Universal Rights and Universal Measures: Advancing Science, Economics, and Democracy Simultaneously

Art historians and political theorists often remark on the way the columns in Greek temples symbolize the integration of individuals and society in democracies. The connection of architecture and forms of government is well enough known that at least one theater critic was compelled to include it in a review of a World War II-themed musical (Wonk, 2002). With an eye to illuminating the victory over fascism, he observed that Greek temple pillars

“are unique, curved, each one slightly different. They are harmonized in a united effort. They are a democracy. Whereas, the temples of the older, Eastern empires are supported by columns that are simply straight sticks, interchangeable. The phalanx of individual citizens was stronger than the massed army of slaves [and so 9,000 Greek citizen soldiers could defeat 50,000 Persian mercenaries and slaves at the Battle of Marathon in the fifth century BCE].”

Wonk makes this digression in a review of a musical, The 1940’s Radio Hour, to set the stage for his point that

“while listening to the irrepressible and irresistible outpourings of Tin Pan Alley, I understood that the giant fascist war machine, with its mechanical stamp, stamp, stamp of boots was defeated, in a sense, by American syncopation. ‘Deutscheland Deutscheland Uber Alles’ ran aground and was wrecked on the shoals of ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.'”

Of course, the same thing has been said before (the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” brought down the Berlin Wall, etc.), but the sentiment is right on target. The creativity and passion of free people will ultimately always win out over oppressive regimes that kill joy and try to control innovation. As Emma Goldman is famously paraphrased, a revolution that bans dancing isn’t worth having. What we see happening here is a way in which different sectors of life are co-produced as common values resonate across the social, political, economic, and scientific spheres (Jasanoff, 2004; Jasanoff and Martello, 2004; Wise, 1995).

So how does science come to bear? Consider Ken Alder’s (2002, pp. 2, 3) perspective on the origins of the metric system:

“Just as the French Revolution had proclaimed universal rights for all people, the savants argued, so too should it proclaim universal measures.”
“…the use a society makes of its measures expresses its sense of fair dealing. That is why the balance scale is a widespread symbol of justice. … Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value.”

As I’ve been saying in the signature line of my emails for many years, “We are what we measure. It’s time we measured what we want to be.” The modern world’s alienating consumer culture is fundamentally characterized by they way it compromises our ability to relate our experiences as individuals to shared stories that are true of us all, even if they actually never happened in their specific details to any of us. Being able to recognize the pattern of our own lives in the stories that we tell is what makes for science and technology’s universal applicability, as well as for great literature, powerful historical accounts, poetry that resonates across the centuries, as well as political and religious convictions strong enough to rationalize war and totalitarian repression.

In traditional cultures, ancient myths tell the stories that shape the world and enable everyone to find and value their place in it. Because these stories were transmitted from generation to generation orally, they could change a little with each retelling without anyone noticing. This allowed the myths to remain current and relevant as history unfolded in times with a slower pace of change.

But modern Western culture is blessed and cursed with written records that remain fixed. Instead of the story itself slowly changing with the times in every retelling, now new interpretations of the story emerge more quickly in the context of an overall faster pace of change, opening the door to contentious differences in the way the text is read. We’re now in the untenable and tense situation of some of us (relativists) feeling that all interpretations are legitimate, and others of us (fundamentalists) feeling that our interpretation is the only valid one.

Contrary to the way it often seems, rampant relativism and fundamentalist orthodoxy are not our only alternatives. As Paul Ricoeur (1974, p. 291-292) put it,

“…for each of the historical societies, the developing as well as those advanced in industrialization, the task is to exercise a kind of permanent arbitration between technical universalism and the personality constituted on the ethico-political plane. All the struggles of decolonization and liberation are marked by the double necessity of entering into the global technical society and being rooted in the cultural past.”

Without going into an extensive analysis of the ways in which the metaphors embedded in each culture’s language, concepts and world view structure meaning in universally shared ways, suffice it to say that what we need is a way of mediating between the historical past and a viable future.

We obtain mediations of this kind when we are able to identify patterns in our collective behaviors consistent enough to be considered behavioral laws. Such patterns are revealed in Rasch measurement instrument calibration studies by the way that every individual’s pattern of responses to the questions asked might be unique but still in probabilistic conformity with the overall pattern in the data as a whole. What we have in Rasch measurement is directly analogous with the pillars of ancient Greek temples: unique individuals harmonized and coordinated in common interpretations, collective effort and shared purpose.

The difficulty is in balancing respect for individual differences with capitalizing on the aggregate pattern. This is, as Gadamer (1991, pp. 7-8) says, the

“systematic problem of philosophy itself: that the part of lived reality that can enter into the concept is always a flattened version-like every projection of a living bodily existence onto a surface. The gain in unambiguous comprehensibility and repeatable certainty is matched by a loss in stimulating multiplicity of meaning.”

