Of Lost Keys and Lampposts
Michael Kinsley has recently satirized a newspaper’s initiative to evaluate journalists by counting the number of words they write:
Productivity will be measured by column-inches of words. In other words, the company will assume that the more words you write, the more productive you are. Or, to put it another way, if you use many, many, many words to make whatever point you may be trying to make or fact you are attempting to report, you will be considered more productive than another writer who takes pains to be concise—that is, to use fewer words rather than more words.
Though that program sounds particularly silly, it’s a cautionary tale for our broader propensity to look for answers in easily measurable data. As Charles Tilly writes in Durable Inequality:
We pay a price for concentrating on well-documented outcomes. Recent students of inequality under capitalism have, unsurprisingly, focused on wages, a topic that lends itself both to measurement and to explanation in individual terms. They have neglected wealth, health, nutrition, power, deference, privilege, security, and other critical zones of inequality that in the long run matter more to well-being than wages. (24)
Like someone who’s lost his keys at night and only searches for them under illuminated lampposts, we can easily get led astray by the lure of “hard data.”