Quips and Quotes: Our Metric Epidemic

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Editor's Note: As students, many of us fail to take advantage of one of the biggest perks of being at a university: all those lectures. You may not be able to pop by DeBart 101 every week to listen to experts opine about cell biology or geopolitics, but, in this new series, we're bringing the lecture hall to you. Our editors will scour the campus for one presentation per week to attend and share with our readers, reporting back with a quote and a few highlights from the latest event in the life of the mind. 


“Much of metric fixation is based on a radically simplistic and truncated and overly materialistic conception of motivation: this notion that really we’re sort of all Pavlovian dogs and we can be successfully manipulated by rewards and punishments primarily of a monetary nature.” —Jerry Z. Muller


Numbers have the ring of truth, data the resonance of reality. Hard fact. Irrefutable. Unless. . . .


Jerry Z. Muller, a Catholic University historian, came to Notre Dame last week to question the credibility of statistical measurement as a primary tool of performance evaluation in a variety of fields. In his November 5 lecture, “Our Metric Epidemic: Diagnosis and Prognosis,” Muller made clear that he’s not opposed to standardized assessment in theory. As far as how such evaluations are used in practice, his view can be summed up in the title of his book: The Tyranny of Metrics.


Instead of promoting efficiency and accountability, Muller argues, distilling job performance to a quantifiable bottom line redirects resources toward what’s being measured to the detriment of other important priorities, diminishes a sense of professional autonomy and purpose, reduces opportunities for creativity and risk that lead to innovation, and encourages gaming the system.


If a teacher’s salary or reputation — or a school’s funding — depends on test scores, lessons tend to be planned accordingly. If a surgical report card purports to rank the best doctors, it incentivizes them to avoid the hardest cases, improving their success rate while leaving the sickest among their potential patients without the benefit of their skills. As Muller put it, “They die, but they don’t show up in the surgeon’s metrics.”


Similar examples abound in business and the military, government and law enforcement, higher education and philanthropy. The overuse and abuse of numbers numbs people to their more meaningful, if immeasurable, mission. Industry-specific experience and judgment become devalued at the altar of metrics that, far from representing objective truth, fail to take the true measure of individuals or institutions.


Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.