Consequences of Standardized Technical Effects for Scientific Advancement

Note. This is modified from:

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, Wednesday, January 21). Consequences of standardized technical effects for scientific advancement. In  A. Leplège (Chair), Session 2.5A. Rasch Models: History and Philosophy. Second International Conference on Measurement in Health, Education, Psychology, and Marketing: Developments with Rasch Models, The International Laboratory for Measurement in the Social Sciences, School of Education, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.


Over the last several decades, historians of science have repeatedly produced evidence contradicting the widespread assumption that technology is a product of experimentation and/or theory (Kuhn 1961; Latour 1987; Rabkin 1992; Schaffer 1992; Hankins & Silverman 1999; Baird 2002). Theory and experiment typically advance only within the constraints set by a key technology that is widely available to end users in applied and/or research contexts. Thus, “it is not just a clever historical aphorism, but a general truth, that ‘thermodynamics owes much more to the steam engine than ever the steam engine owed to thermodynamics’” (Price 1986, p. 240).

The prior existence of the relevant technology comes to bear on theory and experiment again in the common, but mistaken, assumption that measures are made and experimentally compared in order to discover scientific laws. History and the logic of measurement show that measures are rarely made until the relevant law is effectively embodied in an instrument (Kuhn 1961; Michell 1999). This points to the difficulty experienced in metrologically fusing (Schaffer 1992, p. 27; Lapré & van Wassenhove 2002) instrumentalists’ often inarticulate, but materially effective, knowledge (know-how) with theoreticians’ often immaterial, but well articulated, knowledge (know-why) (Galison 1999; Baird 2002).

Because technology often dictates what, if any, phenomena can be consistently produced, it constrains experimentation and theorizing by focusing attention selectively on reproducible, potentially interpretable effects, even when those effects are not well understood (Ackermann 1985; Daston & Galison 1992; Ihde 1998; Hankins & Silverman 1999; Maasen & Weingart 2001). Criteria for theory choice in this context stem from competing explanatory frameworks’ experimental capacities to facilitate instrument improvements, prediction of experimental results, and gains in the efficiency with which a phenomenon is produced.

In this context, the relatively recent introduction of measurement models requiring additive, invariant parameterizations (Rasch 1960) provokes speculation as to the effect on the human sciences that might be wrought by the widespread availability of consistently reproducible effects expressed in common quantitative languages. Paraphrasing Price’s comment on steam engines and thermodynamics, might it one day be said that as yet unforeseeable advances in reading theory will owe far more to the Lexile analyzer (Burdick & Stenner 1996) than ever the Lexile analyzer owed reading theory?

Kuhn (1961) speculated that the second scientific revolution of the mid-nineteenth century followed in large part from the full mathematization of physics, i.e., the emergence of metrology as a professional discipline focused on providing universally accessible uniform units of measurement (Roche 1998). Might a similar revolution and new advances in the human sciences follow from the introduction of rigorously mathematical uniform measures?

Measurement technologies capable of supporting the calibration of additive units that remain invariant over instruments and samples (Rasch 1960) have been introduced relatively recently in the human sciences. The invariances produced appear 1) very similar to those produced in the natural sciences (Fisher 1997) and 2) based in the same mathematical metaphysics as that informing the natural sciences (Fisher 2003). Might then it be possible that the human sciences are on the cusp of a revolution analogous to that of nineteenth century physics? Other factors involved in answering this question, such as the professional status of the field, the enculturation of students, and the scale of the relevant enterprises, define the structure of circumstances that might be capable of supporting the kind of theoretical consensus and research productivity that came to characterize, for instance, work in electrical resistance through the early 1880s (Schaffer 1992).

Much could be learned from Rasch’s use of Maxwell’s method of analogy (Nersessian, 2002; Turner, 1955), not just in the modeling of scientific laws but from the social and economic factors that made the regularities of natural phenomena function as scientific capital (Latour, 1987). Quantification must be understood in the fully mathematical sense of commanding a comprehensive grasp of the real root of mathematical thinking. Far from being simply a means of producing numbers, to be useful, quantification has to result in qualitatively transparent figure-meaning relations at any point of use for any one of every different kind of user. Connections between numbers and unit amounts of the variable must remain constant across samples, instruments, time, space, and measurers. Quantification that does not support invariant linear comparisons expressed in a uniform metric available universally to all end users at the point of need is inadequate and incomplete. Such standardization is widely respected in the natural sciences but is virtually unknown in the human sciences, largely due to untested hypotheses and unexamined prejudices concerning the viability of universal uniform measures for the variables measured via tests, surveys, and performance assessments.

Quantity is an effective medium for science to the extent that it comprises an instance of the kind of common language necessary for distributed, collective thinking; for widespread agreement on what makes research results compelling; and for the formation of social capital’s group-level effects. It may be that the primary relevant difference between the case of 19th century physics and today’s human sciences concerns the awareness, widespread among scientists in the 1800s and virtually nonexistent in today’s human sciences, that universal uniform metrics for the variables of interest are both feasible and of great human, scientific, and economic value.

In the creative dynamics of scientific instrument making, as in the making of art, the combination of inspiration and perspiration can sometimes result in cultural gifts of the first order. It nonetheless often happens that some of these superlative gifts, no matter how well executed, are unable to negotiate the conflict between commodity and gift economics characteristic of the marketplace (Baird, 1997; Hagstrom, 1965; Hyde, 1979), and so remain unknown, lost to the audiences they deserve, and unable to render their potential effects historically. Value is not an intrinsic characteristic of the gift; rather, value is ascribed as a function of interests. If interests are not cultivated via the clear definition of positive opportunities for self-advancement, common languages, socio-economic relations, and recruitment, gifts of even the greatest potential value may die with their creators. On the other hand, who has not seen mediocrity disproportionately rewarded merely as a result of intensive marketing?

A central problem is then how to strike a balance between individual or group interests and the public good. Society and individuals are interdependent in that children are enculturated into the specific forms of linguistic and behavioral competence that are valued in communities at the same time that those communities are created, maintained, and reproduced through communicative actions (Habermas, 1995, pp. 199-200). The identities of individuals and societies then co-evolve, as each defines itself through the other via the medium of language. Language is understood broadly in this context to include all perceptual reading of the environment, bodily gestures, social action, etc., as well as the use of spoken or written symbols and signs (Harman, 2005; Heelan, 1983; Ihde, 1998; Nicholson, 1984; Ricoeur, 1981).

Technologies extend language by providing media for the inscription of new kinds of signs (Heelan, 1983a, 1998; Ihde, 1991, 1998; Ihde & Selinger, 2003). Thus, mobility desires and practices are inscribed and projected into the world using the automobile; shelter and life style, via housing and clothing; and communications, via alphabets, scripts, phonemes, pens and paper, telephones, and computers. Similarly, technologies in the form of test, survey, and assessment instruments provide the devices on which we inscribe desires for social mobility, career advancement, health maintenance and improvement, etc.


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