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Poetic Metrics

"Good enough is vastly more rigorous than any metric," says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a New York Times piece by Bruce Feiler (5/18/14). "As a scientist, I can say that very little is measurable," says Nassim, author of The Black Swan, adding that "even those things that are measurable, you cannot trust the measurement beyond a certain point." He uses buying meat as an example: It’s useful to know the weight, and perhaps the nutritional values, but that leaves uncounted the experience of eating the food and all that goes with it.

Duncan Watts of Microsoft, author of Everything Is Obvious, uses diets as metaphor to make a related point. "If you do a rigorous, exhaustive study of dietary science, I guarantee all you’re going to get is confused. There are thousands of studies out there, and they’re all contradictory … Instead, eat reasonable food, exercise, get a good night’s sleep. After all, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow." Duncan actually believes that having more information is good, but that "coming up with the correct meaning … is hard."

Novelist Anne Lamott, meanwhile, sees a decidedly male bias in today’s "obsession with quantification" because "it favors order." Data gives an appearance of control, but Anne says that "everything that is truly human is the opposite of that. The surface numbers aren’t going to hold if your child gets sick or your wife gets cancer." Albert Einstein, a numbers guy if ever there was one, likely would concur, given his famous advice: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."