Archive for March, 2013


Recently, the New Yorker had a feature article on Aaron Swartz, which featured some excerpts from his writing and interviews with people close to him.  The article/profile was both interesting and frightening, and extraordinarily sad, because it revealed a brilliant young man who never grew up, never truly understood society – any society – and, because he couldn’t understand it, found himself in a position, compounded by illness, where he simply could not cope.  What came through most clearly to me, although this was certainly not emphasized by the writer or by any of those who were interviewed, was the fact that Swartz had absolutely no understanding that society, or any organization or relationship, has limits.

He made a great deal of money very young, but failed to understand that, for most people, making money is anything but easy.  He quit jobs because he didn’t want to put up with the regimentation and requirements.  He got involved in the whole issue of copyright because he didn’t believe in limits… and then, according to the article, had actually abandoned much of that fight when it came back to bite him.

The plain truth of the matter is that any relationship, any organization, any society, any government – in fact anything that goes beyond a single isolated entity – has limits, and the more complicated the organization or group, the more limits that are required for it to function. Children who do not learn this young will always have problems; adults who have not learned this will either be hermits or anti-social outcasts, usually verging on having trouble with others and the law. As the old saying goes, your freedom stops short of hitting my nose… one of the most basic of limits.

Various societies have differing limits, and differing ways of imposing and enforcing those limits, but they have limits. Social and government conflicts are always about the types of limits, their structure, enforcement, and various other details, but not about the fact that limits are necessary.  Even extremists, such as “gun rights” types, aren’t arguing for no societal limits at all – they just don’t want limits over weapons, but most of them, I suspect, would have problems if all limits on everything were removed.  They just want a different set of limits. The same is true of religious extremists, extreme feminists, environmentalists, zealous developers, etc.

In turn, nature or the environment imposes limits.  Air-breathing creatures are not going to evolve in airless environments.  If you don’t eat, sooner or later you’re going to die.  Biology imposes limits.  Most human beings less than six feet tall are going to have a hard time being professional basketball players because smaller stature imposes limits, as does a lack of raw athletic ability.

Yet… in today’s western societies, particularly in the United States, there is less and less recognition of limits, and more and more of an attitude that anyone can do anything, especially in parenting and education.  Limits exist; saying that they don’t or acting as if they don’t is only a recipe for personal and societal disaster.  That doesn’t mean limits preclude success; it does mean that one has to understand where the limits exist and where they don’t, both in personal and in societal terms, and at times, how to find another way to success.

And that’s something that Aaron Swartz  didn’t understand that and too many people, especially young people these days, also don’t seem to understand, perhaps because too many of their parents don’t either.


Standardized “Objective” Tests

Standardized objective tests appear to have become the agreed-upon criteria for evaluating the “effectiveness” of teachers and schools in educating students. Regardless of all the rhetoric, it’s fairly clear that such tests are more or less accurate in measuring the retention of selected facts and skills.  What the tests don’t measure is the ability to think or the ability to integrate and employ a wide range of knowledge and skills in resolving problems or creating something.  Beyond those shortcomings, which are considerable in themselves, the widespread and growing use of such tests raises other questions.

These so-called objective tests, implemented on a wider and wider scale, also have additional negative impacts – on the students required to take them, the teachers whose performance is evaluated by their results, and on society itself.

Several of the impacts on students don’t even seem to be recognized by either the proponents or opponents of standardized testing.  The first impact is the creation of a mindset that there is indeed a simple and objective answer to every question and problem.  The second impact is that it conditions the students to confine their thoughts and abilities to the simplistic scope of the problem presented.  The tests and the teaching to those tests create a compartmentalization of learning. There is, in my mind, a definite correlation between the continued growth of standardized testing and the growing inability of students to apply skills learned in one area in another.  The third impact is that linguistic and logical skills are suffering, in that students seldom have to marshal facts and ideas and create a logical written or verbal presentation of those ideas – especially on the spot.  What ever happened to the class essay that developed that skill?  It’s gone, in most schools, and so are the skills.  A fourth outgrowth of these combined problems is that more and more students literally require detailed step-by-step directions to accomplish various tasks, to the point where a significant percentage of those students have lost the ability to follow general directions or to look beyond the obvious for answers.

