How do we measure up?

Lord Kelvin, that famous Victorian Scottish physicist used to say that if you can measure something and express it in numbers, you know something about your subject; but if you cannot measure it, your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind. From this wise observation developed a management mantra thought to be essential by managers and those advising them everywhere.  They changed Kelvin’s observation into “if you cannot measure, it you cannot manage it”, thereby removing the qualifications that Kelvin found important in his observation; Kelvin did not say that you know nothing about unmeasured things, but only that you know a lot less about them. From this mantra we have now developed a habit of measuring everything in the hope of managing. This habit is beloved of governments who are now becoming expert in trying to measure everything about our lives and who do need the hope that it gives them.   You hear of people who are asked questions that provide Government with information about their ethnicity. Clearly the government feels that this information will help them manage the business of governing and administration, even when dealing with the administration of rubbish collection. Is my personal rubbish (being someone of Greek-Czech ethnicity) more easily dealt with because the administration knows my ethnicity? I think that the best example of measuring everything in the hope of managing is the proposed climate change legislation, and the carbon emissions trading scheme. In both cases we have targets, all based around unmeasured things or false measures and in both cases most of the resources are going into measurement rather than into measures to reduce carbon emissions. Ultimately the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to emit less carbon – that sounds too simple to be helpful, but we do have to get down to fundamentals and we have to make sure that the Government is down there too. Some measurements are useful like the 381ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, virtually double the pre industrial revolution levels, but that measure does not tell us how to reduce carbon emissions and neither will an emissions trading scheme founded on inaccurate yardsticks and false weights. The only things worth counting will be the measures – the area of new solar panels installed each year, the number and size of wind turbines, the heat pumps the photovoltaics and the like – and the tonnes of coal and barrels of oil used each year. 

I rather like Professor Einstein’s observation about measuring – “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”  That should be emblazoned on every ministerial red box.