The Path to a New Consensus: A Practical Procedure for Resolving the Opposition Between Absolute and Relative Standards

The possibility of a new nonpartisan consensus on social and economic issues has been raised from time to time lately. I’ve had some ideas fermenting in this area for a while, and it seems like they might be ready for recording here. What I want to take up concerns one of the more contentious aspects of the cultural and political disputes of recent decades. There are important differences between those who want to impose one or another kind of moral or religious standard on society as a whole and those who contend that, within certain limits, such standards are arbitrary and must be determined by each individual or group according to its own values and sense of what makes a community.The oppositions here might seem to be irreconcilable, but is that actually true?

Resolving deep-seated disagreements on this scale requires that all parties accept some baseline rules of engagement. And herein lies the rub, eh? For even something as seemingly obvious and simple as defining factual truth has proven beyond the abilities of some highly skilled and deeply motivated negotiators. So, of course, those who adhere rigidly to preconceived notions automatically remove themselves from dialogue, and I cannot presume to address them here. But for those willing to entertain possibilities following from ideas and methods with which they may be unfamiliar, I say, read on.

What I want to propose differs in several fundamental respects from what has come before, and it is very similar in one fundamental respect. The similarity stems from the realization that essentially the same thing can be authoritatively stated at different times and place by different people using different words and different languages in relation to different customs and traditions. For instance, the versions of the Golden Rule given in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke are conceptually identical with the sentiment expressed in the Hindu Mahabarata, the Confucian Analects, the Jewish Talmud, the Muslim 13th Hadith, and the Buddhist Unada-Varga (http://www.thesynthesizer.org/golden.html; http://philosophy.tamu.edu/~gary/bioethics/ethicaltheory/universalizability.html).

So, rather than defining consensus in terms of strict agreement (with no uncertainty) on the absolute value of various propositions, it should be defined in terms of probabilities of consistent agreement (within a range of uncertainty) on the relative value of various propositions. Instead of evaluating isolated and decontextualized value statements one at a time, I propose evaluating value statements hypothesized to cohere with one another within a larger context together, as a unit.Instead of demanding complete data on a single set of propositions, I propose requiring and demonstrating that the same results be obtained across different sets of propositions addressing the same thing. Instead of applying statistical models of group level inter-variable relations to these data, I propose applying measurement models of individual level within-variable relations. Instead of setting policy on the basis of centrally controlled analytic results that vary incommensurably across data sets I propose setting policy on the basis of decentralized, distributed results collectively produced by networks of individuals whose behaviors and decisions are coordinated and aligned by calibrated instruments measuring in common commensurable units. All of these proposals are described in detail in previous posts here, and in the references included in those posts.

What I’m proposing is rooted in and extends existing practical solutions to the definition and implementation of standards. And though research across a number of fields suggests that a new degree of consensus on some basic issues seems quite possible, that consensus will not be universal and it should not be used as a basis for compelling conformity. Rather, the efficiencies that stand to be gained by capitalizing (literally) on existing but unrecognized standards of behavior and performance are of a magnitude that would easily support generous latitude in allowing poets, nonconformists, and political dissenters to opt out of the system at little or no cost to themselves or anyone else.

That is, as has been described and explained at length in previous posts here, should we succeed in establishing an Intangible Assets Metric System and associated genuine progress indicator or happiness index, we would be in the position of harnessing the power of the profit motive as an economic driver of growth in human, social, and natural capital. Instead of taking mere monetary profits as a measure of improved quality of life, we would set up economic systems in which the measurement and the management of quality of life determines monetary profits. The basic idea is that individual ownership of and accountability for what is, more than anything else, our rightful property–our own abilities, motivations, health, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc.–ought to be a significant factor in promoting the conservation and growth of these forms of capital.

In this context, what then might serve as a practical approach to resolving disputes between those who advocate standards and those who reject them, or between those who trust in our capacity to function satisfactorily as a society without standards and those who do not? Such an approach begins by recognizing the multitude of ways in which all of us rely on standards every day. We do not need to concern ourselves with the technical issues of electronics or manufacturing, though standards are essential here. We do not need even to take up the role of standards as guides to grocery or clothing store purchasing decisions or to planning meetings or travel across time zones.

