Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Quantification Fallacy: Britain instituting "happiness" index

The sophisters and calculators have apparently taken over in Britain. We go now to Aljazeera:

The British government is set to measure the country's "happiness" in an effort to give a fuller picture of how the nation is performing.

David Cameron, the prime minister, who had previously called for "general well-being" to be assessed alongside traditional economic indicators, outlined some of the plans on Thursday, sparking criticism from some quarters.

I don't know if there is such a thing as the Quantificational Fallacy, but if not, we are unveiling it right here: it is the fallacy of quantifying things that are inherently qualitative. It is the fallacy committed every time someone says, "On a scale of one to ten..."

The Quantificational Fallacy is the fallacy that involves the scientizing of things, and it betrays the modern post-Enlightenment tendency to think that a thing's qualitative aspects can be assigned a number. Neil Postman points out somewhere that it was only some time in the late 1800s that anyone thought to assign a number grade to a school paper.

Now this is not to say that it is bad to have a more comprehensive economic measure than, say, the Gross National Product and that such a measure might be useful. But to pretend that any measure can adequately measure what goes into "happiness" or what goes into "well-being" is to simply mischaracterize reality.

I am assuming that Prime Minister David Cameron is attempting, through the tools of econometric analysis, to capture in some way what Wendell Berry calls the "Great Economy." Berry (in a definition he got from his friend Wes Jackson) defines the "Great Economy" as, simply, the "Kingdom of God."

The Kingdom of God, he says, "includes everything; in it, the fall of a sparrow is a significant event." It is the order of the world, and it is an order "both greater and more intricate than we can know." To be precise, this definition talks the qualitative aspects of life as the "Great Economy," for which, he says, "there is no accounting." One wonders how such at thing could be done anyway. What exactly goes into happiness?

You see it, for example, when movies are give, say, three stars out of five. But at least that uses stars, instead of numbers. This is why I prefer giving my students a letter grade rather than a number.

This is also an issue in the Olympics, where a gymnast gets a 9.7268 out of ten for a score.

All this is, of course preposterous. It makes me very unhappy. In fact, my happiness index on this is about a 2.45 out 10.

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