An end to all lists

Broadcast on ABC Radio National (Counterpoint), 16 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, 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 categories 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 for 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. But we should not lose heart. After all, 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 marks if it passed its laws more quickly. By this standard, even North Korea would rank high. Whether quicker laws are better laws is still a matter for debate – or for the next Sustainable Governance Index, to be published in 2011.

The Bertelsmann study is not the only country ranking riddled with problems. Take the Environmental Performance Index compiled by Yale and Columbia. One of the criteria they used for assessing environmental performance was ‘sustainable energy.’

The worst performers in this category were prosperous, developed nations like Australia and the United States. And who had the most sustainable energy? The surprising answer: Uganda, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But their reasoning was highly questionable. People in poor countries have no access to modern forms of energy, so they burn charcoal, wood and dung. These may be renewable resources, but that does not make them sustainable. At least they are not good at sustaining human life. The World Health Organization estimates more than two million people die from infections directly linked to burning dirty fuels in their homes. Given the choice, most Ugandans would probably opt for a little less energy ‘sustainability’ if helped them develop economically.

The Prosperity Index of the Legatum Institute also comes to some surprising conclusions. Its latest edition ranks Australia as the world’s most prosperous country. While we wouldn’t want to argue with that, the individual rankings get less intuitive. For example, China – of all places! – got good marks for its air quality. Of course, the Chinese did not dare to speak the truth when asked about it in opinion polls. Or maybe they just ticked the wrong box because they couldn’t read the questionnaire through the fog.

However, there is some consolation for the all these institutions and their absurd rankings. If there were a ranking for ranking errors, the first place would have to go to the World Economic Forum. A month before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the British banking system was partly nationalised, the World Economic Forum 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, they put the US and Britain on top. Ouch.

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

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