June 13, 2010

“Metric Mania”

John Allen Paulos is a mathematician who writes books about numeracy for a popular audience. The New York Times Magazine published a brief but insightful essay by him about the dangers inherent in relying on numbers without looking at how they are arrived at (my basic issue with Wolfram Alpha). Here is the starting paragraph of that article, “Metric Mania“:

In the realm of public policy, we live in an age of numbers. To hold teachers accountable, we examine their students’ test scores. To improve medical care, we quantify the effectiveness of different treatments. There is much to be said for such efforts, which are often backed by cutting-edge reformers. But do wehold an outsize belief in our ability to gauge complex phenomena, measure outcomes and come up with compelling numerical evidence? A well-known quotation usually attributed to Einstein is “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” I’d amend it to a less eloquent, more prosaic statement: Unless we know how things are counted, we don’t know if it’s wise to count on the numbers.

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