Reason Podcast

How To Crush 'the Tyranny of Metrics'

Historian Jerry Z. Muller says we waste too much time fixating on measurements that lead us astray.


When you woke up today, did you weigh yourself? At work, did you check any performance measures for yourself or your colleagues? When you got home, did you check your kids' grades on ProgressBook or some other form of online tracking service? Did you get your 10,000 steps in today, or are you waving your arms on the couch right now, trying to goose your daily total before turning in for the night?

We live in an intensely and increasingly measured world. Virtually everything we do yields data, numbers, and information that we think will improve our performance, help us hit target goals, or figure out if we're doing things right. Even just a few decades ago, this would have struck most of us as nuts, but now we take it for granted—at home, at work, at play.

In The Tyranny of Metrics, just out in paperback from Princeton University Press, historian Jerry Z. Muller explains how we got to a place where we're constantly measuring everything we do—and why much of the time we're not just wasting our time but making things objectively worse. While acknowledging that "the attempt to measure performance is…intrinsically desirable," he nonetheless contends that most metrics we use exemplify what Friedrich Hayek disdained as "scientism" or a "pretense to knowledge" that is false and misguided. 

In chapters examining the use of numbers in education, policing, banking and finance, war, and other areas, Muller demonstrates how what he calls "metric fixation" often goads us into bad, counterproductive behavior. For instance, when surgeons were forced to participate in mandatory public "scorecards" that charted their patients' outcomes, Muller writes, doctors responded by refusing to treat the highest-risk people. "Anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed. We will see many variations on this theme."

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Audio production by Ian Keyser.