The New York Times Sunday Style Section – of all places – recently contained a report, titled “The United States of Metrics”, about how every area of life now is dominated by numbers and statistics. As its author, Bruce Feiler, put it:
In the last few years, there has been a revolution so profound that it’s sometimes hard to miss its significance. We are awash in numbers. Data is everywhere. Old-fashioned things like words are in retreat; numbers are on the rise. Unquantifiable arenas like history, literature, religion and the arts are receding from public life, replaced by technology, statistics, science and math. Even the most elemental form of communication, the story, is being pushed aside by the list.
After reviewing the use of analytics in fields as diverse as sports, health, lifestyle, etc., Feiler ends the story with Einstein’s time-worn warning, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”
A couple of months ago, Zachary Karabell’s book, titled “The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World”, was published. Karabell goes into this subject in much more depth and with a lot more historical context.
(By the way, Karabell is a lively writer and brings all this to life in a more engaging way than the average reader would expect of a book about economic statistics.)
Despite their prominent role in politics and business planning, he notes that the statistics we all hear reported about – GDP, trade deficits, unemployment rates, etc. – are misleading, inaccurate to varying degrees and mostly fairly new. Nevertheless many are already outdated by changes in the economy and the ways that people make a living.
He discusses various ways that these economic statistics can be updated. However, he also points out that no single measure alone will be able to provide a good picture of something as large and complex as a national and changing economy. So maybe we need more metrics to round out the picture.
Karabell thinks the metrics are good and useful, but that we need to be more sophisticated in our handling of them.
That’s something that makes sense. In a world that increasingly needs and demands the kind of data-driven knowledge that all these measurements can provide, our understanding and literacy in using quantitative methods also needs to improve.
In a way, this is not all that different from the argument that is made by those in the visual arts, who also call for more visual literacy in a world that is also increasingly visual, rather than textual. See my post “Visual Images And Text” from about a year ago at http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/60268577982/visual-images-and-text .
(Come to think of it, these last two paragraphs do pose an ironic challenge to a blogger who writes using words – as traditional text gets diminished in a world of numbers and images 🙂
©2014 Norman Jacknis