Metrics can be tricky, but they beat floundering in the dark

More than 600 geeks gathered in Philly last week to make love to WAR.

Not war as in the thing with bullets WAR as in W-A-R, the advanced baseball statistic that seeks to sum up in one number the added value a given big-leaguer brings to his team.

WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. If I told you any more about how it works, your eyes would glaze over – unless you’re a kindred spirit of the hardball nerds who met in Center City last week.

Perhaps you saw the popular movie Moneyball, with Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane, the obsessive general manager who turned the Oakland A’s fortunes around by listening to the nerds.

If so, you got a sense of how hot a war once was waged between the sport’s old-guard and the geeks in glasses with their newfangled acronyms calculated to the fourth decimal place. That combat has cooled some lately, as success breeds imitation.  Most teams, though alas not the Phillies so much, have advanced statistics on staff.

Baseball is only one vantage point from which to survey the metrics revolution that’s sweeping across America. As computing power increases, the number of things we can count with speed and precision escalates.

People who can hear the numbers singing with wisdom get a jump on competitors. Yet, it’s just as true that people who embrace defective metrics as guidestars can be deeply misled.

The same day last week that I edited WHYY’s story about the baseball geeks, I edited another about Consumer Reports issuing new ratings for how well hospitals do with elective surgeries. Several big-name hospitals locally didn’t fare well; predictably, they questioned the Consumer Reports methodology.

They had a bit of a point. The limited data used seemed to measure the age and poverty of a hospital’s patient mix as much as they did the quality of its care. But I’d argue that an instructive measure with some flaws is better than no measure at all.

Health care, like another vital societal endeavor, education, has been stubbornly resistant to outside efforts to use metrics to judge efficacy and inform practice.

The fight over test scores as a way of evaluating schools and teachers is particularly fruitless and painful. Educators seem to spend more intellectual energy debunking metrics promoted by others than on devising ones they think would be fair and meaningful.

Unfortunately, one thing is clear: Society will never fund education the way it should if educators’ stance on evaluating their work amounts to: Just trust us.

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