They are just five simple words, uttered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the United Nations yesterday, but they are freighted with controversy, judging from the reaction on social media.
Harper was talking about maternal health in developing countries, according to the Canadian Press report.
We're guided in all of this by an old saying that I think inspires anyone who truly wants to make progress: if it matters measure it. Well this matters.
Of course, many people's first thoughts leapt to the census controversy. Canada's former chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, believes that you measure what matters too. In an essay penned for a book on "intelligent government," an essay also reported on yesterday by CP, Sheikh writes:
No country can be among the league of civilized societies without intelligent policy development. And, intelligent policy development is not possible without good data.
So apparently, on the issue of measure and matter, Sheikh and Harper are of one mind.
But so are others. In fact, a simple Google search taught me that the phrase "if it matters, measure it," is actually the motto of the right-wing Fraser Institute in Canada. We learn this from Stephen Taylor of the National Citizens' Coalition, in a piece he wrote for the National Post, defending Harper's decision to abandon the mandatory long-form census.
The conservative/libertarian Fraser Institute think tank’s motto is “if it matters, measure it.” The untruth of the inverse of this statement is at the centre of why this government should follow through. “If you measure it, it matters” is the motto of those net tax-receiving organizations who only matter if they can make their case. ....
His greatest challenge is to dismantle the modern welfare state. If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander. I imagine that Stephen Harper’s view, Canada should be a country of individual initiative, not one of collective dependence “justified” through the collection of data.
Simple enough, I guess. If you want to make something NOT matter, "discount" it. Literally.
So is this really the Fraser Institute's motto? Seems so. Apparently they ran a contest a while back, inviting people to send in videos to illustrate/elaborate on the phrase. Here's one charmingly precocious entry, urging that education be measured in dollars. Link here: http://youtu.be/THQs1pETzJA
But the Fraser Institute didn't invent the "if it matters, measure it" saying. Credit there appears to go to Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), the Scottish mathematician and engineer, pioneer of modern physics. Apparently he's the fellow who said "to measure is to know," or, as he described it in lengthier terms:
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 meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.
I suspect we'll be hearing a bit more today about Harper and his views on measurement. The issue of course, isn't measure, but matter. As Stephen Taylor helpfully explained, this Prime Minister will measure what matters to him, and stop measuring what he discounts. There was another phrase rattling around during the census controversy, which also probably bears repeating in all this talk of measure and matter -- "count is at the centre of the word accountability."