Bogus quantification

"... a very rarely discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities - even in moderate quantities... The more frequently you look at the data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get."

This little tidbit of wisdom comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the best seller Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable as well as the more recent Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Highly recommended reading, if not multiple times.

Taleb has some gems: "... our track record in figuring out significant events in politics and economics is not close to zero; it is zero."

I was struck today by an article emanating out of BC Business magazine.

B.C. looks to rehaul post-secondary to meet the needs of LNG

The article opens with this suggestion:

On April 29, Premier Christy Clark unveiled the provincial government’s “Skills for Jobs” blueprint: a multi-year funding strategy that aims to re-engineer the province’s education system, putting more students on a path toward secure employment. By 2017-18, the government projects it will have earmarked 25 per cent of the $1.9 billion it contributes annually to post-secondary institution operating budgets for programs that lead to high-demand occupations. Over the next decade, $3 billion will be redirected to such programs, according to Shirley Bond, B.C.’s minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training.

A higher-level administrator in post-secondary is quoted:

“The bottom line of the government’s plan is that funding for post-secondary institutions will be based on labour market information and workforce targets, and that institutions will be held accountable to achieving results,” says Eric Davis, provost of the University of the Fraser Valley.

Thus, I ask a simple question - 'achieving' what results? Employment of graduates? Employed for how long? What if it's only contract to contract?

Plus, this question arises: haven't post-secondary institutions been held accountable to this point? And if they don't achieve desired results... then what? Cut funding? Does that not result in some other people losing jobs... is that not a net-zero impact?

And, maybe most importantly, what happens if the 'results' that an institution is being held 'accountable' to achieving' - are wrong? Did the predictions we made five years ago get re-visited? Were we accurate five years ago in our predictions - if not, why? Or more importantly, if so, why?

What data will be used be used to achieve what results?

What data will serve as the 'base' of labor market information? Or, the 'workforce targets'? Are those targets that are set now in 2014, or are they moving targets that get re-jigged every year... every six months... every month? Remember Taleb's suggestion... the more frequently you look at the data, the noisier it gets. (Noise and analyzing data aren't good - it's like trying to compose a symphony while the neighbors mow their lawn and have their roof replaced...)

What happens if the apparent multiple Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) plants "proposed" for northern BC don't get built? Or the "proposed" pipelines to feed them don't get built? Or, the least talked about issue: the energy demands to change natural gas from gas form to liquid form for shipping? What if the capital to build them decides to place itself somewhere else - Australia, Africa, lower 48? Or, not at all?

Not to get too wrapped in knots about 'what if' questions - however, shouldn't a "re-engineering of the province’s education system" be subject to a bit more discussion, and maybe a bit more broader 'objective' then prognostications about 'labor market demand' and hypothetical labour shortages that are yet to arrive? (many folks, including those hallowed economist-types in major banks are questioning some of the 'labor gap' predictions).

A local MLA in my area, Shirley Bond, the current minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training suggests: “We want to make sure that when students and their families sit down to make decisions, they’ll have access to the best information possible.”

What does this mean? What is the "best information"? Do only government minister's have it? Who determines "best" in show, the ribbon winners - and second-best information? (e.g. "if you're not first, you're last" the great quip from Ricky Bobby of Talledaga Nights...).


I suppose, the leading question I have with these types of initiatives - what if we take a slightly longer view... like fifteen years, about the time my kids will be entering the workforce full-time-ish. Let us say best case scenario for current governing regime: a couple of natural gas pipelines get built, maybe a couple of LNG plants, the energy needs are satisfied, tankers are running LNG to Asia... then what?

Then BC has a glut of, what the article points out are predicted to be a shortage of in a few years: "including boilermakers, welders, pipefitters, and certified construction workers." And the BC education system has been "re-engineered" to achieve this... what about the sociologists, psychologists, business analysts, accountants, and (oh my) the philosophers with their pondering of ethics and morals and all that 'silly liberal education' touchy-feely stuff...?

Or what about the criminologists, early childhood educators, geographers, and otherwise...?

Not that I'm against taking a critical look at our education system... however, re-jigging it to fit some sort of economic (aka. political) prediction... that is cause for concern, especially when there is a real danger for bogus quantification.

Reminds me too much of the 'organizational consultant' that comes into an office and recommends "oh... we need to go open concept here... get rid of the cubicles, drop the walls, collaboration, collaboration, collaboration..."  The next day the cubicles start coming down.

Then three years later, the consultant gets called back in and says "oh... we need to get a bit of separation in here, people need a little more autonomy, there needs to be some independence, some separation, that will get production up and profits up..." The next day the cubicles start going back up.

And then, in great Proctor & Gamble wisdom: "rinse and repeat if necessary".

Beware of bogus quantification. And, even more wary of prognostication based on bogus quantification.