I spent a couple of days this past week with a group of smart and capable people who are trying to develop a model for the workings of a complex human endeavor, complete with “metrics”—quantifiable factors—that serve as benchmarks for success.
To explain metrics to the assembled, a consultant showed us a PowerPoint that, among other things, included the tale of the 19th century chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater, who wanted to scientize food. First, Atwater calculated the energy content of foods: he burned samples in controlled conditions, then measured the amount of energy released as heat. Then, in experiments with actual human bodies, Atwater calculated the amount of energy lost in human waste, then subtracted that from the total. Atwater’s conclusion—that carbohydrates and protein equal about four calories per gram, and fat nine calories—seemed to unlock the mystery of food. It was almost universally embraced. By now, the notion that a calorie is the correct metric to measure food consumption has become so pervasive, calorie counts appear in first position on every food label.
The underlying metaphor here, of course, is the human body as a furnace. We “burn” calories—except that we don’t. We digest food by an altogether different process involving multiple organs and chemicals, and we digest different foods differentially. In fact, if one’s interest in calories stems from a desire to lose or gain weight through food intake, more recent science has demonstrated that which foods we eat matters more than their calorie-values.
It’s all very controversial, of course, especially since there is a huge investment—scientific, medical, and industrial—in the conventional wisdom that calories alone regulate weight. (Here’s an interesting early account of the cascade of response to one of Gary Taubes’ books, for instance.) But a growing body of research is proposing that excess weight stems from excess fat accumulation which is down to insulin regulation, which turns on excess carbohydrates, not fat. (Yes, if you like it and it likes you, you can eat blue cheese to your heart’s content, so scroll down for a couple of yummy recipes.)
I’m guessing that the consultant acquainting my colleagues and me with the introduction of nutritional calories as an illustration of the power of metrics wasn’t aware of the possibility that in practical terms, he picked an example which may amount to a long detour into error. It’s not that the measurement is inaccurate—one kcal does indeed reflect the heat necessary to raise a kilogram of water’s temperature one degree Centigrade—but that its main virtue is ease of measurement, not meaningful application.
That’s why I’m skeptical about the value of such enterprises as applied to human events. My main reservations are two.
First, it’s not that models and metrics can’t be constructed to measure something in every realm. But I deeply doubt whether they can actually capture and measure what matters most: too many metrics measure what’s easiest to count, not real value.
I keep linking to Anthony Cody’s excellent education blog when such points are discussed. For instance, one of the egregious errors he keeps pointing out is that teachers are increasingly evaluated according to the “Value Added Model” (VAM), a metric that now constitutes at least 40% of teacher-evaluation scores in some major states, judging teachers based on indicators of student performance. It seems no one noticed that when teachers are assigned to more challenging classrooms—for instance, those with many English language learners or Special Ed students—the metric drops sharply. Thus excellent teachers who are handed more challenging assignments are downgraded in value. The metric does what it says, equating student scores with teacher performance—but does it reflect true value? Of course not.
Second, I doubt whether the amount of time and money poured into constructing models and measurements is worth it in the end.
Just as the Black Death symbolizes the Middle Ages, our era is plagued by the Madness of Theory. We labor under the suffocating superstition that if we were only able to translate all things of value into the language of balance-sheets, everyone would understand and agree. This is changing now, but of course, institutions are always the last to catch on. They always cling most tightly to the hope that they will be able to play the game and win by the old rules when in fact, winning requires changing the rules. As I wrote in my previous blog on Daniel Kahneman’s work, researchers are proving that many—perhaps most—of the presumably rational decisions we make are grounded not in calculation and cognition, but in “System 1” thinking, rapid, intuitive, allusive, and strongly influenced by emotions. Often, they tell us, System 1 makes the decisions, and only after that, does System 2—the slow cognition and calculation we think of as rational decision-making—summon the evidence to support a foregone conclusion.