As for the teachers… first off, the increasing use of standardized tests has reduced actual classroom instructional time.  A student isn’t learning when the student is taking tests.  The second problem for teachers is that, if the teacher doesn’t spend some time teaching the students how to take the tests, as well as teaching to the tests, the students will get lower scores and in the short run, that penalizes both the teacher and the students.  But such “teaching” further reduces the amount of time available for learning other material.  The third problem is that teaching for objective tests reduces the intellectual scope of the subject matter.  This, in turn, fosters simplistic explanations, and simplistic explanations certainly contribution to social and political polarization.

In turn, the growth of simplistics and social and political polarization impedes political consensus and thus makes resolution of political and government problems increasingly difficult and contributes to simplistic mechanical/technical and short term business practices.

And, of course, there is the failure to acknowledge that it’s virtually impossible to create a truly “objective” test or presentation of facts in the first place, and this creates an illusion of objectivity that doesn’t exist in the real world. So, by all means, keep expanding the use of objective testing so that students know more facts about even less, without even the ability to recognize that… and then claim success in “reforming” and improving education.


Lying With Statistics

When doing some research for the previous blog, I came across a New York Times article that cited a very reputable survey [the General Social Survey] that released data showing that the percentage of U.S. households owning firearms has decreased from fifty percent to thirty five percent over the past forty years. Needless to say, the National Rifle Association and others disputed this finding, claiming that since the number of firearms held Americans has increased from something like two hundred million to over three hundred million, there was no way that the number of households holding firearms could have decreased.

And… both the GSS and the NRA happen to be right.  Why?  Because although the percentages are correct, the U.S. population has increased by more than thirty percent, and the number of households has almost doubled [families having fewer children and more single person households are why the percentage increases in population and number of households don’t correspond].  That means that eight million more households have firearms than in 1970, but that the total percentage of households having them is less, and interestingly enough the youngest households have the lowest percentage of firearms, well under thirty percent, while older Republican households have the highest percentage (which just might suggest that Republicans either have more to steal or worry more about it being stolen, if not both).

The same kinds of claims go on in advertising as well.  One truck manufacturer asserts that it has more trucks of a certain type on the road than any other manufacturer, proving durability, while its rival asserts that its trucks stay on the road longer.  The first manufacturer produces and sells more trucks so that in fact it does have more trucks on the road, but the second manufacturer’s trucks do last longer. Assuming the statistics are correct, it does suggest that the first manufacturer is misrepresenting the meaning of accurate facts.

Inflation is measured in a number of different ways, using everything from a Gross National Product (GNP) deflator to various forms of Consumer Price Indices.  In recent years, the government has also used a Core CPI, which excludes “highly volatile” goods, such as food and energy, on the grounds that these items distort overall price patterns.  That may be, but over the last twelve months the price of food has increased [according to BLS measurements] 1.6%, while energy prices have declined.  The problem, as I see it, is that overall food prices, over time, at least over the last seventy years, seldom decline, while energy prices are currently low because the economy is depressed.  As the economy recovers energy prices will rise, and food prices certainly won’t go down, especially given the drought still pervading many U.S. agricultural regions. Likewise, a number of politicians are proposing that Social Security Cost-of-Living Adjustments [COLA] be linked to a Chained CPI instead of the current CPI-W, on the grounds that the Chained CPI is more accurate.  It likely is, but that would mean that benefits would be decreased by some 3% over the next ten years, and three percent adds up to thousands of dollars for each beneficiary. The government is doing its best to present this proposed change in terms of increased “accuracy,” but it would mean Social Security benefits over time will be lower than they would have been.  Of course, opponents claim that the change cuts benefits, stopping there, and ignoring the fact that, over time, the system cannot pay those benefits unless the benefit levels are decreased or taxes are increased.

I could go on, but it all brings to mind the observation attributed to  Mark Twain Benjamin Disraeli:  “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”



The other day I was reflecting about various aspects of the world, and it dawned on me that I’d never seen, heard of, or read about a mob rioting in support of anything moderate.  Obvious as that may seem, every incident of mob violence deals with extremism or a reaction to extremism, especially if one especially if one considers hunger, discrimination, or civil repression of form of extremism.

