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Mule Day and Quantificationism

The NYT has an alarming piece today on the simplicity of the DHS algorithm awarding anti-terror funding. Apparently states were awarded funding based on their own count of “terror targets.”

The National Asset Database, as it is known, is so flawed, the inspector general found, that as of January, Indiana, with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50 percent more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation.

A Tennessee “Mule Day” celebration apparently got as much weight as the Empire State Building.

Certainly we academics wouldn’t fall prey for such shallow measurements? Well, I won’t comment on the SSRN download debate here, but I’m astonished that even the sciences seem to go in for raw citation counts as measures of importance or relevance:

[I]mpact factors have assumed so much power, especially in the past five years, that they are starting to control the scientific enterprise. In Europe, Asia, and, increasingly, the United States, Mr. Garfield’s tool can play a crucial role in hiring, tenure decisions, and the awarding of grants.

We need a name for the ideological exaltation of numerical measurements of quality, importance, or priority. Following Norton Juster’s delightful The Phantom Tollbooth, I nominate “quantificationism.” Juster satirized the pretensions of the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, in his children’s book. Let’s hope some Swift of our time can help us recognize the emptiness of so many conventional measures of success or importance.