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Are You Tyrannized By Metrics?

If you are tyrannized by metrics in this way I have just the book for you.

Headline: “Tenured Professor Tyrannized By Metrics”

Jerry Muller has a popular book — The Tyranny of Metrics. I have to say it is pretty bad. The problem is that it is a weak attempt to capitalize on concerns, some of which are genuine. Still, it adds pretty much nothing to the debate. It feels like it was written by a grumpy old professor who didn’t see why he had to justify himself.

He flits between topics but clearly hasn’t delved deeply into any. A long section is on academic measurement, presumably because he could write it without having to do any new research. The rest of topics involve limited sources and superficial views. His main source for medicine seems to be Scott Atlas — President Trump’s Covid advisor who showed no obvious knowledge of infectious diseases. Muller’s book is like that. Muller has satisfied himself that he is very wise, so he doesn’t want to be bothered with having to justify himself to anyone else.

Metrics Can Motivate Action

Some of the problems in the book are prety standard. I will outline these in later posts. Yet what I found most offensive was the casual disregard for anyone who isn’t him. He uses the emotive language of tyranny when he wants to support his position. Clearly it is oppressive for anyone to ask a professor to justify their views with evidence. Yet when things don’t concern him he is positively blasé.

You might want to know how minorities do at school. Muller doesn’t want to know. Expecting him to care about someone else seems to him like some sort of infringement upon his liberty. Clearly lacking educational opportunities isn’t tyranny in the same way that asking a tenured professor to back up their arguments with data is.

Do People Still Write This Stuff In The 21st Century?

Maybe you want to know about medical outcomes for people who aren’t you? Muller doesn’t.

“…some ethnic groups (such as African Americans) have disproportionately high rates of infant mortality, reflecting social, cultural, and possibly genetic factors.”

Muller, 2018, page 106

But rather than a reason to collect data and try and work out how to correct the problem Muller seems to think that African American women dying prematurely is a reason not to bother looking at the metrics. He doesn’t see a need to dig in and try to understand/rectify the problem. Presumably, because it isn’t about him.

Muller May Be Afraid He Will be Tyrannized By Metrics Into Caring About High Maternal Mortality For Black Americans And American Indian/Alaska Natives. Source: Infographic: Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Pregnancy-Related Deaths — United States, 2007–2016,

Metrics can help us see disparities. Muller apparently doesn’t want to know about them. If people, who aren’t him, are dying why bother getting the data? He is happy to dismiss the premature deaths of African American women with a bit of handwaving. I don’t have a metric to express it but I think Muller may not be an ideal human being.

Is knowing that other people need your help a form of tyranny? To Muller’s mind no one suffers tyranny like a tenured professor who doesn’t see why he should be encouraged to care about others.

Muller’s Objections

To be clear his objections against metrics veer erratically between

It is not that there isn’t an argument that could be made on any of these points. There is. I spend a lot of time worrying about which are the right or wrong metrics, see here, here, here, here, and most of the rest of my website. Still, the idea that you can reject metrics is frankly ridiculous. It is like rejecting words. Muller does hedge a bit — metrics have their value — but why then use the word “tyranny”? I will write later about his hedge that allows him to say he is not against metrics — just bad metrics.

Yet, Muller flits between objectives showing little structure or genuine desire to solve the problems. You get the impression he got a smaller merit pay increase than he was expecting based upon some imperfect metric used at his school and he is now angry at the world. I’m guessing he has been tyrannized by metrics into only getting a 1.5% raise when he expected 2%.

Muller’s Solution Is Judgment, But Whose Judgment? His?

The solution he offers is ‘professional judgment’. Who could be against good judgment? How do we know it is good judgment? We don’t. I suspect we just need to take the word of tenured professors that their judgment is good. Why? Because everyone listens to them.

Muller does not tell us how we know judgment is good. I presume Muller would say judgment is good when it is people like him doing the judging.

Can we use a metric to assess the value of judgment or would that be tyranny? There is plenty of research to suggest that expert judgment has problems see here. He doesn’t need to worry about that because Muller isn’t making a serious attempt to tackle a problem. It is a loose, handwaving, borderline offensive (I’m being generous) book. Very disappointing.

Read: Jerry Z. Muller (2018) The Tyranny of Metrics, Princeton University Press

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