Everyone knows that many types of measurement are at best crude constructs, especially when it comes to human psychology and well-being. But even the brute physical world remains mysteriously elusive. Fingerprints have been a bedrock of forensic evidence for decades—but the reliability of fingerprint analysis in some circumstances has lately been called into question. If anything ought to stay still long enough to be precisely measured, it is nature's physical "constants." But it turns out that our values for such things as the gravitational constant, the fine-structure constant, and even the speed of light may not be as solid as one would wish. "The constants of nature could be lawless variables," a physicist from London's Imperial College told a conference earlier this year.
In the everyday world, too, standard methods of measurement have been found to fall short. Last year the National Weather Service announced that the formula for the wind-chill factor had been somewhat inaccurate ever since it was adopted, in 1973, and that a new formula would be used in the future. Many meteorologists agree that the heat index, the wind-chill factor's warm-weather counterpart, could also benefit from remedial attention.
No one would argue for scrapping society's vast accumulated infrastructure of measurement. Indeed, there may be some new statistical indices we'd all be grateful to have. For instance, it would be easy enough to devise an accuracy-of-prognostication index for newspaper columnists, perhaps a little number that would appear right after the byline: "by Robert Novak (1.7)"; "by David S. Broder (7.6)." But at the same time, it might be worth giving subjective judgment more weight. Subjective judgment, after all, is what gives us epigrams. It is the methodology that informs such phrases as "gut reaction" and "cut of his jib." It is why NASA still uses noses rather than machines to decide which smells will prove intolerable in space. It often captures truth more fully than any measurement can.
As the College Board has shown, objective measures can easily be supplemented with something more individual and illuminating—namely, a short essay.
Imagine, say, that Albert Camus was a television meteorologist. After reporting the heat index, and maybe comically mopping his brow, he would tell us what being outside in such heat actually felt like:
I was surprised at how fast the sun was climbing in the sky. I noticed that for quite some time the countryside had been buzzing with the sound of insects and the crackling of grass. The sweat was pouring down my face ... The glare from the sky was unbearable. At one point, we went over a section of the road that had just been repaved. The tar had burst open in the sun. Our feet sank into it, leaving its shiny pulp exposed. [The Stranger]
Or the meteorologist could be Jack London. After he finished telling us the wind-chill factor, with an affable on-camera shudder and a sideways grin at the news anchor, he might also explain what that terrible degree of cold really did to a person:
It was surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing. And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make them move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. ["To Build a Fire"]
This approach could usefully augment many types of measured assessment—the latest unemployment figures, an electrocardiogram, a new estimate of the age of the universe. I put it forward with a certain hesitation, aware that novelty is too often mistaken for progress.