I have labile hypertension. Having labile hypertension means my blood pressure readings bounce around. Sometimes my blood pressure reads in the normal range and sometime in the high-normal range. Unlike my internal body temperature and my pulse, there’s no obvious reason why taking two measurements under the same conditions and minutes apart should produce significantly different readings. Yet, for me, that’s the normal state of affairs.
A recent visit to the doctor got me thinking about the challenge of measuring other things that are hard to pin down, like employee satisfaction levels in an organization or the effectiveness of a public school, and the bigger challenge of knowing what the measurement means and what, if anything, to do with the information you get from the reading.
The speed of light, as far as we know, is a constant and we have a measure for it. Thanks to our ability to measure the speed of light we now have standard definitions for things like “a second” or “a meter.” The official kilogram, once a metal cylinder locked in a Paris vault, is now an eight-digit number based on a measurement of electrical and magnetic forces. We can use these standards to determine the precise measurement of things that exist or move through the familiar, three-dimensional space: the weight and size of a rock or the speed of the rock being hurled in my direction. Actually, rocks aren’t really that easy to measure. The whole thing gets very complicated when we start asking questions about measuring the stuff comprising the rock. Depending on where we draw our boundaries, the rock is either stable or a blur of activity and there’s the probability that it swaps matter and energy with everything else around it.
As Robert P. Crease, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University, described in a New York Times opinion piece in October, “In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs y pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this, ‘ontic’ measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties.” Crease makes a distinction between “ontic” measuring (or measurements of what exists) and “ontological” measuring (or measurements of how something exists in comparison to something or someone else). For example, even though it’s not giving my doctor actionable information, we can take an ontic measure of my blood pressure. On the other hand, we’re making ontological measurements when we assess my trustworthiness or mastery of the mandolin (one of these is much higher than the other, trust me).
For Crease, the distinction between ontic measuring and ontological measuring is at the heart of a common confusion that can lead to narrow-minded judgments and misguided policy. Crease pointed out, “Intelligence is fundamentally misapprehended when seen as an isolatable entity rather than a complex ideal. So too is teaching ability when measured solely by student test scores.” The trouble stems from treating qualities as quantities.
Talent development and human resource professionals in organizations have the daunting responsibility of assessing the readiness of individuals for more complex leadership roles. Policy makers in government have to make funding decisions and pass laws. Colleges have to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. My doctor has to figure out whether or not to treat my labile hypertension. All these decision require judgment—judgment about the particulars of the situation informed by having measured something and judgment about what the measurements mean and how to use them.
Some refer to present times as the age of “big data.” Technology allows us to identify patterns in oceans of information. One website offers a window into the collective mood of humanity in developed countries at any moment by harvesting words and phrases related to emotions from social media posts and weblogs. All this access to data exacerbates the confusion Crease warns about.
If we want to know whether a particular policy decision has helped or hurt the quality of public education in order to decide whether or not to keep it, will we be more inclined to analyze information or convene stakeholders? Even if my doctor had perfect information about my diet and lifestyle, even if he could measure the activity of every molecule currently comprising my body, I’d still want him to view my situation as unique and involve me in choosing a treatment plan. As Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
It may be irrational to insist that I’m more than the sum of what will ever be measureable about me, but my irrationality counts too.
Read other posts by Jay G. Cone
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