One of the great ironies of the modern world is that we measure more and seem to know less. Our society is awash in statistics and data—so much so that, just as in other flooded markets, the reliability of any single statistic is challenged almost as soon as it is injected into public discourse. When it comes to data, it seems, we are too often left in the position of the unrequited lover: we desperately want some form of affirmation, and would even appreciate a clear rejection. Mostly, however, what we get is simply more information. And this is not only in the realm of our post-truth politics, replete as it is with half-truths and “alternative facts.”
This week we bring you three resources addressing our measurement dilemma: with so many powerful tools for collecting and disseminating data, how should we decide what to pay attention to?
We begin with the relationship between data, curiosity, and partisanship. Reporting for the Atlantic, Olga Khazan begins a piece called “How to Overcome Political Irrationality about Facts” with the tentative prediction that “we may have reached peak polarization.” Why? Because, when shown aerial photos of the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama and the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, a full 15% of Trump voters “told the researchers there are actually more people in the photo from Trump’s inauguration—the one with the big, bare white patches that are clearly be-peopled in Obama’s photo.” The name for this, Khazan reports, is “politically motivated reasoning,” which is, finally, a form of abandoning reasoning altogether.
The solution offered by multiple studies, Khazan writes, is “an odd trait called ‘science curiosity.’” This does not mean a love for the hard sciences or skill with microscopes; it is, rather, a sense of intrigue and openness, a posture toward the world that assumes that with new knowledge, over time, one’s prior commitments can be challenged, altered, solidified, or at times, overturned altogether. As she puts it:
Curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.
Our second article encourages us to consider the ways in which human interaction can address the measurement dilemma. Writing for CityLab, well-known urbanist Richard Florida helpfully sorts the multiple uses of big data in cities. By examining the uses of data collected by internet services, local governments, and the federal Census, Florida shows the new possibilities available to policymakers in our day. Real as those possibilities may be, Florida is also clear to caution readers about the importance of human interpretation in understanding new information, as well as the need to recognize the tremendous complexity of cities—a reality that, at the street level, can belie even the best data analysis.
In other words, big data and new data analytics are only as good as the questions we pose and theories we generate to better understand them. No matter how powerful they may be, new data sources and analytic techniques are no real substitute for nuanced human reasoning about cities.
While curiosity and human interaction are essential in addressing the measurement dilemma, the need for experts remains. And it is for this reason that Thriving Cities (whose Human Ecology Framework organizes our Culture Briefing posts) created the Indicator Explorer—an interactive online tool comprised of over 3,300 indicators from more than 100 community indicator projects around the country. This is no mere database of community indicators; it’s a powerful tool for visualizing which indicators are currently backed by the strongest academic research. It is, in other words, not just an aggregator but a sorter, a resource intended to address the challenges of measurement overload, not by abandoning measurement but by discerning who measures what well.
At this point there can be little doubt that ours is an age of measurement. We measure, rate, share, and compare nearly every feature of our daily lives. From the meals we consume with loved ones to the medical professionals that care for us in our frailty and everywhere in between, we are engaged in a near-constant quest not just for satisfaction, but for quantifiable satisfaction—some sense that an experience is not only good but demonstrably better than others available to us. It would be foolish to think this shared cultural impulse toward measurement is going away anytime soon. We can and should, however, resist the power of the measurement dilemma by keeping curiosity alive and seeking out wise forms of measurement, which is precisely what tools like the Indicator Explorer are designed to achieve.