I am moved by the way Isaiah Berlin expressed this understanding of metrics’ limitations in his wonderful essay, “The Sense of Reality”:
[T]he truth that what may be known about human beings is very little compared to what must remain fluid and mysterious: To claim to be able to construct generalizations where at best we can only indulge the art of exquisite portrait-painting, to claim the possibility of some infallible scientific key where each unique entity demands a lifetime of minute, devoted observation, sympathy, insight, is one of the most grotesque claims ever made by human beings.
As a lifelong “foodie,” after experimenting with every dietary regime from vegan to paleolithic, my personal view of diet comes down to this: eat real, delicious food that feels good in your body; avoid what triggers digestive problems or leaves you feeling starved or overstuffed; remember that food is both fuel and pleasure, and don’t devalue either meaning, treating your body as if it were a furnace and your kitchen as it if were a lab.
As with eating, so with nearly everything having to do with complex human creatures and our societies. We are moving into a new era, where our stories—Berlin’s “art of exquisite portrait-painting”—will be understood to matter far more than the effort to reduce them to numbers. Understanding this, we would be better off shaping our interventions in ways compatible with System 1, figuring out how to capture its attention, to annex the images and emotions that nourish it, and to break through the encrusted layers of assumption and habit that prevent people from apprehending the deeper truths they obscure.
For some reason, I’ve been eating a lot of celery lately. It’s probably what they say about all that crunching releasing energy, as it’s a very busy time, demanding the discharge of surplus frustration. Subjectively, though, I think it’s the combination of crunch and liquidness, the way celery is water trapped in something rather like wood. I love the combination of celery and blue cheese, which is good, because after I’ve removed the larger stalks for crunching, I find I’ve stockpiled celery hearts, and waste not/want not is inscribed on my DNA. Two recipes, then, one cold and one hot.
Celery and Blue Cheese Salad
4 celery hearts (the small pale stalks and leaves at the center of a bunch)
1 T Dijon mustard
3 T lemon juice
3 T whipping cream
2/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
2/3 cup crumbled blue cheese of any type
1-2 T chopped fresh parsley
salt and black pepper
Slice the celery and scallion finely and put into a serving bowl. Add the mustard, lemon juice, whipping cream, and salt and pepper to taste. (Don’t over-salt; taste again after the cheese is added and if more is needed, go ahead.) Mix very well and taste for balance of lemon and cream, adding one or the other if needed. Add the walnuts, cheese, and parsely and toss. Taste for seasoning.
If you make the salad ahead, reserve the parsely and walnuts and store the salad in the refrigerator, adding them just before serving to preserve crunch. Serves six as a small salad, fewer as a main dish.
Celery and Blue Cheese Soup
People will not be able to guess the ingredients, which makes this extra fun to serve.
6 celery hearts, or one large bunch of celery, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper
3 ounces crumbled blue cheese
arrowroot or cornstarch
Saute the onions in the butter and oil till they just begin to brown. Add the celery, turn a few times, then cover the pan and cook over medium heat for about ten minutes. Check periodically, mixing and scraping up any browned bits. You want the vegetables to saute lightly, but not brown too much.
Add the stock, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, about 40 minutes, until the vegetables are very soft. In a small bowl, mash the cheese to a paste, and stir in a little of the soup to thin it to a cream. Hold here if you are not planning to serve immediately.
When you are ready to serve, bring the soup to a boil and thicken it slightly with a slurry of arrowroot or cornstarch, just enough to hold it together (mix 1 T of thickener with 1 T of water in a small bowl, and start by adding half of it, adding the remainder if needed, or more if you like it extra-thick). Turn off the heat, whisk in the cheese. Sprinkle each bowl with parsley. Serves six.
If you have leftovers, be careful reheating them. Don’t boil vigorously, or the cheese will separate and get oily.
While you cook, ponder this: Lucinda Williams, “Convince Me”. What will it take?
Tell me so I understand
Talk to me and hold my hand
And please, please, please convince me
Please, please, please convince me