Archive for the ‘Analogy’ Category

Cartesian problems cannot be solved by Cartesian solutions, no matter where those solutions originate

April 13, 2019

Trying to persuade or educate individuals to change the way they think and act, by pointing to the facts or by making emotional or moral appeals, seems always and everywhere to be the default go-to solution for those interested in addressing social and environmental problems. I suppose that approach works to varying degrees for different issues, but behavior change never occurs on as massive a scale as when it is mediated by a technology that enables people to do something they value.

The meaning of McLuhan’s expression, “the medium is the message,” and the long history of the many ways in which technologies transform cultures, for better and for worse, all seem utterly lost and forgotten when it comes to efforts aimed at provoking culture change. The ongoing discourses of environmental and social justice inevitably always seem to come back to targeting individual decisions and behaviors as the only recourse for effecting change.

But history teaches us that, if we want to change our values, we have to figure out how to embed the new terms in virally communicable metaphors that enthrall imaginations and captivate people’s attention and interest. Cultures turn on shared meanings that make some behaviors more likely than others. Good metaphors (“love is a rose;” “God is love”) organize experience in ways that allow infinite creative variations on the theme while also lending just a bit of structure and predictability to how things play out. We need to root new metaphors embodying shared human values in information infrastructures that operationalize consensus standards as the common currencies in which those values circulate.

Though the ongoing culture wars seem to suggest wildly divergent values in play across communities, research in developmental psychology strongly indicates that these differences are not what they seem. No matter what their politics, people need to feel valued, to have stable identities, to be recognized as someone of worth, to have a place of dignity in a community, to be trusted, and to see that others enjoy all of these qualities as well. Experience shows that these conditions cannot be implemented by a simple decree or force of will. Broad general conditions have to be cultivated in ways that make the emergence of abundant social capital resources more likely.

A point of entry into thinking about how those conditions might be created is provided by a 2010 quote in the Miami Herald from Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies ( Speth recounts his sense that scientific solutions to ecosystem and climate problems are insufficient because the actual causes of the problems are greed, selfishness, and apathy. So he appeals to religious leaders for help.

But Speth’s moral diagnosis is as misconceived and uninformed as his original scientific one. As has been the topic of multiple posts in this blog, many of today’s problems cannot be solved using the same kind of Cartesian dualist thinking that was used in creating those problems. Voluminous citations in those earlier posts tap a large literature in the philosophy, history, and social studies of science describing a diverse array of examples of nondualist ecosystem thinking and acting (for instance, see references below). These works show how technological media fuse, embody, distribute, and enact social, moral, aesthetic, economic, and scientific values in complex multilevel metasystems (systems of systems). Moral values of fairness, for instance, are embedded in the quantitative values of measurement technologies exported from laboratories into markets where they inform economic values in trade.

Our task is to learn from these examples so that we can develop and deploy new languages that resonate with new values in analogous ways across similarly diverse cultural domains. Beauty, meaning, and poetry have to be as important as logic, mathematics, and science. Readily available theory and evidence already show how all of these are playing their roles in the evolving cultural transformation.

And, fortunately for humanity as well as for the earth, the new nondualist noncartesian solutions will not and cannot be primarily an outcome of deliberate intentions and conscious willpower. On the contrary, these integrated problem-solution monads are living, organic, self-organizing embodiments of ideas that captivate imaginations and draw creative, entrepreneurial energies in productive directions.

Of course, this kind of thing has happened many times in the past, though it has not previously emerged as a result of the kind of cultivated orchestration occurring today. Williamson, North, Ostrom, Coase, and others describe the roles institutions have played in setting up the rules, roles, and responsibilities of efficient markets. Today, new institutions are arising in a context of reproducible scientific results supporting ownership of, investments in, and profits harvested from sustainable impacts measured and managed via virally communicable media spreading social contagions of love and care. This is coming about because we all seek and value meaning and beauty right along with the capacity to enjoy life, liberty, and prosperity. However differently we each define and experience meaning and beauty, caring for the unity and sameness of the objects of the conversations that we are enables us to balance harmonies and dissonances in endless variations performed by every imaginable kind of rhythmic and melodic musical ensemble.

