Misused measures

Two people who saw their most valuable creations misused were Alfred Binnet and Simon Kuznets.

Binnet was an inventor of the IQ test. He conceived it as a means to find out which children public schools in Paris were leaving behind, so that programs could be designed to get them back on track. While we use IQ to permanently label children as ‘smart’, ‘gifted’ or ‘retarded’, segregate them accordingly, Binnet was against the view of a fixed intelligence. He said:

‘A few modern philosophers …assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism ….With practice, training and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.’

Kuznets gave us the now ubiquitous Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Kuznets proposed GDP as a measure of a country’s economic size as opposed to its development. Kuznets cautioned against its use as a measure of economic welfare. And yet, this is precisely how countries continue to use it. He warned us:

‘The valuable capacity of the human mind to simplify a complex situation in a compact characterization becomes dangerous when not controlled in terms of definitely stated criteria. With quantitative measurements especially, the definiteness of the result suggests, often misleadingly, a precision and simplicity in the outlines of the object measured. Measurements of national income are subject to this type of illusion and resulting abuse, especially since they deal with matters that are the center of conflict of opposing social groups where the effectiveness of an argument is often contingent upon oversimplification.’

Measures and labels abound in our world of metrics and personality tests. Yet, use them with discretion. For once people start using them, they don’t bother reading your carefully drafted fine print.

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