But what lies behind that observation goes much farther than that. One of the greatest “mob” events in U.S. history was the Civil War, and it was generated because the states of the Confederacy insisted on the “right” to enslave other human beings, certainly an extremist belief and behavior. Not only that, but the New York riot in reaction to the first national draft, for the Union army, still ranks as one of the most violent in U.S. history. A great number of mobs and riots in recent U.S. history have also occurred as a reaction to perceived extremism, such as those that followed the death of Martin Luther King or the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King.

Yet… there is a reason behind such “extremism,” and it seems fairly simple to me.  The most obvious example is that of the Civil War.  Slaves were property, and they represented a huge percentage of the wealth of the south.  Those who opposed the abolition of slavery felt that the federal government would confiscate their property – and they “rioted” to keep it, regardless of the ethics of enslaving human beings.  A huge percentage of the various civil rights riots in the United States, and more recently in France and elsewhere in Europe, resulted from resentment that the government and property owners were using their powers to economically oppress others in various ways.  Gun rights’ advocates fear government oppression, regulation, and confiscation – a loss of property and freedom.  Male extremist religious leaders violently dislike anything that will reduce their power – and increase the power of women and educated males, and this is certainly a factor behind anti-American mobs across the Middle East.

Extremism, of course, isn’t always exactly rational, either. Supporters of the individual right to own and bear arms have gotten consistently more violent and rabid in their assertions of those rights, and there’s been a lot of press about whether this represents a trend of some sort.  I’d venture that it does, but it’s not the kind of trend that I find particularly encouraging, not when the reaction is for gun supporters to start toting weapons everywhere and declaring that they’re under siege. Oh?  Despite all the political rhetoric, there are fewer restrictive gun laws today than in half a century, and yet we’re seeing a mob-type reaction to a few modest proposals on assault-type weapons and ammunition clip sizes…which may not even be enacted.

Abortion is another issue that generates great emotional reactions, and even though something like seventy percent of the American people believe that at least some form of abortion should be legal, those who oppose its legality create violent protests and have even murdered doctors.

Yet in most of these cases, those who struggle to keep their “rights” and “property” – or to gain them – seem to be in the position of asserting that their “rights” trump everyone else’s.  Property owners declare that they don’t want to sell to people of another ethnic group, even if the buyers meet their price.  Extremist gun owners seem to want the right to own and use pretty much any form of weapon ammunition or magazine that is available, despite the death toll on others.  Religious extremists insist that their views trump any other rights that might conflict with their views.  And the “civil rights” rioters think that their “grievances” allow them to trample all over the property rights of others.

It seems to me that a little more moderation on all sides would be in order, but then, that would be rational, and mobs don’t seem to form on a rational basis. I certainly don’t see any mobs forming to support moderation.  I wonder why not.


Stock Market Indices as Predictors

The Dow Jones recently surpassed its all-time high and has contined to climb, and the various other market indices are also near historic highs… and yet unemployment is still hovering just under eight percent; the real estate market in much of the United States is still languishing; economic growth is sluggish, to say the least; hiring hasn’t picked up much; there’s still been an inflation of percent over the past four years; and interest rates are at all-time lows [which is good for borrowing, and lousy for saving].

So why is the stock market roaring to new highs?

Because for anyone who is trying to save for the future there’s nowhere else to put the money without almost immediately losing some of its value.  If you put the money in a bank or under the mattress, it will lose almost two percent of its value every year… and for someone who might be trying to build up savings for a child’s college education or retirement, that’s not a pleasant thought.  Investing in bonds is even worse, because with interest rates as low as they are, bond values can only hold steady, if inflation remains low, or decrease in value drastically if inflation picks up.  Real estate is still depressed, and investing there is anything but flexible, since it’s hard to find buyers without taking a loss in the short-term, and it’s likely to be years before many markets recover.  But… many stocks do pay dividends, and the stock market has shown a remarkable recovery since 2008… so much so that many investment professionals worry that many stocks are now overpriced, but people keep buying.

Am I saying that the stock market will crash?

I’m not about to go out on that limb, not while the federal government is pouring billions of dollars into the various money and equity markets through quantitative easing (essentially a practice of buying financial assets to inject money into the economy and maintain the prices of those monetary assets)  and other indirect efforts.  So far, because of the comparatively depressed state of the economy, all that federal funding has not generated inflation, but it has given many professional money and fund managers the sense that the Federal Reserve will not permit any significant loss of value in those financial assets.

