People have a similar dislike for many quantification related things:
- Being referred to by numbers rather than names (though numbers are befitting for robots)
- Being objectified
- Becoming a statistic
- Attempts to measure, model or derive quantitatively things like art, culture, meaning, relationships
- People who are calculating
- Economics‘ attempts to quantify things that ‘just can’t be quantified’
- Public rankings of school test scores
Individual explanations abound. Being thought of as an object, number, or statistic is ‘dehumanizing’. Tv-tropes suggest serial numbers and prison numbers make numbers suggest inhumanity. ‘Being a number’ prevents you being unique (strangely – how many people share your credit card number? How many share your name?’). Being objectified makes others disrespect you as they do objects. Measuring art or culture misses important, indefinable or intangible things. Being a statistic is bad because people don’t care about statistics. Publishing school tests scores misleads parents because test scores aren’t everything, and parents might think they are.
These explanations mostly seem unexplanatory or implausible to me, and the similarity of the concerns suggests that they have a common cause. The explanations have an idea in common: quantification destroys important, especially human related, aspects of things.
This seems an odd concern. Measuring things naturally leaves some of their aspects unmeasured, but if you are worried about missing information, refusing to measure what you can is a strange solution. And fear of Goodhart’s law doesn’t account for the offense and disdain these things prompt.
One explanation is that explicit measurement inhibits one using ‘judgement’ to come to preferred conclusions. That is, it restricts hypocrisy. This explanation requires that the things people don’t want to measure are the things they like to lie about the importance of. This tentatively seems to fit – the things we don’t want to quantify are usually manifestations of admirable values that people tend to talk of more than act on. We mind quantifying love more than sex, nice views more than nice timber, friendship more than hairdressing.
It’s been argued before that we like to say ‘sacred values‘ like human life are infinitely valuable. Ascribing infinite value to something that you don’t really sacrifice everything for risks being too obviously hypocritical. Do we claim ineffability to hide this hypocrisy?
Hypocrisy alone doesn’t explain such a broad aversion though. We don’t like quantifying more than just value. What’s wrong with reductionistic explanations of human behaviour for instance? It seems that many interpret such things as implying human behaviour is less valuable. People hate being ‘reduced’ to ‘just’ something or another, regardless of its complexity. Humans and their concerns are fragile magical things that can be sullied or destroyed by trying to pin them down. Why is measurement of non-value features contrary to our humanity, or to importance?
Another theory: We generally use story thought for important social matters, and system thought for unimportant social matters along with non-social matters. Quantification is pretty much specific to system thought, so using it for a social matter says you find the matter unimportant, and is thus offensive to those who think the matter is important.
Story thought should be useful in social situations. It allows us to fudge matters as in the previous hypothesis. At the same time when we are dealing with important social matters we want to use other story thought features, such as sensitivity to value and social implications, expectation that social rules determine outcomes, attention to agents and especially their unique identities, emphasis on our own perspective, respectful treatment of others as unpredictable agents, and sensitivity to intentions and potential for retribution and reward.
I’m not sure why we would talk about unimportant social issues in system style instead, but it looks like we do more. My friends eat fat because of personal decisions, whereas the poor eat fat because it’s advertised to them. Violence in Aboriginal communities is due to poor social conditions, whereas violence in my culture is due to personal evil. I recall an article reporting Aboriginal girls being raped, and suggested that if this wasn’t intervened in soon this generation of children may also grow up to suffer from being rapists. Amoral influences seem to shape history and foreign affairs more than they do near social issues. ‘Ferdinand’s death … set in train a mindlessly mechanical series of events that culminated in the world’s first global war’, while Our relationship failed because of YOU.
This seems linked to near and far mode; distant people are unimportant and tend to be in system thought. That’s puzzling though, since in far mode we usually care more about morality style values, which feature mostly in story thought.