The importance and magnitude of EVERY social problem lies in its numbers. If you don't understand the numbers and how they relate, all you can do is emote about the problem.
RR has argued from the start that applying the tools of the systems sciences is critical to the solutions of all social problems (see end notes below). For obvious reasons, also presented and discussed in these pages, the Left has been the major opponent of bringing analytics and numeracy to bear on social issues – this for the simple reason that it deflates their emotion based fuzzy rhetoric which they use to promote their collectivism.
Well, now we have no less than Bill Gates coming out in a major piece promoting quantitative “measurement” for solving worldwide problems ranging from high infant mortality to the classroom evaluation of teachers. His proposals contain absolutely no new ideas, but what is important is that the world’s most famous billionaire and philanthropist is going public with 'new' notions the youngest of which is about fifty years old.
In his ‘My Plan to Fix The World’s Biggest Problems’ there is no plan presented, save the exhortation to start measuring and recording things to do with the problem that you’re trying to solve.
For reasons unknown, Gates does not make clear the difference between a utility function or figure of merit (FOM), that would serve as an objective or goal or to define ‘good’, and the measured attributes that go into the FOM. Perhaps it’s because the piece was written for broad audiences who would be confused by such nuances. However, regular RR readers should not suffer similarly.
A clarifying example might serve here. Consider buying a car from the many models offered – which one to buy? To keep it simple, the only attributes you consider important are its top speed and cost. Somehow you have to trade off these contentious attributes since the faster cars cost more. The tradeoff is performed in your formulation of the cars’ FOM which combines the numerical values of each car’s speed and cost. Then you can collect the numbers for the cars, calculate their FOM values, and pick the one that for you yields the maximum utility. (For you phormulaphiles, a typical FOM formulation here might be FOM = weight*(mph top speed) + (1 – weight)*(K$ cost), where weight is a number between 0 and 1 that reflects your speed/cost tradeoff.)
And here’s rub and the benefit – the adoption and expression of every FOM or utility function is completely subjective for whatever problem you’re solving. The FOM captures your values, judgments, experience, likes/dislikes, and even constraints on what can be done. And such explicit FOMs can do the same for a government, community, or a corporation (business has been using them for decades). Gates is finally saying to America that we have to approach problems with systems thinking if we want to make progress. Continuing with the Left’s approach of “issues activism” based on selected anecdotes and fuzzy emotionalism, while rejecting data and a common understanding of ‘good’, will not accomplish much, and has gotten us to where we are now. (That last italicized bit I added because Bill Gates couldn’t.)
The belated call for such quantitative approaches is encouraging, even though it might turn out to be just more relieving yourself over the windward gunnel. I hope not. Read the article.
End Notes: For a brief summary of RR postings related to reasoning and systems thinking, I have culled the following short list. More can be found filed in RR’s ‘Science’ and ‘Science Snippets’ categories.