The question is just how long the Fed can keep doing this before the economy recovers enough for inflation to start increasing… and what will happen then?  Will the Fed be able to time the phase-out of QE so that we don’t have runaway inflation?  Or are we in a permanently depressed post-technological, high automation economy that will always require such monetary stimulation?  Or… has so much money been poured into the economy that a future runaway inflation is almost impossible to avoid?

As some readers may know, I was trained as an economist, and worked as one for a time, and I do follow financial trends fairly closely.  So do many others, many of them far more skilled than I am, but whether many of them will admit it or not, we all have great concerns about the long-term implications of this policy.  The problem, of course, is that without the Fed’s intervention, we’d still be mired in what would have turned into a second Great Depression – but then, if the Congress hadn’t totally deregulated the financial sector, we might not have been in such a huge mess in the first place.  In any case, what’s done is done, and we have to deal, as we can, with what lies ahead.

First, that means recognizing that the various stock market indicators are far more indicative of the fact that the other “investment” opportunities are currently only opportunities, in general, to lose money, although there are always some good opportunities in any sector, and that the equities market is the only place in the world where large sums of money can be invested with any hope of a positive rate of return… at least, for now.  But the market indices do not indicate robust economic health, and are, in some respects, more of an indication of desperation on the part of investors.

And that concerns me… especially since I – and many others – don’t see any viable alternatives, almost a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation… and one which the politicians are studiously ignoring.  But then, that’s what politicians do best.


Culture and the Old and the Young

Last week, I attended a university performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, considered by most scholars in the field to be one of his finest.  It was a university performance, but a good solid university performance with a full orchestra. An opera of this scale isn’t often performed in small university towns, especially ones in rural areas… for many reasons, and it was an ambitious performance with slightly “edgy” and colorful [but not scandalous or skimpy] costuming that evoked the feel of the period, but did not follow it precisely.  The opera was presented uncut, and with no “modernization” except for the not-precisely period costuming… and no special effects except for standard theatre lighting.

I’m not about to summarize the plot, except to say that it’s Mozart and Da Ponte’s [the librettist’s] take on Don Juan/Casanova, and that in addition to the glorious music, it’s a morality play, in that Don Giovanni gets what he deserves in the end. It’s a fairly long opera, if not nearly so long as Wagnerian operas, with two acts and an intermission running over three hours. It was also presented in two versions, alternatively with an English version on one night, and the original Italian on the next.  The audience, as it usually is for university productions, consisted of university students, some faculty, some high school students, presumably musically inclined, and a number of townspeople.

Now… I’ve more than occasionally noted the short attention span of all too many young people, particularly those of college age, and I’ve also expressed concern about their tendency to be, shall we say, occasionally somewhat less than ethically rigorous in certain areas. So… I wasn’t exactly shocked when, after intermission of the opening night of the English version, I noticed that several previously occupied blocks of seats were vacant as the orchestra began to play the opening to the second act.  Except then it struck me that those who had left were not college students, or high school students, or faculty, but older townspeople, many of whom are regarded as more “culturally” inclined.  They were the ones who either had the short attention spans, the lack of interest in a morality-based opera, the distaste for non-traditional costuming, or were bored by the glorious, but definitely long and intricate music. This is, alas, not something new. Reportedly, even the Emperor Josef, who was Mozart’s patron, complained that his operas had “too many notes.”

What was also most encouraging was that, when the English version of the opera ended, the students were the ones who leapt to their feet and gave the cast a standing ovation… and that’s something I’ve seldom seen in over twenty years of watching university opera programs. Incidentally, the music and theatre faculty who saw the opera thought it was a very good and solid performance (although they felt that the Italian version performed on Saturday was close to outstanding).  And, not surprisingly, the younger members of the audience actually raved about the costumes.

Watching all this not only gave me hope, but confirmed a number of things, at least for me.  First, for music and the arts to reach and move people, especially young people, doesn’t always require all the technological bells and whistles.  Second, closed minds and short attention spans exist in all age groups.  And third, any politician who thinks the arts should be eliminated from education has no business in politics and should be removed forthwith.


