Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part II: Scientific Credibility in Improving Information Quality

The previous posting here concluded with two questions provoked by a close consideration of a key passage in William Greider’s 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism. First, how do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Second, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? There are good answers to these questions, answers that point in productive directions in need of wide exploration and analysis.

The short answer to both questions is that better, more scientifically rigorous measurement at the local level needs to be implemented in a context of traceability to universally uniform standards. To think global and act local simultaneously, we need an efficient and transparent way of seeing where we stand in the world relative to everyone else. Having measures expressed in comparable and meaningful units is an important part of how we think global while acting local.

So, for markets to punish and reward businesses in ways able to build human, social, and environmental value, we need to be able to price that value, to track returns on investments in it, and to own shares of it. To do that, we need a new intangible assets metric system that functions in a manner analogous to the existing metric system and other weights and measures standards. In the same way these standards guarantee high quality information on volume, weight, thermal units, and volts in grocery stores and construction sites, we need a new set of standards for human abilities, performances, and health; for social trust, commitment, and loyalty; and for the environment’s air and water processing services, fisheries, gene pools, etc.

Each industry needs an instrumentarium of tools and metrics that mediate relationships universally within its entire sphere of production and/or service. The obvious and immediate reaction to this proposal will likely be that this is impossible, that it would have been done by now if it was possible, and that anyone who proposes something like this is simply unrealistic, perhaps dangerously so. So, here we have another reason to add to those given in the June 8, 2011 issue of The Nation ( as to why bold ideas for a new economy cannot gain any traction in today’s political discourse.

So what basis in scientific authority might be found for this audacious goal of an intangible assets metric system? This blog’s postings offer multiple varieties of evidence and argument in this regard, so I’ll stick to more recent developments, namely, last week’s meeting of the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) in Jena, Germany. Membership in IMEKO is dominated by physicists, engineers, chemists, and clinical laboratorians who work in private industry, academia, and government weights and measures standards institutes.

Several IMEKO members past and present are involved with one or more of the seven or eight major international standards organizations responsible for maintaining and improving the metric system (the Systeme Internationale des Unites). Two initiatives undertaken by IMEKO and these standards organizations take up the matter at issue here concerning the audacious goal of standard units for human, social, and natural capital.

First, the recently released third edition of the International Vocabulary of Measurement (VIM, 2008) expands the range of the concepts and terms included to encompass measurement in the human and social sciences. This first effort was not well informed as to the nature of widely realized state of the art developments in measurement in education, health care, and the social sciences. What is important is that an invitation to further dialogue has been extended from the natural to the social sciences.

That invitation was unintentionally accepted and a second initiative advanced just as the new edition of the VIM was being released, in 2008. Members of three IMEKO technical committees (TC 1-7-13; those on Measurement Science, Metrology Education, and Health Care) cultivate a special interest in ideas on the human and social value of measurement. At their 2008 meeting in Annecy, France, I presented a paper (later published in revised form as Fisher, 2009) illustrating how, over the previous 50 years and more, the theory and practice of measurement in the social sciences had developed in ways capable of supporting convenient and useful universally uniform units for human, social, and natural capital.

The same argument was then advanced by my fellow University of Chicago alum, Nikolaus Bezruczko, at the 2009 IMEKO World Congress in Lisbon. Bezruczko and I both spoke at the 2010 TC 1-7-13 meeting in London, and last week our papers were joined by presentations from six of our colleagues at the 2011 IMEKO TC 1-7-13 meeting in Jena, Germany. Another fellow U Chicagoan, Mark Wilson, a long time professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, gave an invited address contrasting four basic approaches to measurement in psychometrics, and emphasizing the value of methods that integrate substantive meaning with mathematical rigor.

Examples from education, health care, and business were then elucidated at this year’s meeting in Jena by myself, Bezruczko, Stefan Cano (University of Plymouth, England), Carl Granger (SUNY, Buffalo; paper presented by Bezruczko, a co-author), Thomas Salzberger (University of Vienna, Austria), Jack Stenner (MetaMetrics, Inc., Durham, NC, USA), and Gordon Cooper (University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia; paper presented by Fisher, a co-author).

The contrast between these presentations and those made by the existing IMEKO membership hinges on two primary differences in focus. The physicists and engineers take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves traceability to metrological reference standards. Dealing as they are with existing standards and physical or chemical materials that usually possess deterministically structured properties, issues of how to construct linear measures from ordinal observations never come up.

Conversely, the social scientists and psychometricians take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves evaluations of the capacity of ordinal observations to support the construction of linear measures. Dealing as they are with data from tests, surveys, and rating scale assessments, issues of how to relate a given instrument’s unit to a reference standard never come up.

Thus there is significant potential for mutually instructive dialogue between natural and social scientists in this context. Many areas of investigation in the natural sciences have benefited from the introduction of probabilistic concepts in recent decades, but there are perhaps important unexplored opportunities for the application of probabilistic measurement, as opposed to statistical, models. By taking advantage of probabilistic models’ special features, measurement in education and health care has begun to realize the benefit of broad generalizations of comparable units across grades, schools, tests, and curricula.

Though the focus of my interest here is in the capacity of better measurement to improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets, it may turn out that as many or more benefits will accrue in the natural sciences’ side of the conversation as in the social sciences’ side. The important thing for the time being is that the dialogue is started. New and irreversible mutual understandings between natural and social scientists have already been put on the record. It may happen that the introduction of a new supply of improved human, social, and natural capital metrics will help articulate the largely, as yet, unstated but nonetheless urgent demand for them.

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

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