January 30, 2012
The Danger of False Proxies
I'm coming to the realization that in many parts of my work, I am dealing with the same demon: False proxies. In short, a false proxy is a quantitative, seemingly objective measure that inaccurately or incompletely reflects the truth and sends our efforts in the wrong direction.
For example, in my field of criminal law success is still measured in many quarters (on the law enforcement side) by how many people we lock up and for how long, but this is a false proxy for real success in solving problems. This false proxy is enhanced by an underlying and even worse proxy-- that we use the weight of drugs possessed as a proxy for the culpability of an individual defendant, a standard that leads to high sentences for mules and street dealers.
In advising my students, I find that salary serves as a false proxy for the quality of a job. Setting aside those people who have high debt to be paid off, there seems to be a weakness for the easy marker of big money even when the need is not there.
Finally (and probably predictably for readers of this blog) there is the false proxy of US News rankings as a measure of law school quality.
What is so alluring about these quantitative measures? Primarily, they are easy-- we can evaluate things without the heavy lifting involved in sorting through nuanced outcomes and individualized circumstances. We live in a society where quantification is prized, but rank-ordering everything has a steep price. What is lost is too often those things that are deep and challenging and meaningful, and we academics (critical thinkers that we are) need to take the lead in modeling a better way.
-- Mark Osler