misLeading Indicators: How to reliably measure your business

The Curse of Kelvin

Posted on | December 29, 2012 | 1 Comment

“The mental health effects of any given disaster are related to the intensity of the exposure of the event. Sustaining personal injury and experiencing the injury or death of a loved one in the disaster are particularly potent predictors of psychological impairment.”

The research paper from which the above quote was taken was published shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and was based on “data from 284 reports of disaster-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” papers. Theodore Dalrymple in PJ Media rephrased  the paper’s conclusion: “In other words those who suffer more suffer more.” Why is such a completely obvious conclusion published in a supposedly respectable medical journal?

Lord Kelvin’s lecture to the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1883 has become an indictment of sorts of those who attempt to discriminate between the measurable and the unmeasurable, and has encouraged people to measure everything they manage. He said,

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”

People wrongly interpret Kelvin’s comment to mean, “If you cannot measure it, you are ignorant.” But this is not what he meant. Kelvin was talking specifically about the physical sciences.  He was making a passing remark, not stating a generable principle of measurement that was applicable to fields outside the physical sciences. False interpretation of his remark has caused a lot of damage—some call it the Curse of Kelvin. Lord Kelvin (or William Thomson, his given name) was more concerned with the existence of intelligible physical properties than with their measurability.  He knew that you have to be very careful about what inferences or conclusions you can draw from measurements.

His remark has also fooled people into believing that measurements can put a patina of scientific respectability on “research” that is frequently just the painful elucidation of the obvious, such as the medical research referred to above.

Business folks often fall into the same trap. But others, including entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs,  launch great new business ventures on hunches and their own vision without measurement; great leaders have inspired their followers to untold feats without measurement through inspiring visions.

Though Lord Klevin can be faulted for infelicitous language, we cannot blame him for what can be called “physics envy” (after that Freudian nonsense, penis envy). Physics envy actually does exist, and its pedigree goes back to the early 19th century when Newtonian physics reigned supreme and enjoyed a row of magnificent feats such as the finding of the planet Neptune by calculation. The world was imagined as clockwork driven by Newton’s laws.

The budding social sciences thought themselves part of that world of numbers; the world of measurables and predictability. The very aspiration for the status of being called a science was bound up in that positivist hope: If we can express it in numbers, it is science. The telling concept  mecanique sociale expresses these hopes for the social science succinctly. It all floundered, of course. And we now know why: irreducible complexity (non-linearity), and the lack of sharp, well defined concepts inherent in the enterprise. Unfortunately it did not dampen the physics envy-driven enthusiasm for achieving scientific status that is found in business literature and softer scientific fields. The frequent result: endless, undigested, and indigestible numbers, questionable conclusions, or vapid trivialities stating the obvious.

The American social scientist Daniel Yankelovich described the descent into measurement hell that results from the curse of Kelvin:

“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily isn’t very important. This is blindness. The fourth step is the say that what can’t be easily measured doesn’t really exist. This is suicide.”


By Phil Green and George Gabor,  co-authors of misLeading Indicators: How to reliably measure your business. © 2012 Greenbridge Management Inc.


One Response to “The Curse of Kelvin”

  1. Lance Armstrong doping case and bond defaults show challenges of probabilistic reasoning : misLeading Indicators: How to reliably measure your business
    January 28th, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

    [...] The Curse of Kelvin [...]

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