Appropriate Indicators

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Great indicators – leading or lagging – provide the observer with accurate information about a larger issue. In a previous blog, I wrote about my interest in inappropriate indicators, ever since the Reagan administration redefined what it means when it counts “unemployed” people. (If you missed that blog, they redefined it as people who are not working for a period less than six months; the assumption made was that people not working for longer periods of time aren’t serious looking for jobs.  Throughout the recent recession, this redefinition forced analysts and commentators to constantly remind people that there were many people who were not employed, but were still looking, just unsuccessfully.)  So when I run across some appropriate ones, I thought I’d share them.

One of my students commented that I provide much more feedback on papers than most teachers. I do it as a teaching opportunity, of course. But it reminded me of a story by a philosophy teacher of mine who was part of a class in which there were not comments, just final grades on the papers. One student had the theory that the teacher didn’t read the papers and just randomly assigned grades. To test it, he included the following paragraph right in the middle of the paper:  “If you read this paragraph, tell me and I’ll owe you a steak dinner; if you don’t, I’ll bring it to your attention after I get back the paper and you’ll owe me $10.”    The student got the paper back, with no comments. He then showed the page to the professor – who was clearly embarrassed.

In “Think Like a Freak” by Freakonomics experts, Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner, note that the rock band Van Halen also used an indicator to find out whether people fully read their contracts.  Their performances required substantial precision in how their equipment was set up. So David Lee Roth, who handled their contracts, added a 53 page rider to their touring contract setting out technical and security specs as well as food and beverage requirements. The “Munchies” demanded potato chips, nuts, pretzels and “M&M’s (WARNING ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)”.   People who read this thought Roth was excessive even for this prima-donna!  However the rationale behind it was simple: When the band walked out to practice on the stage, simply by looking at the M&M dish, they could spot whether the people in charge of the set up read everything and paid attention to it or not! If they saw brown M&Ms, they knew that they needed to double-check all the equipment for themselves!

The authors also gave another spin to the classic story about Solomon, who when confronted with two women who had given birth to boys at about the same time and one died, had to decide who was the true mother of the surviving baby. His indicator was motherly love. He proposed cutting the baby in half — recognizing that the true mother would not let Solomon kill her son, even if he had to live the rest of his life with the other woman, while the woman who was “stealing” the baby, would also prefer to let the baby die than let the other woman have when she could not have.

What appropriate and inappropriate indicators have you encountered?  Share them with us!

(By the way, if you’re like me and want to know about them, an excellent book on the topic with lots of examples is Unobstrusive Measures, by Webb, et. al.) Enjoy!