Unquantifiable

Last week, I was reading an article in the Sunday, May 18 New York Times about the current fascination with digitized forms of data collection. As I read, my anxiety level was shooting the roof as the writer explained this near-rabid fascination with turning lives into statistics.

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.

The results are in: The nerds have won. Time to replace those arrows in the talons of the American eagle with pencils and slide rules. We’ve become the United States of Metrics.

Paragraph after paragraph racheted the tension in my neck a little tighter— then finally, a nod to those of us who find those notions absolutely horrifying:

“As a scientist, I can say that very little is measurable,” [Naseem Nicholas Taleb] said, “and even those things that are measurable, you cannot trust the measurement beyond a certain point.”

Thank you, Lord in Heaven! I don’t even know anything about Naseem Nichols Taleb, but I already like him! My blood pressure began to go back down, once I was assured – by a scientist – that I’m not alone in my skeptical disdain. Then it kept getting better, with the insights of nonfiction writer Anne Mott:

“What this stuff steals is our aliveness,” she said. “Grids, spreadsheets and algorithms take away the sensory connection to our lives, where our feet are, what we’re seeing, all the raw materials of life, which by their very nature are disorganized.” Metrics, she said, rob individuals of the sense that they can choose their own path, “because if you’re going by the data and the formula, there’s only one way.”

If somebody wants to count their steps on a pedometer or count calories for Weight Watchers . . . whatever, go live your life, you won’t catch any flack from me. But if the Pew Research Center or Gallup pollsters want to know how long my sexual encounters last or how many grams of meat I eat in a day – both are examples from the Times article – forget it! I’m out.

Despite the modern obsession with data, some of the most important aspects of human life are unquantifiable. No statistician will ever achieve a measure of beauty or artistic excellence, for example. No data specialist will ever be able to tell me that yesterday’s sunrise rated a 7.7 while today’s sunrise measured an 8.2, thereby making it undeniably better . . . according to their formula.

This misguided urge to quantify life, albeit for the sake of improvement, looms in particularly frightening ways in my career field: education. Politicians (many of whom have no experience as educators) and the administrators who are beholden to them all want indisputable facts about “student achievement,” so they can prove their policies’ successes. This frenzy subsequently causes university-level and for-profit educational programs to turn their attention toward “research-based” solutions to feed that monstrous political appetite for infallibility. So what we really have are armies of two-bit Jeremiahs – politely, the term is “school reformer” – all predicting doom and gloom if we don’t follow their batch of data into the future. Education isn’t getting better for all of this insistence on quantifying the lives of children. All this trend is doing is giving a bunch of bureaucrats, professors, researchers and politicians the fodder for their arguments to justify funding for their programs— so they can seem to have “value,” another despicably misleading and overused modern term co-opted from the field of economics. Truthfully, a lot of the money that should be spent on classrooms, teachers, supplies, etc. is now going to number crunchers and test makers, which isn’t where the money should be.

Likewise, some people want to use data to evaluate whether a school is a “good school.” We meet parents who choose a school for their children based on statistically averaged standardized test scores, attendance rates, national-magazine rankings or scholarship dollars offered to a senior class. Let me be clear, I’m a teacher and a parent myself, and I would give anyone this advice: choose a school for your child by asking this question that only you can answer for yourself: is this school right for my child? Some school’s average ACT score may be a 34 doesn’t mean that your child will score that just by attending . . . even if you have increased the statistical probability of it happening by getting them in that school. If your child needs small classes, then find a school with small classes. If your child needs a school with good sports programs, find that school. And so on. No batch of data will ever gace all the answers for all children.

Whenever I read articles like this May 18 Times article, which heralded “Statisticians 10, Poets 0,” I think about the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams has the students rip out and discard the lifeless, mathematical explanation of how to score a poem on a graph. I also think of the German fiction writer Heinrich von Kleist and his lebensplan: von Kleist believed that he could plan his life so that nothing could go wrong— well, he committed suicide a bitter and broken man, frustrated by his inability to live up to his ideals.

I would also challenge any advocates of the data-driven life to read Louis Menand’s “The Unpolitical Animal” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Big and Bad,” both from The New Yorker. These articles explain how human beings constantly make irrational decisions that fly in the face of logic, even when they are told the facts and should know better!

No algorithm, no digital tracking device, nor data-driven scorecard will ever be able to quantify how much I love my wife, how important my kids are to me, how sad I was when my father passed away suddenly, or how hard I work to teach my students. If some people want to live their lives or base their decisions on number-crunching, have at it. But leave this poet out of it. The best things in life are unquantifiable: love, beauty, art, poetry. I don’t care how badly some math-nerd wants to make a career out of hyper-analyzing human behavior, the nerds haven’t won. And because human beings aren’t purely rational creatures, they never will win. The nerds can make money hand-over-fist from their studies or their apps, but I hope they spend their riches in ways that aren’t as neurotic as the way they earn them.

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