Friday, January 22, 2010

The Mendacity of Measurability


Albert Einstein once observed, "Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters.” This is a tricky aphorism to comprehend because on the surface it would seem to be a celebration of intuition over empiricism.

That observation would deny history however because the good physicist demanded his “General Relativity” be corroborated by a total eclipse before it could be Nobel-worthy.

The insight is useful though if we consider that it offers clarity around the potential for equivocation when we automatically assume quantification as thought. Ideation can be compromised when we seek the right answer in the face of complexity rather than being comfortable accepting complexity itself. A prior formula can mistake the nature of variables and deliver an outcome that fails to recognize the functional relationship of those variables.

The author Mark Slouka exposes the fallacy of quantification further in his essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” when he discusses the current trend in scholastics towards standardized testing. He paraphrases David Brooks on the importance of data capture skills and education;

all we need to do is make a modest in- vestment in ‘delayed gratification skills.’ Young people who can delay gratification can master the sort of self-control that leads to success; they can sit through sometimes boring classes and perform rote tasks. As a result, they tend to get higher SAT scores, gain acceptance to better colleges, and have, on average, better adult outcomes.”

But Mr. Slouka exposes the fallacy of this thinking by observing,

“There’s something almost sublime about this level of foolishness. By giving his argument a measured, mathematical air (the students only achieve better adult out- comes ‘on average’), Brooks hopes that we will overlook both the fact that his constant (success) is a variable and that his terms are ‘way unequal’, as the kids might say. One is reminded of the scene in the movie ‘Proof’ in which the mathematician played by Anthony Hopkins, sliding into madness, begins a proof with ‘Let X equal the cold.’ Let higher SAT scores equal better adult outcomes.”

Foolish arguments can seem logical as long as they are internally consistent but what reasoned truth demands is a credible premise. We live in a world swamped by data. We engage the fallacy of numbers but fail to recognize the premise behind the numbers we believe author reality. In the face of the data over-load there is an opportunity to embrace good old critical thinking. We have an opportunity to sharpen our thinking by challenging the logic of agreed upon premises. And we are living in a very complex time when logic is necessary but critically assessing the premise driving that logic is imperative.

When we are faced with a challenge that chases a specific outcome are we allowing our desire for success to impact our premise in a way where we embrace the appearance of logic as an honest attempt to reconcile complexity? Or are we assessing our options in a way that better understands complexity? Are we looking for what seems to be the right answer or do we consider what is real, albeit messy?

The danger we face is allowing our comfort with logic to leave us vulnerable to unquestioned premises because to question an agreed upon premise may seem inefficient (or, Heaven forbid make us look simple). But by giving an argument a measured, mathematical air we overlook the reasoned truth that the constant we all presume is a necessary variable may not be equal to what is real. Sometimes to avoid the formulaic answer one has to become comfortable with the complexity of the question.

2 comments:

kateherself said...

Chasley you are the smartest person I know.

Chuck O'Connor said...

Thanks Katelyn,

That is an honor. You know some pretty smart people, including yourself.

I'm just enjoying my own curiosity.

Be well. I love you.