The Rah-Rah Cheerleader Effect

One of the most pernicious aspects of the change in secondary and even undergraduate college education over the past generation has been the emergence, and even dominance in some areas, of the “cheerleader” school of teaching.  The devotees of this approach to teaching seem to believe that all it takes for student success is unbridled enthusiasm and support for students, reinforced by liberal amounts of praise, whether deserved or not [and of course, many feel that no amount of praise is excessive… or if they don’t feel that way, still act as though praise cannot be overdone].  I read recently about one highly placed individual in the education world who was appalled by a poster/sign in a school that observed that success also required application and dedication by the student.

The problem with this “ultra-positive” approach is that students leave secondary school with vastly overinflated ideas of their own importance, and their own abilities and levels of competency.  The majority also lack any understanding of what intellectual work really is. These observations are not mine alone, but the results of scores of studies over the past ten years, and the findings, as I’ve noted earlier, are not a reflection on the innate intelligence of students, but upon their ability to apply that intelligence in a constructive and focused manner.

Every year that has passed over the last decade has seen a greater and greater percentage of students entering college who are, as one psychologist termed them, “teacups” who shatter when faced with difficult tasks, demanding courses, or just plain accurate constructive criticism of their work.  Almost inevitably, many of these “teacups” complain that teachers who insist on their doing college-level work competently and on time are unfair, even “bullies,” and that there are “better ways” to teach – meaning that they don’t want to be reminded in any fashion of their shortcomings or to be informed of how to improve.

Education is not only about learning to think, or learning the basics of society, or the skills that will lead to the student’s ability to function economically in society, but it’s also about learning that in the “real world” most people are supposed to do their jobs well without praise, that praise only comes, if then, from going beyond the expected.

I’m not saying that the enthusiastic cheerleading form of education doesn’t have a place.  It does, and that place is in kindergarten and first and possibly second grade, roughly.  But cheerleading as an overall teaching style needs to be phased out through elementary school. Again, this is not a rant against praise or encouragement; it’s a rant against teachers and parents who create unrealistic expectations on the part of students by cheering them on regardless of circumstances and the students’ own abilities and determination.

I’m also opposed to the total gloom and doom outlook – now often manifested, interestingly enough, by the proponents of “hard” education, i.e., math and science and computers, to the virtual exclusion of anything else, who insist that education must be practical and that students should not be taught the arts and disciplines in which jobs are scarce, or that students should pay more for such fields of study.  That narrow-minded approach ignores one basic thing – not all students are the same, and not all of them have great ability in those fields.  It’s one thing to point out realistically the difficulties faced in attempting a career in any field of art or music or even writing or other fields where there are far more graduates than jobs. It’s another to decide that certain subjects shouldn’t be taught because they aren’t currently that economically rewarding.  The one thing that is certain is that economics and politics and society change, and channeling education too narrowly is just as much a road to disaster as blindly encouraging students to believe that any of them can do anything, and that everything they do is wonderful.

I’m considered a fairly successful writer, but I can guarantee that, if most college students had their work criticized by teachers the way some readers criticize mine, or assessed accurately by employers, those students really would shatter.  Cheerleading has its place, and it’s in the sports arenas and early childhood education, not in high school or college courses… and it seldom, if ever, occurs  in the world  beyond education.


Of Bestsellers, Ratings, and Sales

The other day I came across a blog that essentially accused the publishing industry of “corruption” and my own publisher, Tor, of “gaming” the system to produce artificial bestsellers.  While there is truth in the fact that Tor and indeed all publishers do their best to release titles in a way that will maximize the possibility that new releases make various “bestseller” lists, the idea [or at least this particular blogger’s idea] that the “big” publishers are somehow actively corrupting publishing is based on some serious misconceptions about bestseller lists, both in how they’re compiled and how well/poorly they reflect sales.

To begin with, the lists don’t represent total sales or anything close to that.  They represent sales in a given period, based on data from various – and often differing – sources.  Publishers Weekly now bases its lists on Nielsen BookScan numbers, which, in general but not always in specific cases, comprise about 60% to 80% of the major retail sales points, depending on which expert one talks to, but that leaves major gaps, such as Walmart, whose numbers aren’t included in BookScan.  The New York Times does not reveal its specific methodology, but has stated that its survey includes 4,000 bookstores as well as representative wholesalers. USA Today surveys some 3,000 retailers.  In the F&SF area, Locus magazine does its own survey of bookstores and publishes its own monthly F&SF listing, which, according to some editors in the field, may be more representative of the genre, depending on one’s definition of fantasy and science fiction.

