Euphoric Thinking

31 Aug

I’m a little surprised that TED allowed this to be a talk (you should watch it so the post makes sense).

It concerns me that he considers himself a statistician.

Marks rightly challenges the use of GDP per capita as a matter of national well-being. It isn’t a perfect measure. Everyone who has had even the most rudimentary lesson in what the GDP is can say exactly why it’s flawed. Our country’s output is not an accurate measure of it’s happiness. Measuring happiness is tricky and misleading and we should be skeptical of attempts to do so and the policies that result.

His graph of happiness versus ecological footprint rests on shaky assumptions.  Even if we put the Austrian critiques of interutility comparisons aside, I’m not sure Marks’ graph makes rational sense. Can you compare my happiness to the happiness of someone in Costa Rica if I have adifferent type of happiness from him/her? If we want to compare things, we can’t have apples and oranges. As well, he claims that moving further to the right of the graph (which increases our ecological footprint) is bad. How bad is it compared to the alternatives? And if he really thought it was all bad, then why wouldn’t he have shown the final “clumped” distribution even further to the left and higher up? The graph also doesn’t show where these countries are (in terms of happiness) relative to where they used to be.

Comparisons of happiness are difficult precisely because language is imprecise. To the economist, “wealth” is often synonymous with “things that make you happy.” It doesn’t have to be money. Why is it reasonable to assume the sample subjects in happiness measures aren’t using alternative definitions of “happiness” or “love” or “wealth” than is intended by the researchers? People are told their entire lives that money doesn’t matter in the end – are they expressing their own sentiments or sentiments they feel they should express when selecting happiness as being more important?

Collecting and aggregating data is difficult and time-consuming. Marks’ suggests that there aren’t trade-offs in our society for having a “better” environment. The notion is misguided. But worse than that (in this case) is the ignorance of trade-offs in statistics when he himself is a statistician.

I suppose the adage is correct: “there are liars, damned liars, and statisticians.”


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