Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

The Summit on Measurement, Part 4: Don Stacks and the Loneliness of the Measurement Mathematician

Donstackssummit04Mathematics is at the heart of a fascinating and frustrating contradiction inherent in public relations measurement. To do proper measurement, you need to use solid mathematics to reveal the patterns and trends in the data. But many — probably almost all — of those who provide or use or buy PR measurement services have little interest in understanding the complex mathematics required to answer their simple question: “Did the PR work?”

To those of us who enjoy mathematics, it is the beautiful and elegant bridge between messy nature and tidy logic. Between a million human minds and a single line that reveals how they think.

But to those who do not enjoy math, or who have no time to build the careful framework of knowledge required to understand the statistical methods of measurement, it is an opaque and confusing mystery. A mystery whose secrets are revealed only to the likes of Dr. Don Stacks, a professor at the University of Miami, and a perennial speaker at the Summit on Measurement.

Now, Don Stacks is not the only person in measurement who knows a chi-square distribution when he sees it. But he is one of the very, very few people in measurement with both the mad skills and the guts to announce to a Measurement Summit event packed with the best and brightest that, “If your measurement provider doesn’t know what R-squared is, then tell them to take a hike.”

And of course most of those best and brightest don’t themselves know what R-squared is, and don’t really want to know what R-squared is. But they’re afraid to let anyone know it because Dr. Stacks is glaring down at them from the podium. Everyone feels like they are back in Stats 101 and the dog ate their homework.

“A good consumer of research,” says Dr. Stacks sternly, “needs to understand the concepts.”

I sat in on the Measurement 301 pre-Summit workshop, a review of best practices and statistical methods. There were only three or four of us attending, while meanwhile next door the session on social media was packed.

Oh the irony of it all: Here are Don Stacks and David Michaelson (another major measurement math guy) reminding us that samples should be random and that research objectives should be well defined. And I’m thinking, “This is the most important and basic stuff in measurement, so why isn’t this room jammed full of eager students?”

Ah, Mathematics: So beautiful, yet so lonely.

And the point here is that so few people can or will ever really understand the math behind proper measurement, yet if we want to do proper measurement, we have to know that the math is solid. And we can’t all aspire to the skills of Drs. Stacks and Michaelson, who, after all, are the guys — the guys who write the books and train the graduate students and in general make sure that the gleaming Temple of Measurement Mathematics stays clean and tidy and accessible to us all.

But, even the most math-challenged among us can appreciate a graph with a smooth line that explains the data. There has got to be a way to provide the power of math without the intimidation of mathematics. Somebody please invent a Stats Box into which we chuck all the data and out pops the charts and graphs. — Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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1 Comment

  1. F Douglas Stacks

    Wow…how do I meet these guys and how do i put into practice what they teach or profess…?

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