But there are other factors to consider as well. While the BookScan sales numbers do represent actual sales, all “pre-orders” or sales made before the release date are tallied for bestseller numbers in the first week’s sales.  That means that a book that’s been listed at, say, 5,000 on the Amazon sales ranking for five months may well rack up higher numbers than a book that’s only been available for two months, and shows more pre-orders at any one time, but for a shorter period.  Then there’s the fact that books have differing readerships, and the audience buying patterns reflect such differences, so that a book that never makes the “bestseller” lists may actually outsell a one-time sensation over the course of a year… or twenty. Add to that the fact that the BookScan numbers don’t reflect sales at some large outlets and at a considerable number of independent bookstores.

There’s no doubt that publishers do try to game the system.  A publisher generally won’t schedule two possible blockbuster books from its own list in the same genre or with the same readership list in the same month or even the same season. They may set up special events just after midnight so that a book comes out in the first minutes of the next reporting week, maximizing possible sales for that one week.  Or they may try to generate huge-pre-orders, as it appears Tor did with the last book of the Wheel of Time.  Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t; and sometimes, even the publisher gets surprised.  No one at Tor, for example, had any idea that Imager’s Battalion would make The New York Times bestseller list, especially since it was released something like two weeks after A Memory of Light [the final WOT book].

Upon occasion, however, individual authors have also gamed the system, like the authors of a business book who bought something like 10,000 copies of their own book in targeted areas across the USA in order to get on the bestseller lists – and did. I don’t have any idea if they made back the likely quarter of a million dollars that cost, but maybe they did.  And so did the author of a book called Leapfrogging, but doing so required getting others [i.e., his business clients] to pre-order some 3,000 books… and that’s not all that different from simply getting 3,000 people to buy your book.  As a very practical matter, major publishers don’t “game” the system this way.  They’ll persuade, talk to book buyers, advertise, create fan groups and buzz, etc., but it’s rather obvious if your purchasing department buys on the market 10,000 copies of a book you just published… not that for high-priority titles they won’t do quite a few other things.

Because Amazon does make weekly BookScan numbers available to authors – just of the sales of their own books – I can compare what BookScan reports to what is actually sold, albeit on a greatly delayed basis, since I get author royalty reports only twice yearly, and those numbers are for a 6 month period ending four months previously. I think it’s fair to say that, while royalty reports may not reflect all books being sold in a period, they’re far more accurate that any bestseller methodology, and they certainly don’t have inflated sales numbers because I can be absolutely certain that my publisher is not going to pay me royalties for books that were not sold.

Based on that comparison, the sales numbers for my books that I get from BookScan through Amazon [sales, not their hourly ranking] only account for roughly 50% of actual sales, suggesting that I have significant sales in smaller retail outlets – and if those outlets are ones surveyed by the Times or USA Today, I’ll rank higher on their lists than on the PW list, which is in fact exactly what has happened on those few occasions when I’ve made the lists [near the bottom, I will confess, but it’s still very nice to be on those lists].

As for reader ratings, they reflect nothing more and nothing less than reader preferences, and have little to do with sales numbers, except that books that sell more copies usually have more reader reviews, but such reviews usually comprise less than half of one percent of the number of copies sold – except in the cases where authors have made a huge campaign to get their readers to write reviews [and in the handful of cases where desperate authors used multiple pseudonyms to pad their reader reviews].

So… the bottom line, so to speak, is that bestseller lists do reflect comparative sales, but only roughly, not inclusively, and only for a defined period of time… and publishers do their best to maximize the appearance of their books on lists… sometimes… but the information is far too scattered and imprecise for the kind of  wholesale “insider corruption” that is periodically suggested, particularly since the bestseller lists compiled by different entities with differing sources and methodologies seem to share a great many titles, if in differently ranked positions.  And while the cost of “gaming” the system by buying your own books can work… it’s far too expensive, even with the “multiplier effect” of being on the list, for most people or publishers to find it cost-effective over the long run.

