Meritocracy and metrics from a comfortable skyrise office

11.8.2018 kl. 22:10 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

When I moved to London in 2006 to study philosophy, I audited several additional courses at the university during the first weeks to ascertain which ones were worth taking. One of them was a new, experimental course called "Philosophy and Social Policy", taught by a respected philosopher of science. During the first session, we students drew lots to determine the order of presentations during the semester. Unfortunately, I was first in line.

Although by no means sure I would take the course, I never the less ended up doing the presentation, which involved reading several journal articles on the subject of "meritocracy." As I went through the readings, I found myself strangely in agreement with F. A. Hayek, although I had long ago given up on his classical liberalism, or libertarianism, as a sterile and sloppy political philosophy.

A week later I gave a critical presentation where I argued that, practically speaking, any formal public indicator of "merit" would be useless for public policy-making. It would only end up as an arbitrary and poisonously selective aggregation of other indicators easily gamed by the elite. If it were ever put to use, people would simply adapt their behaviour to the criterion, just as some US students receive expensive private tutoring when they prepare for the eminently "gameable" SAT.

My central argument was that public indices based on ambiguous and unavoidably moral concepts such as "merit" were a terrible idea since they neither would nor could capture what they were supposed to represent. The paradox of measuring and evaluating in the social sciences is that it changes us, the very things being measured and evaluated. This is seldom understood by people making decisions at the top.

The professor did not respond at all well to my presentation and, as I recall, delivered a long and unfocused harangue on how I had a typical "analytic philosophy" outlook. She also questioned me in front of the whole class about the nature of my undergraduate education and on some points of Bayesian probability theory, a topic I did not understand well. I was offended and humiliated by the experience and decided not to take her course.

Now, many years later, I'm reading a wonderful book, Two Cheers for Anarchism (2014) by James C. Scott, the finest thing I have read in ages. Much to my satisfaction, it makes many of the same points as I did in that presentation back in the day, albeit much more intelligently and eloquently.

Scott is absolutely right. One of the true evils of our times is that the people in charge of important decisions live in a fantasy world of statistics, indices and Excel spreadsheets. We humans have become so numerous, and our our social organisation so complicated and hierarchical, that we have to gather data in order to attempt to understand how it all works. But data has no intrinsic meaning and cannot inform without accurate interpretation, without context and experience, without at least some inkling of the underlying social reality.

Still administrative and economic professionals are invariably trained to focus only on the numbers, at the expense of complex, messy, qualitative social context. Most of them don't even have a birds-eye view. They have a shadow-on-the-wall view. Say what you will about the industrialists of the early 19th century, they at least understood many aspects of their business, from the factory floor to the high offices of finance. Our contemporary technocrats and business managers see only partial, Plato-cave-metaphor shadows on the wall from the comfort of their skyrise offices - abstract numbers, statistics, indices, charts, many of which poorly reflect the world of humans. This is the source of many of our troubles.