So instead of expecting different results from repeated applications of the same dualistic thinking that got us into today’s problems, we need to think and act nondualistically. Instead of assuming that solutions do not themselves already presuppose and embody problems of a certain type, we need to think in terms of integrated problem-solution monads deployed throughout ecosystems like species in symbiotic relationships. This is precisely what’s happened historically with the oil-automobile-highway-plastics-engineering ecosystem, and with the germ-disease-pharmaceutical-public health-medicine ecosystem. In each case, financial, market, accounting, regulatory, legal, educational, and other institutions evolved in tandem with the emerging sociotechnical ecology.

Now we face urgent needs to think and act on previously unheard of scales and levels of complexity. We have to work together and coordinate efforts in social and psychological domains with no previous history of communications capable of functioning at the needed efficiencies.

But merely urging people to live differently will never result in the changes that must be brought about. No matter how compelling the facts, no matter how persuasive the emotional power, and no matter how inspirational the moral argument, individual people and small groups simply cannot create new shared standards of behavior out of thin air. We are all products of our times and our sociocultural environments. People cannot be expected to simply wake up one day and spontaneously transform their habits by an effort of will. Instead, the values of fairness, equity, inclusion, and justice we say we live by must be embedded within the very fabric of everyday life, the way hours, meters, liters, degrees, grams, and volts are now.

That is, measurements read off instruments calibrated in fair units of comparison—measurements mathematically equivalent to those made with the scales of justice, measurements expressed in the common metrics of a new international system of units, and measurements as adaptable to local individual improvisations as they are generally comparable and navigable—have to be built into every institution in just the same way existing units of measurement are. Education, health care, social services, human resource management, environmental solutions—all of these and more need to attend closely to ways in which the objects of conversation can be more systematically expressed in meaningful words. Ecosystem thinking demands that everyone and everything in a system of relationships must be consistently kept in proportionate contact, within ranges of reported uncertainty, instead of being disconnected off into separate incommensurable universes of discourse, as occurs in today’s institutions.

These are all monumentally huge challenges. But much of the hardest work has been underway for decades, with important results and resources spreading into widely used applications often taken for granted in the background of largely unexamined assumptions. These results are now well enough established, and the associated social and environmental problems are so serious, that more can and should be done to put them to use.

The need for new values is indeed urgent, but empty talk and doing more of the same is getting us nowhere, at best, and more often is worsening conditions. Conceptual determinations of reproducible mathematical values embodying people’s lived social and moral values in fungible economic values are not just theoretical possibilities or provisional experimental results. They are longstanding, widely available, and practical, as well as beautiful and meaningful. With attentive cultivation and nurturing, there are abundant reasons for believing in a safe, healthy, happy, and prosperous future for humanity and life on earth.


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Current events in metrology for fun, profitable, and self-sustaining sustainability impacts

September 18, 2018

At the main event I attended last week at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, the #giveyouthachance philanthropic gathering at the Aquarium of the Bay, multiple people independently spoke to aligning social and environmental values with financial values, and explicitly stated that economic growth does not automatically entail environmental degradation.

As my new buddy David Traub (introduced as a consequence of the New Algorithm event in Stockholm in June with Angelica Lips da Cruz) was the MC, he put me on the program at the last minute, and gave me five minutes to speak my piece in a room of 30 people or so. A great point of departure was opened up when Carin Winter of spoke to her work in mindfulness education and led a guided meditation. So I conveyed the fact that the effects of mindfulness practice are rigorously measurable, and followed that up with the analogy from music (tuning instruments to harmonize relationships),  with the argument against merely shouldering the burden of costs because it is the right thing to do, with the counter-argument for creating efficient competitive markets for sustainable impacts, and with info on the previous week’s special session on social and psychological metrology at IMEKO in Belfast. It appeared that the message of metrology as a means for making sustainability self-sustaining, fun, and profitable got through!

Next up: Unify.Earth has developed their own new iteration on blockchain, which will be announced Monday, 24 September, at the UN SDG Media Center (also see here) during the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit. The UEX (Unify Earth Exchange) fills the gap for human capital stocks left by the Universal Commons‘ exclusive focus on social and natural capital.

So I’ve decided to go to NY and have booked my travel.

Back in February, Angelica Lips da Cruz recounted saying six months before that it would take two years to get to where we were at that time. Now another seven months have passed and I am starting to feel that the acceleration is approaching Mach 1! At this rate, it’ll be the speed of light in the next six months….

