Goodhart's Law: An inevitable flaw?

Simply stated, Goodhart’s Law states that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. History has a lot of examples where this is as clear as daylight, but people fail to realize that they’re probably experiencing it in their day-to-day lives and have never realized it. A good example of this is the popular Cobra Effect which sounds very obvious in retrospect and I think most people listening to this probably wonder why they obviously didn’t see it coming. History has a very funny way to present itself in society - people study to learn from previous mishaps, but can only predict repetition and correlation in hindsight rather than incidents happening right in front.

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

Talking about deriving parallel’s from history, the current society has a lot of similarities with Animal Farm by George Orwell. If you haven’t ever had the opportunity to read it, I highly recommend it. This book parallels how a couple of farm animals rebel against the humans for their inhumane living conditions ironically takes a full circle like the Russian Revolution. This history lesson while being very well known, there a lot of interesting parallels occurring in the current society that mirrors the incidents in Animal Farm. While I don’t want to be political and deviate from the central theme, one of the takeaways from this story is that history only reminds us that we’re all susceptible to Goodhart’s law, no matter how much society changes. From standardized tests to the chase to achieve perfectionism, we are doomed to fail spectacularly if this continues to grow. This does beg the question - can we ever escape it or are we destined to always loop in this vicious cycle of optimizing and destabilizing our lives?

Frankly, I’d like to be optimistic, but modern society wields power to the wealthy and penalizes the poor. There exists a large divide in ideologies between the people in control and people being controlled and this will only increase, probably causing one of the biggest societal disasters where everyone would’ve seen it coming and yet, no one acted on it. From extreme right-wing behavior to the oppression of those who are affected most by the very societal rules that are supposed to protect them, our attitude as members of society towards this pretty concerning.

Goodhart’s law is probably the curse of objective benchmarking - the objectivity is lost once it’s considered as a benchmark, kind of ironic and self fulfilling, don’t you think ?

It appears in many forms: it’s termed as overfitting in Machine Learning, probably something else in a different field in a different form, but I’m quite sure it’s a widespread problem. Circling back, is it an inevitable flaw or a reminder that there can always be change if we collectively realize our mistakes?

Vaibhav Balloli

Vaibhav Balloli

Ph.D. student at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor, MI, USA