All we need to think about is something as basic as communication. The alphabet, spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical rules, dictionaries, and educational curricula are all forms of standards that must be accepted, recognized and adhered to before the most basic communication can be achieved. The shapes of various letters or symbols, and the sounds associated with them, are all completely arbitrary. They are conventions that arose over centuries of usage that passed long before the rules were noted, codified, and written down. And spoken languages remain alive, changing in ways that break the rules and cause them to be rewritten, as when new words emerge, or previously incorrect constructions become accepted.

But what is the practical value for a new consensus in recognizing our broad acceptance of linguistic standards? Contrary to the expectations of l’Academie Francaise, for instance, we cannot simply make up new rules and expect people to follow them. No, the point of taking language as a key example goes deeper than that. We noted that usage precedes the formulation of rules, and so it must also be in finding our way to a basis for a new consensus. The question is, what are the lawful patterns by which we already structure behavior and decisions, patterns that might be codified in the language of a social science?

These patterns are being documented in research employing probabilistic measurement models. The fascinating thing about these patterns is that they often retain their characteristic features across different samples of people being measured, across time and space, and across different sets of questions on tests, surveys, or assessments designed to measure the same ability, behavior, attitude, or performance. The stability and constancy of these patterns are such that it appears possible to link all of the instruments measuring the same things to common units of measurement, so that everyone everywhere could think and act together in a common language.

And it is here, in linking instruments together in an Intangible Assets Metric System, that we arrive at a practical way of resolving some disputes between absolutists and relativists. Though we should and will take issue with his demand for certainty, Latour (2005, p. 228) asks the right question, saying,

“Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people:
Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? Of course we can! Provided you find a way to hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described, and whose cost can be fully determined. Provided there is also no interruption, no break, no gap, and no uncertainty along any point of the transmission. Indeed, traceability is precisely what the whole of metrology is about!”

Nowhere does Latour show any awareness of what has been accomplished in social research employing probabilistic measurement models, but he nonetheless grasps exactly how the results of that research will not realize its potential unless it is expanded into networks of interconnected instrumentation. He understands that his theory of networked actors coordinated via virtual threads of standardized forms, metrics, vocabularies describes how scientific metrology and standards set the benchmark for universal consensus. Latour stresses that the focus here is on concrete material practices that can be objectively observed and replicated. As he says, when those practices are understood, then you know how to “do the same operation for other less traceable, less materialized circulations” (p. 229).

Latour’s primary concerns are with the constitution of sociology as a science of the social, and with the understanding of the social as networks of actors whose interests are embodied in technical devices that mediate relationships. Throughout his work, he therefore focuses on the description of existing sociotechnical phenomena. Presumably because of his lack of familiarity with social measurement theory and practice, Latour does not speak to ways in which the social sciences could go beyond documenting less traceable and less materialized circulations to creating more traceable and more materialized circulations, ones capable of more closely emulating those found in the natural sciences.

Latour’s results suggest criteria that may show some disputes regarded as unresolvable to have unexplored potentials for negotiation. That potential depends, as Latour says, on calibrating instruments that can be hooked up in a metrological chain in an actual material network with known properties (forms, Internet connections and nodes, a defined unit of measurement with tolerable uncertainty, etc.) and known costs. In the same way that the time cannot be told from a clock disconnected from the chain of connections to the standard time, each individual instrument for measuring abilities, health, quality of life, etc. will also have to be connected to its standard via an unbroken chain.

But however intimidating these problems might be, they are far less imposing than the ignorance that prevents any framing of the relevant issues in the first place. Addressing the need for rigorous measurement in general, Rasch (1980, pp. xx) agreed that “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.” Naturally enough, the needed work will have to be done by those of us calibrating the instruments of education, health care, sociology, etc. Hence my ongoing involvement in IMEKO, the International Measurement Confederation (http://www.tu-ilmenau.de/fakmb/Home.2382.0.html).

References

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

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