • This is just a hash of strawmen arguments. None of the problems listed deals with quantifying the unquantifiable, merely improper usage of stats.

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