An end to all lists

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 6 March 2009

The Dutch physicist and Nobel laureate Heike Kamerlingh Onnes once said that he would like to write the motto ‘By measurement to knowledge’ above the entrance of every physics laboratory. That was more than a century ago. Today, so it seems, his wish to gain knowledge through measurement has long left the laboratories and spread through society.

There is something irresistible about measuring things, especially when it comes to country comparisons and international rankings. Yet not all measurement is scientific, and not all statistics really broaden our understanding.

As if to prove this point, the German Bertelsmann Foundation just launched their new Sustainable Governance Index. They collected data for all OECD countries on issues as diverse as civil rights, research policy, income distribution, education results, and environmental protection. Altogether, 149 quantitative and qualitative were analysed, shaken, stirred, and put through a big blender. The result for Australia: social status scored 7.05, and political management 6.53.

It sounded as if things were not too bad in Australia until you saw who did better: Iceland had apparently reached a superior level of development with a score of 7.51 while Ireland’s political system, rated at 7.01, looked more capable of implementing reforms.

What a miserable place Australia must be if it finds itself behind a bankrupt economy and a country left ungovernable by the financial crisis. However, we may feel a bit better because Australia did not need to be bailed out by the IMF, nor did our capital cities see rallies of angry citizens which recently brought Dublin to a standstill.

Perhaps the problem was in the measurement. For example, a country could get better results if it passed its laws more quickly. By this standard, even North Korea would rank high. But whether quicker laws are better laws is still a matter for debate – or for the next Sustainable Governance Index, to be published in 2011.

In the meantime, there is some consolation for the Bertelsmann Foundation. If there were an index for ranking errors, it would come only second. The first place must go to the World Economic Forum. A month before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the British banking system had to be part-nationalised, the WEF launched their Financial Development Index. Supposed to rank the countries with the best financial laws and regulations and the least likelihood of a financial crisis, the winners were … the US and Britain. Ouch.

It is high time to take measurement back to the physics laboratories and declare an end to all country rankings.

%d bloggers like this: