How We Count, Counts

As we consider how much oil is spewing into the Gulf of Mexico every day, how many people are unemployed at the moment, how many people are without health insurance, how many illegal aliens live in the United States, and other such vital statistics of the day, it’s important to consider that there are many ways to count.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, touched on this subject eloquently last week in the New York Times. From his article, I pass along the following excerpts:

Unless we know how things are counted, we don’t know if it’s wise to count on the numbers.

Is someone homeless if he’s unemployed and living with his brother’s family temporarily? Do we require that a woman self-identify as battered to count her as such? If a person starts drinking day in and day out after a cancer diagnosis and dies from acute cirrhosis, did he kill himself?

Consider the plan to evaluate the progress of New York City public schools inaugurated by the city a few years ago. While several criteria were used, much of a school’s grade was determined by whether students’ performance on standardized state tests showed annual improvement. This approach risked putting too much weight on essentially random fluctuations and induced schools to focus primarily on the topics on the tests. It also meant that the better schools could receive mediocre grades becausethey were already performing well and had little room for improvement. Conversely, poor schools could receive high grades by improving just a bit.

No method of measuring a societal phenomenon satisfying certain minimal conditions exists that can’t be second-guessed, deconstructed, cheated, rejected or replaced. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be counting — but it does mean we should do so with as much care and wisdom as we can muster.

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