Frankenstein metrics

Simon Kuznets and Alfred Binnet shared a couple of things in common. They both invented metrics that reshaped the world, and they both went on to regret it.

Kuznets gave us GDP – a measure that continues to quantify the health of a country’ economy. Binnet proposed IQ, mainly as a means to measure a country’s education system, rather than brand individuals as intelligent or not.

The problem with both these metrics are that they are oversimplifications. A country’s economic and social well-being is tied to several other factors than merely the rate of its GDP growth. Human intelligence is highly specialized and is therefore hard to quantify with a generic number.

The creators of these metrics had warned us of how they could be misused. Why, then, do we persist on using these metrics?

This points to the tendency of the human brain to wish away complexity and uncertainty by using a metric. Doing so gives us a target to aim for and reduces ambiguity – those are the obvious benefits. But it distorts our perception of the world and exacts hidden costs, such as pursuing GDP growth without paying attention to income distribution or environmental degradation. In the case of IQ, it has led us to snatch opportunities away from people who score low on this arbitrary standardized test.

In Sanskrit, the word maya, which translates to illusion, shares the same root as the word for measurement. Our fetish for quantification gives rise to some of the most powerful illusions we have of misguided certainty.

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