My statistics students are learning about the process of measurement this week. It’s a confusing lesson, with its focus on the twin concepts of reliability and validity. To beginners, both definitions seem to have the same meaning. With a lot of discussion and some good examples, we can usually untangle it. Even if some confusion remains, most students get the most basic point: the rest of the analysis and the results are only as good as the original measurements.
Measuring what matters the most
There are deeper philosophical questions that the statistics text leaves untouched. Even if our measurement is valid (the process I use for making an observation accurately measures the thing I want to observe), the entire concept may not reflect my own deepest interests. In a recent TED talk, Chip Conley points out our economic measures count the impact of divorce, natural disaster, and war as positive contributions. Things whose value is not measured in money – the enjoyment of fresh air, the sound of a bird singing, the companionship of family – are not included in those measures. We do not have a way to track their increase or decrease.
Conley draws together a number of threads from philosophy, social science, and the business world. Rather than urging us, in a soft way, to turn towards those intangible matters, he asks us instead to find ways to count them. The nation of Bhutan has been working on its Gross National Happiness index for years.
I’m thinking of giving it a try. What do you think?
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