Quantitative limits

Numbers tell us a lot about the world we live in, but they don’t tell us everything.

Numbers tell us a lot about the world we live in, but they don’t tell us everything.

Ask a physicist, and she’ll likely tell you that numbers and math can be used to explain — and predict — virtually everything in the universe. Ask a poet, however, and he’ll probably scoff at such an assertion. Surely math can’t describe, let alone predict, things like emotions, deeply held beliefs and the nature of the human experience.

Who’s right? They both are, to certain extents.

Provided that they are accurately measured and properly interpreted, numerical data can be used to explain virtually any system — even systems made up of human beings. But the more complex the system, the more difficult this becomes, and the less reliable the model.

This is why the numbers-heavy field of economics is often described as “the dismal science,” as its predictions are nowhere near as reliable as those made in true scientific disciplines.

And so we tend to agree with the Rossland Neighbourhoods of Learning (NOL) Committee when they question the usefulness of School District 20’s “Planning for the Future” facilities report when it comes to decision making.

District staff did an admirable job in preparing the report, which thoroughly compares various options for future facilities use and assigns numerical ranks to each option. There is a lot of value in such an approach, and this report should certainly weigh heavily on trustees’ minds as they struggle to make some difficult decisions in the near future.

It would be a mistake for trustees to base their decisions solely on the report, however.

Aside from some of the valid technical concerns with the report’s methodology that the NOL group pointed out, there is also a more fundamental limitation of quantitative analysis at play here. Sheer numbers can’t express the integral role many educational facilities and programs have come to play in our region’s relatively small communities, and what they mean to parents, children and the public at large. Trustees ought to consider these subjective factors along with numerical data as they deliberate.