Sunday, January 18, 2009

On Having To Measure Everything

I'm a big fan of the quantitative approach to all kinds of issues. One of my favorite classes to teach was the Quantitative Literacy class, where I taught my students to calculate exactly how much money they were saving by driving an extra few miles to save a few cents on gas or groceries, to use math as a tool to make business decisions, etc. I got them to appreciate how much math and measurement could help them when they need guidance.

That being said, however, I understand better than many what the limitations of the quantitative approach are. Measurement takes time and effort. Sometimes these limited resources are better spent on other activities, like actually living your life.

When I take my kids to the doctor or to my mom, I'm always being asked "How many hours of sleep did so-and-so get at night?" Well, how on Earth would I know that exactly, unless I at a minimum looked up at the clock every time somebody woke up, and memorized what time it was so that I could calculate elapsed time? Whenever I wake at night and make an upright movement or open my eyes to a light source, I become unable to get back to sleep for hours. I would need to stay up all night measuring my children's sleep to make the kinds of observations people are asking me to make. I kinda need that time to, you know, get some shuteye myself.

It's amazing the kinds of things we can measure nowadays, and the tools we have with which to measure them (like the XRF gun in the post below, which measures lead levels in just a few seconds). But as they become more widespread, so does the expectation that people will know all sorts of statistics off the tops of their heads. What's your body temperature? How fast were you going? What's your mortgage interest rate? How much did you pay for that? What percentile is your son's body mass index? How much lead is in that toy? What percentage of your school's students passed their end-of-level tests? What's the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Science is cool and all, but it's not the most important thing in life. We must never forget that the most important thing in life is the people that surround us.