The problem is at least as old as Plato’s recognition of the way that (a) the technology of writing supplants and erases the need for detailed memories, and (b) counting requires us to metaphorically abstract something in common from what are concretely different entities. In social measurement, justice and respect for individual dignity requires that we learn to appreciate uniqueness while taking advantage of shared similarities (Ballard, 1978, p. 189).

Rasch’s models for measurement represent a technology essential to achieving this balance between the individual and society (Fisher, 2004, 2010). In contrast with descriptive statistical models that focus on accounting for as much variation as possible within single data sets, prescriptive measurement models focus on identifying consistent patterns across data sets. Where statistical models are content to conceive of individuals as interchangeable and structurally identical, measurement models conceive of individuals as unique and seek to find harmonious patterns of shared meanings across them. When such patterns are in hand, we are able to deploy instruments embodying shared meanings to the front lines of applications in education, health care, human resource management, organizational performance assessment, risk management, etc.

The consistent data patterns observed over several decades of Rasch applications (for examples, see Bond, 2008; Stenner, Burdick, Sanford, & Burdick, 2006) document and illustrate self-organizing forms of our collective life. They are, moreover, evidence of capital resources of the first order that we are only beginning to learn about and integrate into our institutions and social expectations. Wright (1999, p. 76) recognized that we need to “reach beyond the data in hand to what these data might imply about future data, still unmet, but urgent to foresee.” When repeated observations, tests, experiments, and practices show us unequivocally that our abilities, attitudes, behaviors, health, social relationships, etc. are structured in ways that we can rely on as objective constants across the particulars of who, when, where, and what, as the burgeoning scientific literature shows, we will create a place in which we will again feel at home in a larger community of shared values.

To take one example, everyone is well aware that “it’s who you know, not what you know” that matters most in finding a job, making sales, or in generally creating a place for oneself in the world. The phenomenon of online social networking has only made the truth of this platitude more evident. Culturally, we have evolved ways of adapting to the unfairness of this, though it still rankles and causes discontent.

But what if we capitalized on the general consensus on the structure of abilities, motivations, productivity, health, and trustworthiness that is emerging in the research literature? What if we actually created an Intangible Assets Metric System (see my 2009 blog on this issue) that would provide a basis of comparison integrating individual perspectives with the collective social perspective? Such an integration is what is implied in every successful Rasch measurement instrument calibration. Following through on these successes to the infrastructure of rights to our own human, social, and natural capital would not only advance economic prosperity and scientific learning on a whole new scale of magnitude, but democratic institutions themselves would also be renewed in fundamental ways.

The convergence of political revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and the Second Scientific revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was, after all, not just a coincidence. In the same way that the metric system simultaneously embodied the French Revolution’s political values of universal rights, equal representation, fairness and justice; scientific values of universal comparability; and capitalist values of efficient, open markets, so, too, will an Intangible Assets Metric System expand and coordinate these values as we once again reinvent who we are and what we want to be.

Alder, K. (2002). The measure of all things: The seven-year odyssey and hidden error that transformed the world. New York: The Free Press.

Ballard, E. G. (1978). Man and technology: Toward the measurement of a culture. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press.

Bond, T. (2008). Invariance and item stability. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 22(1), 1159 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt221h.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1991). Plato’s dialectical ethics: Phenomenological interpretations relating to the Philebus (R. M. Wallace, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Jasanoff, S. (2004). States of knowledge: The co-production of science and social order. International Library of Sociology). New York: Routledge.

Jasanoff, S., & Martello, M. L. ((Eds.)). (2004). Earthly politics: Local and global in environmental governance. Politics, Science, and the Environment). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Political and social essays (D. Stewart & J. Bien, Eds.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Stenner, A. J., Burdick, H., Sanford, E. E., & Burdick, D. S. (2006). How accurate are Lexile text measures? Journal of Applied Measurement, 7(3), 307-22.

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

Wonk, D. (2002, June 11). Theater review: Looking back. Gambit Weekly, 32. Retrieved 20 November 2009, from http://bestofneworleans.com/gyrobase/PrintFriendly?oid=oid%3A28341.

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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One Response to “Universal Rights and Universal Measures: Advancing Science, Economics, and Democracy Simultaneously”

  1. Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part I: Reflections on Greider’s Soul of Capitalism « Livingcapitalmetrics’s Blog Says:

    […] objective is, of course, the focus of multiple postings in this blog (see especially this one and this one). From my point of view, capitalism indeed does have a soul and it is actually located in the […]

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