In short, from what I’ve seen, there’s a fair amount of “gaming” on the part of authors and publishers but not, if you will, list “manipulation” or “corruption” on the part of either publishers or those who publish the various best-seller lists.


Stop Chasing the F%$&ing Numbers!

Graduation rates, market coverage rates, rate of return, RBIs, batting averages, the Dow Jones or S&P Index, bestseller lists, consumer ratings, ACT , SAT, other school test scores…  We’ve gotten to the point in American society where numbers seem to define everything – especially success.  And if you can’t quantify it, then either it’s not worth doing… or there’s something wrong with your analysis and understanding.

I’ve seen article after article talking about the need to increase retention and graduation rates in education, both from high school and from college.  I can’t recall a single one emphasizing the need to improve students’ ability to think, to write and speak coherently, and to complete tasks well and on time.  The emphasis is all on the numbers – how many and what percentage graduate and with what degrees.  My wife has taught at the same university for twenty years, and today, if one looks at test scores, the students are far brighter than those of twenty years ago.  Yet twenty years ago, students who could not write a coherent essay were a small minority; today, those who can are the minority.

Today’s students cannot only not remember facts critical to their field for more than a few days, but even when given those facts, most cannot create a logical structure with them.  But the numbers say they’re brighter.  So do their grades, as a result of rampant grade inflation, another effect of “numbers” emphasis. Yet regardless of what the numbers say, more practical evaluations indicate that that basic measures of education, like thinking, reading, writing, retaining knowledge and being able to use it effectively, are actually declining. But what’s happening in education is symptomatic of an illness that pervades all of society.

Look at business.  Companies are graded almost exclusively on the numbers, to the point that if a company’s reported earnings drop a few pennies per share for one quarter, the stock price may drop dollars.  And those same companies pursue profits to the extreme, often taking enormous risks to add a few percentage points to their rate of return, even when those rates of return, as in the case of hedge funds and investment banks, were among the highest in finance and industry.  Those “numbers” weren’t enough, and those oh-so-brilliant business types pushed for higher numbers… and crashed the economy.

In sports, athletes are paid on their numbers, and the sports sections are filled with tables and stories dealing with those numbers.  Is it any wonder that there are doping scandals, when only a few percentage points, or seconds, or some other numerical differential that is comparatively small, equates to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars’ difference in compensation?

As a not-quite-side note, what I also find amazing is that for all this emphasis on numbers, the vast majority of people who emphasize them don’t know what they mean or even whether they’re relevant, not to mention the fact that millions if not billions of dollars are spent, or cut from spending, based on projections of future numbers, projections that are almost always revised and often far too optimistic.

Rate-of- return, return-on-investment – those can mean anything, depending on how the underlying figures are juggled.  Which is more accurate, ROI based on the cash value of the investment at the time it was made… or the present value of that investment, and if it’s the present value, which of a half dozen measures of inflation are you using to determine it?  What does an increased rate of high school graduation mean when the students who are graduating have a lower rate of reading comprehension and mathematical understanding [NOT test scores on those subjects]?  Does it mean that nothing has changed, except that more students have a piece of paper?

The problem with chasing numbers is that the numbers become more important than what they’re supposed to measure. Years ago, I came across an analysis of the results of a college degree, and one of the surprising results, at least to the analysts, was that the college or university from which one graduated was far more predictive of future success than was class ranking.  Likewise, the early and even the present studies of the value of a college degree are missing the point. When the first studies in this area were made, college graduates were in fact a small percentage of the population and an academic and social elite. That these graduates made more money over a lifetime had less to do with their having a piece of paper than their having mastered the range of skills necessary to obtain that piece of paper… and the study about which college trumping comparative class rank actually supports that point of view.  Elite colleges require elite students and demand they achieve more, so much so in some cases that students in the lower levels of an Ivy League-level school may well learn more than all but the very, very few in the majority of state universities.

Test scores don’t measure those differences well, because tests have gotten better and better at measuring innate intelligence, rather than applied intelligence… and it’s applied intelligence in the end that determines success, just as it’s the effectiveness of applied capital and personnel that determines corporate success over time, not this quarter’s or this year’s accountant-adjusted profits.

The best “numbers” usually go to the best statistical liars, and it’s well past time to get back to looking at the qualities and quality [or the lack of it] that the numbers are so good at distorting… or not measuring at all.