Do society's yardsticks really measure up?

Americans' growing love of data distorts true picture of society, sociologists say

Ever since man began carving up life up into units called time, the urge to measure has been nonstop: calendars, clocks, yardsticks, birthdays, GPAs, and consumer price indexes.

Yet Americans are in an unrivaled acceleration right now in the use of indexes, barometers, and other numerical snapshots to judge their collective well-being, say a number of social scientists.

From the executive suite to the lunch wagon, when Americans talk these days they zero in on a handful of seminal questions.

Where is the Nasdaq today? The Dow? The GDP?

How are our children doing, based on standardized tests and SAT scores?

And what are the polls saying about who will be the next president?

Some social scientists and theologians worry about what this all means. They say American society may be missing the important things that aren't, or can't be, measured in bite-size nuggets.

Further, there is concern that these measurements become goals, rather than rough indicators of society's progress.

"Our sense of well-being is driven more and more by these proxies," says Jim Koch, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University in California. "We're living in a period of hyperchange," and there is a tendency to want to oversimplify, he adds. "The risk is that they become ends in and of themselves."

Nonetheless, few doubt the trend is accelerating.

Gone are the days when a Federal Reserve move on interest rates or the daily performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average or Nasdaq resonated only within the rarefied circles of finance companies and wealthy investors.

Today, with an ever-greater share of American households invested in stocks, there is an unprecedented thirst for economic data and a feeling of vulnerability to the daily gyrations of the market.

And the horizon looks full of more data and measurements.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," says Stewart Brand, a director of the Global Business Network and author of "The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility." Mr. Brand says the computer age's avalanche of information has made data bites more available to more people than ever before, and set a model of quantifying everything.

At the same time, technology seems to have turned daily life into a sped-up hamster wheel, giving rise to the popular phrase, living on "Internet time."

This seemingly accelerated pace of daily life, experts speculate, is creating a culture with great trust in synthesized data and a desire for instant results, both of which are reflected in the growing use and reliance on numerical indices.

But the picture of society that emerges from prominent statistical measurements is deceptive, says Marc Miringoff, a social scientist at Fordham University in New York. "It lacks any wider social context."

While acknowledging that society "is probably overdoing it" when it comes to measurements, Dr. Miringoff has added one of his own. His Index of Social Health aims to give a fuller picture of society than its economic data. And it contains some surprises for those paying attention. For instance, US "social health," including factors like housing affordability and healthcare, has only begun to improve during the past five years of this decade-long economic expansion.

Miringoff is hoping to persuade Washington to begin publishing a social barometer that would have the weight of the gross domestic product and other economic report cards. He will produce a prototype for government consideration later this year.

Out of frustration with what is missing in the current crop of indexes, a number of community groups around the US have begun monitoring and measuring life in new ways. Groups in Arizona and Oregon, for example, have begun tracking local quality-of-life issues.

Much of this measurement infatuation happens because it can. Computers and the Internet create and spread data like never before. But measurements, by their very nature, have shortcomings, which any statistician will point out. They often reveal averages and medians that are true overall, but not individually. And while misinterpretation of what an "average" home price means may cause little damage, other macro-measurements can be harmful, say some critics.

Many educators worry that the goal of education is becoming too focused on test scores. As a result, many other important aspects of learning, including the individuality of each child, are being lost.

Similarly, some see dangers in the political arena as a result of the growing reliance on polls. California's Gov. Gray Davis, for example, is often held up as a model new politician because of his centrist positions. But some of his critics say Mr. Davis ends up there simply by being "poll driven" and lacking any inner conviction or philosophy.

Indeed, if the public yearns for bold new ideas from its politicians, polls may threaten that very outcome, say analysts. Consider this scenario: A new idea is floated, immediately submitted to a public opinion poll, found unappealing, and duly dropped by its author. But what about ideas that are complicated and take longer to gain appeal, critics wonder. Is the use of instant polls as a barometer of public opinion antagonistic to deep but difficult change?

Heng Sure, director of a Buddhist monastery in Berkeley, Calif., says the popularity of instant measurements is a manifestation of America's reverence for "experts." "What polls and indices tell us is what the guys in the white lab coats think," he says. And while these measurements may often provide a kind of social solace, says Mr. Sure, "they are really illusory."

Sure wonders when society will come up with a "spiritual index" that measures "feelings, the heart, ethics, and imagination?"

Experts on the use of social measurements say the indexes themselves are not the culprit, as much as the impressions and generalizations drawn from them.

GDP may be a wonderful gauge of the overall economy, says Professor Koch, but it doesn't say anything about the equitable distribution of wealth. Nor does GDP even attempt to measure significant parts of American society, such as the nonprofit sector.

In the end, says Koch, today's common measurements have some value. But in a fast-paced world eager for instant answers, the danger is they are counted on "to tell us a whole lot more than they're capable of."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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