09/06/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

The Number You Can Always Trust

Beware metrics.

Numbers that justify or condemn never tell the whole story. Next time you hear an amazing statistic, listen to your intuition and start asking questions about how the number was generated and what part of human experience was left out of the equation.

Metrics, of course, have merit. They offer one way to look at cause and effect. They can help guide good business and philanthropic decisions. Bill Gates' annual letter this year praises measurement as a "tool of business to improve the health and welfare of more of the world's people." And I recommend watching the number juggling of Hans Rosling, another measurement missionary, in his video on the reduction of infant mortality worldwide.*

Clearly, numbers also have a role in research, scholarship and annual reports. In entertainment, numbers tell us about the popularity of music and movies, and they give shape to depictions of "reality" like the news and the internet's favorite communication tool, the infographic.

But such measurements cannot define value. They are only tools.

Just as a hammer is not good for cracking eggs or petting puppies, numbers cannot do a job that requires a fully-functioning human mind -- using all its moral, intuitive, logical and compassionate qualities.

People quote the old adage that the numbers don't lie. But that, of course, is itself a lie.

Numbers are sometimes fabrications, created by people to support certain ends. People quote test results or measurements of one phenomenon or another as if they provide a resolution to all argument. Yet, these numbers, like our words, derive from assumptions, choices and interpretation. At their best, the numbers reveal new insights and potential ways to evaluate past events and plan for the future. At their worst, they reflect all the foibles, bias and self-interest of their creators.

"How much is he worth?" I have heard a businessman say this in reference to a successful peer. The businessman refers to the other person's net worth, of course. And the number, say $2 million, might be financially accurate. But is any person really "worth" a particular amount of money? While numerically accurate, this metric invites us to abandon a multi-dimensional view of another person so we can focus on a single, measurable variable. In this manner, the person's human quality becomes a quantity. A face becomes a number. (Homeless folks are defined by their financial status, too, often with far more negative consequences.)

On a personal level, such thinking leads to prejudice and division. On an international level, it creates significant danger.

Think of nuclear weapons. We count them, we say, so we can maintain relative parity with Russia. The logic of the metric tells us that if the United States has more nuclear weapons than another country, or at least the same amount, we will be safe. Imagine that. Weapons of mass destruction will make us safe. The logic is laughable. You might as well say that because countries can destroy each other, they have more security. In fact, that very idea informs Mutual Assured Destruction -- once, the foundation of our nuclear weapons strategy. Because we can destroy each other many times over, it is argued, we won't use nuclear weapons at all. Even the metric that measures the number of times a city can be destroyed is ludicrous. How many bombs did it take to destroy Hiroshima?

Metrics drive the unemployment rate and the growth rate, which together inform the mainstream view of the country's economic health and its political leadership. But neither number tells us anything about our citizens' wellbeing. The unemployment rate doesn't even count the long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for a job. And the growth rate says nothing about the most important ways people grow -- their health, their education, their spirituality, their family relationships, their service to their communities.

A country may post strong GDP growth while its people atrophy in spirit. Unemployment can drop while human alienation rises. Even when we try to measure our lives with a "happiness" index, we tend to arrive at misleading conclusions because such an index attempts to fit human experience into measurable units -- to offer easy-to-understand information instead of deeper, more nuanced and intuitive analysis.

In a warehouse doing inventory, numbers are paramount. But we need something else to guide the decisions that sustain us. Metrics can help, but we need something that feeds our spirit, gives us purpose, and inspires a sense of being part of a greater whole.

I'm writing about love.

How do you measure love? Number of hugs per hour? Rate of orgasms divided by mortgage payments and multiplied by the number of hours spent in "quality time" with a spouse or partner? Number of sacrifices made on behalf of the children? Rides to soccer practice? Volunteer hours?

The only useful measure of love is subjective and intuitive. Yet, love is the one thing that we can count on to guide both our choices and our actions. Love connects our hearts with our minds. It bridges all cultures. It raises generation after generation of humanity.

When all statistics have passed their use-by dates and all computer cyphers and ones have stopped blinking, love will endure. Or humanity will be extinct.

In the end the only number that's really useful to measure our whole selves is infinity -- because, like love, that number can't be measured.


* I agree with Gates and Rosling to a point -- numbers clearly give insights when evaluating something like births and deaths. But I would say that the reduction in child mortality rate is about more than measurement. The most important factor is something far less easy to quantify -- motivation. The numbers can help inspire donors and governments and people to act, but positive change is driven by compassion and free will, those very intangible human qualities. As Bill Gates mentions in his annual letter, Jim Grant, leader of UNICEF in the 1980s, inspired a big leap in global vaccination rates in part by putting, "a robust data-gathering system in place." But once UNICEF reached its initial goals, donor support fell away and vaccination rates dropped. I believe motivation, not metrics, matters most.