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Twice As Smart Today As I Was Yesterday

January 6, 2017

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
– Bilbo Baggins

What would you think if I told you that it was twice as warm today as it was yesterday? Suppose I told you that this weekend will be three times as warm as it is today? Now, suppose I told you that none of that makes any sense?

(I know, some of you are saying, “Why do you think we come read this everyday, Rodney?” Touche.)

The fact is, twice, half, three times mean nothing in certain contexts; temperature being one of them. If I have ten people at my birthday party and you have twice as many people at your party, we can make valid comparisons about our relative popularity. But, temperature doesn’t work that way. Here’s why.

Today’s high temperature here in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Utah will be 21 degrees Farenheit. The low this morning was -3. Let’s look at those temperatures. What’s the ratio between the two? Would you say the high today is going to be seven times the low? That’s not actually true, is it. The high today is actually negative seven times the low. Just drop that one in conversation today.

Yeah, I saw where Utah’s high temperature today is going to be negative seven times higher than the low.

Sure, that’s makes sense.

By this weekend, our temperatures will warm up into the 40s. (Yeah, it’s been a crazy winter.) So, Sunday’s temperature will be double today’s high temperature, right?

Sure, but it still makes no sense. It was -3 on my way into work. At some point it heated up to zero. Did my temperature double. . .Think about it. When the temperature is 2 degrees and it goes up to 4, technically it just doubled. However, it’s still cold. . .really cold, and the temperature moved two degrees; not enough to notice. If it’s 60 degrees, and the temperature was to double, we’d all be firing up our Air Conditioning and complaining about Global Warming.

The point is that while temperatures look like real numbers, they are not. They are numeric representations of an environmental phenomenon. In other words, we could as easily reset the scale and arbitrarily add 255 degrees. So, I could say today’s high temperature is expected to be 266 degrees. Crazy, you say. Not really. Today’s high temperature is expected to be 266 degrees on the Kelvin temperature scale. (0 degrees Kelvin is absolute zero, the temperature at which all molecules stop moving. . .and only slightly colder than my car was this morning.)

What’s all this have to do with anything? Just this. We often attempt to apply math to non-quantifiable metrics. In my industry we try to figure out what a “good” customer experience is and we attempt to maximize that experience. Like many companies, we map the customer experience to a 10 point scale. But, suppose we say that Customer A gave us a score of 5 and Customer B gave us a 10. Does that mean that Customer B was twice as happy as Customer A? And trying to force “math” into that interaction would lead to silly comparisons like my “double the temperature” examples.

We see something similar in the emergency room.

Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced.

Trying to do statistical analysis on the pain scale would result in chaos.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to measure things. My job is all about measuring things. I love to measure things. (Did I mention I kept track of the temperature this morning?) The challenge is knowing when math can be applied to the numbers and when it can’t.

For example, telling your wife, “You’re twice as pretty today as yesterday”? Absolutely, that is a valid statement.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2017 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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