The Counting Fetish

The psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his book “The Psychology of Science” writes: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  Of course, people probably have been saying something like that since we started hammering nails, but fancy quotes from authors make you look smart so I went with that.

Yesterday, in my other life as a modern day shopkeeper, my many colleagues and I endured the yearly debacle called inventory.  While there most certainly remain good reasons for any business to keep track of what it has on hand, the process itself often feels quite ridiculous and contrived.  Items are meticulously organized throughout the facility (a good idea in itself) and dozens of levels of auditors walk about repeatedly, making sure that the stocking are hung by the chimney with care.  The Christmas metaphor isn’t a bad one.  Everyone hustles around at the last minute, being sure we are “ready” and the night before is a late one, as the final pieces are put in place.  Finally, when the day arrives, a team of elves descend upon the facility in special costumes with magical tools.  Well, and then they count everything.

And, in the end, all these numbers from all these mysterious machines are fed into another magical “oompa loompa” contraption which spits out a number which, I believe, is actually inside a fortune cookie.  Much consternation exists about this special number and quite rightly so.  Careers may rise and fall depending upon what it is.  “Bad numbers” are likely to lead to special audits and even more counting and recounting.  It is, in fact, a big deal.

We humans love to count things and measure things.  We love statistics and lists.  We characterize each other by numbers every day.  She’s a 10; he averaged a triple double; his poll numbers are down 5%; the stock market closed up 76.44.  You can think of hundreds more without even trying.  So try it.  Once you are finished, notice how many of those numbers mean nothing or mean very little.  We like to count things because we can.  We like to hammer because we can.

And, frankly, nobody loves numbers more than I do.  I spent a good part of my cloistered childhood messing about with baseball statistics, adding things up and ranking things.  I was born too early.  These days my obsession might have landed me a high paying job in the front office of my beloved Chicago Cubs.  Back then I was just weird.  (Still am.)  In school, math and science were pretty easy for me.  It was all numbers.  Physics was the best.  Everything was just measurements and formulas and that was just fine by me.  In college I gravitated towards the social sciences (likely laziness) but, surprisingly, they all wanted to measure and count things too.  I learned about probability and statistics and that was most excellent.

Except it wasn’t excellent.  The further one strayed away from introductory physics, the more ambiguous those numbers became.  It was never as cut and dry as my meticulous little mind needed it to be.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Science (and engineering) contributes more to human health and prosperity than any other human endeavor.  Our brains are not significantly larger than they were 50000 years ago but the amount of information  (mostly counting and measuring) at our disposal is so much greater. 

But science is not perfect and human knowledge will always be flawed, no matter how smart we think we are.  In my short sojourn on this planet, the dietary recommendations have changed dramatically at least three times.  Back in the 70’s I was told to expect a new Ice Age and today I am told it is getting too hot.  People and their magic numbers routinely materialize on both sides of any argument, leaving the layman to wonder what it is all about.  It seems that everything is settled or everything is wrong.  In a world full of knowledge, we are often severely lacking in wisdom.

In that context, allow me to give a bit of unsolicited advice.  First, counting is valuable.   It is an incredible tool that we have at our disposal.  In many cases, it allows us to verify a claim or falsify a theory.  If someone tells you not to listen to the math or science, don’t listen to them.  Second, numbers are not gods that we worship and that, in turn, give us wisdom.  So beware of anyone who is always throwing numbers around as though he or she knows it all.  To be valuable, numbers have to be interpreted in the light of reason and logic and to be placed in context.  A count or measurement is, if accurate, an indicator of something that is happening, not a proof of any particular theory.   Basing important decisions on nothing but those numbers is a terrible idea.  Third, beware of bad measurements.  We all make mistakes and are not always accurate but, even more disturbing, we sometimes measure something that isn’t there or are simply wrong.  Google “journal articles retraction” if you want to discover how much inaccurate information is out there.  And, as always seems to be the case, the mistake appears in bold print on the front page and the retraction is a paragraph on the bottom of page 23.

In closing, don’t let numbers define who you are or what is true.  They are a tool but too often we grow so enamored with them that it becomes a kind of fetish.  Just as a person is not simply a foot, knowledge is not simply numbers.  That is the easy way and the lazy way and good leaders and good scientists would never fall prey to it.  As always, thanks for your continued support and enjoy the rest of your week!

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