Thurstone’s Missed Metrological Opportunity

Leon L. Thurstone (1959, p. 214), an early psychometrician, founder of the University of Chicago Psychometric Laboratory, a former electrical engineer, and, in 1936, the first President of the Psychometric Society, makes some remarks about his career that have a remarkable parallel in the life of James Clerk Maxwell at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, in the 19th century.

Thurstone says, “When I was working on attitude measurement, I found great interest in the application of attitude scales to all sorts of groups, but I was disappointed in the relative lack of interest in the methodological problems which seemed to be more important for the development of social science. I had only scratched the surface of an important field that justified more fundamental methodological study. In the early thirties we prepared quite a number of attitude scales. When I realized that the psychometric laboratory at the University of Chicago might be swamped with such an enterprise, I decided to stop it. All of the incomplete work on a number of attitude scales was abandoned to make time and room for the development of multiple factor analysis which was already well under way.”

Back in the 1870s, the Cavendish laboratory was focused on the new science of electrical measurements. In both the Chicago and Cambridge laboratories, new measures were being developed and applied at rapid rates. Just as Thurstone feared that “Chicago might be swamped” by these projects, so Maxwell stated that “I do not expect or think it desirable that a manufactory of `ohms’ [resistance boxes] should be established” at the Cavendish. The key difference between the Chicago and Cambridge labs was in the directions Thurstone and Maxwell took their work after realizing that their universities were not the place for a factory or workshop atmosphere.

Thurstone’s decision to pursue factor analysis instead of scale development was partly in reaction to his disappointment at the lack of interest his colleagues showed in measurement work. This lack of interest and Thurstone’s unwillingness to push the issue was tragic on a Promethean scale: “During the 1920s Thurstone stole fire from the gods. (As a punishment, they chained him to factor analysis.)” (Lumsden, 1980, p. 7). The tragedy is compounded in that Thurstone did not perceive that there was another direction in which he might have taken psychological measurement theory and application. Instead of choosing between a survey production line and factor analysis, Thurstone could conceivably have considered another option.

This third direction is indicated by the activities Maxwell undertook at Cambridge. “Maxwell outlined a metrological program for the new Cavendish Laboratory, a program for the verification of others’ resistances and devices, and for the production of new, revised standard instruments. [It became] a center of Victorian electrotechnical metrology, certifying electrometers and resistance boxes for the cable-manufacturing industry and the nascent network of physics laboratories” (Schaffer, 1992, p. 24).

Being a former electrical engineer, Thurstone likely would have found Maxwell’s metrological program for the Cavendish quite attractive. Had his thinking followed Maxwell’s, he might have proposed a metrological program aimed at verifying and relating others’ attitude measuring instruments, and using them to improve the reference standards against which any measuring instrument must be ultimately calibrated if a field is to usefully exchange quantitative information.

The concept of metrological standards were a clear consequence of Thurstone’s (1928, p. 547) “crucial experimental test” which required that “a measuring instrument not be seriously affected in its measuring function by the object of measurement.” When one requires, with Thurstone, that “the scale values of the statements [on a survey] should not be affected by the opinions of the people who help to construct it,” and when one also joins him in making the converse requirement, that the scale values of the measures should not be affected by the particular questions asked (Thurstone, 1926, p. 446), the logical consequence is that all scales intended to measure a particular variable should do so in a common metric.

The scientific, economic, and human value of precision measurement standards (Wise, 1995) in this context are brought to a fine point by Rasch’s (1960, pp. 110-115) adoption of Maxwell’s method (Boumans, 1993, 2005) of mathematically modeling new phenomena as analogues of previously validated models of well-understood phenomena. In formulating his method of analogy, Maxwell articulated in his own terms what previous generations of physicists had taken, both implicitly and explicitly, as the “Standard Model” of emulating Newton’s successes in the theory of gravity (Heilbron, 1993). (See my July 14 & 15 entries in this blog on the Standard Model for more information.) In the same way that Maxwell naturally included metrological standards with invariant mathematical models as major focuses of his research program at the Cavendish, so ought we also follow through from the application of Rasch’s models to the creation of a metric system for human, social, and natural capital constructs (Fisher, 2009b).

A common metric is defined and maintained via verified traceability to a metrological reference standard. Maxwell accelerated the advance of physics by his work with reference standards. After a lapse of seven decades, these issues are finally being raised as a natural outcome of invariant measures in education, psychology, and health care (Burdick, et al., 2006; Fisher, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005; Heinemann, et al., 2006), and as a consequence of the economic need to price the value of human, social, and natural capital (Fisher, 2002, 2009a, 2009b). Psychology and social science today would be very different had Thurstone grasped the opportunity he had to shape the subsequent history of psychosocial measurement. We are all products of our times, and it is likely that psychosocial metrology could come into its own only in the context of the emerging network culture.

Boumans, M. (1993). Paul Ehrenfest and Jan Tinbergen: A case of limited physics transfer. In N. De Marchi (Ed.), Non-natural social science: Reflecting on the enterprise of “More Heat than Light” (pp. 131-156). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Boumans, M. (2005). How economists model the world into numbers. New York: Routledge.

Burdick, D. S., Stone, M. H., & Stenner, A. J. (2006). The Combined Gas Law and a Rasch Reading Law. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 20(2), 1059-60 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1997). Physical disability construct convergence across instruments: Towards a universal metric. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 1(2), 87-113.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1999). Foundations for health status metrology: The stability of MOS SF-36 PF-10 calibrations across samples. Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, 151(11), 566-578.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In M. Wilson, K. Draney, N. Brown & B. Duckor (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. Two (p. in press []). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009b, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Heilbron, J. L. (1993). Weighing imponderables and other quantitative science around 1800 Historical studies in the physical and biological sciences, 24 (Supplement), Part I, 1-337.

Heinemann, A. W., Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Gershon, R. (2006). Improving health care quality with outcomes management. Journal of Prosthetics and Orthotics, 18(1), 46-50 [].

Lumsden, J. (1980). Variations on a theme by Thurstone. Applied Psychological Measurement, 4(1), 1-7.

Schaffer, S. (1992). Late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation: A manufactory of Ohms. In Bud R., Cozzens S.E.(Eds.) Invisible connections: instruments, institutions, and science. Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press, pages 23-56.

Thurstone, L. L. (1926). The scoring of individual performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 17, 446-457.

Thurstone, L. L. (1928). Attitudes can be measured. American Journal of Sociology, 33, 529-554.

Thurstone, L. L. (1959). The Measurement of Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wise, M. N. (Ed.). (1995). The values of precision. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

(This is a revision of a 1997 article that appeared in Rasch Measurement Transactions, 11(1): 554.)

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Heilbron, J. L. (1993). Weighing imponderables and other quantitative science around 1800 Historical studies in the physical and biological sciences, 24 (Supplement), Part I, 1-337.

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