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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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Excellent articulation of the rationale for living capital metrics 

November 2, 2017

I just found the best analysis of today’s situation I’ve seen yet. And it explicitly articulates and substantiates all my reasons for doing the work I’m doing. Wonderful to have this independent source of validation.

The crux of the problem is spelled out at the end of the article, where the degree of polarizing opposition is so extreme that standards of truth and evidence are completely compromised. My point is that the fact will remain, however, that everyone still uses language, and language still requires certain connections between concepts, words, and things to function. Continuing to use language in everyday functions in ways that assume a common consensus on meaningful reference may eventually come to be unbearably inconsistent with the way language is used politically, creating a social vacuum that will be filled by a new language capable of restoring the balance of meaning in the word-concept-thing triangles.

As is repeatedly argued in this blog, my take is that what we are witnessing is language restructuring itself to incorporate new degrees of complexity at a general institutional, world historic level. The falsehoods of our contemporary institutional definitions of truth and fact are rooted in the insufficiencies of the decision making methods and tools widely used in education, health care, government, business, etc. The numbers called measures are identified using methods that almost universally ignore the gifts of self-organized meaning that offer themselves in the structure of test, assessment, survey, poll, and evaluation response data. Those shortcomings in our information infrastructure and communication systems are causing negative feedback loops of increasingly chaotic noise.

This is why it is so important that precision science is rooted in everyday language and thinking, per Nersessian’s (2002) treatment of Maxwell and Rasch’s (1960, pp. 110-115) adoption of Maxwell’s method of analogy (Fisher, 2010; Fisher & Stenner, 2013). The metric system (System International des Unites, or SI) is a natural language extension of intuitive and historical methods of bringing together words, concepts, and things, renamed instruments, theories, and data. A new SI for human, social, and natural capital built out into science and commerce will be one component of a multilevel and complex adaptive system that resolves today’s epistemic crisis by tapping deeper resources for the creation of meaning than are available in today’s institutions.

Everything is interrelated. The epistemic crisis will be resolved when our institutions base decisions not just on a potentially arbitrary collection of facts but on facts internally consistent enough to support instrument calibration and predictive theory. The facts have to be common sensical to everyday people, to employees, customers, teachers, students, patients, doctors, nurses, managers. People have to be able to see themselves and where they stand relative to their goals, their origins, and everyone else in the pictures drawn by the results of tests, surveys, and evaluations. That’s not possible in today’s systems. And in those systems, some people have systematically unfair advantages. That has to change, not through some kind of Brave New World hobbling of those with advantages but by leveling the playing field to allow everyone the same opportunities for self-improvement and the rewards that follow from it.

That’s it in a nutshell. Really good article:

America is facing an epistemic crisis – Vox


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Nersessian, N. J. (2002). Maxwell and “the method of physical analogy”: Model-based reasoning, generic abstraction, and conceptual change. In D. Malament (Ed.), Reading natural philosophy: Essays in the history and philosophy of science and mathematics (pp. 129-166). Lasalle, Illinois: Open Court.

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Measuring Values To Apply The Golden Rule

December 29, 2016

Paper presentation 45.20, American Educational Research Association

New Orleans, April 1994



Basing her comments on the writings of Michael Lerner in Tikkun magazine, “Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks appealingly of a political morality based on the Golden Rule,” says Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.  Lerner and Clinton are correct in asserting that we need to rediscover and re-invigorate our spiritual values, though there is nothing new in this assertion, and Page is correct in his opinion that conservative columnists who say religion is spirituality, and that there is therefore nothing in need of re-invigoration, are wrong.  Research on the spiritual dimension of disability, for instance, shows that the quality of spiritual experience has little, if anything, to do with religious church attendance, bible reading, prayer, or the taking of sacraments (Fisher & Pugliese, 1989).

The purpose of this paper is to propose a research program that would begin to prepare the ground in which a political morality based on the Golden Rule might be cultivated.

Theoretical Framework

Implementing a “political morality based on the Golden Rule” requires some way of knowing that what I do unto others is the same as what I would have done unto me. To know this, I need a measuring system that keeps things in proportion by showing what counts as the same thing for different people.  A political morality based on the Golden Rule has got to have some way of identifying when a service or action done unto others is the same as the one done unto me.  In short, application of the Golden Rule requires an empirical basis of comparison, a measuring system that sets up analogies between people’s values and what is valued.  We must be able to say that my values are to one aspect of a situation what yours are to that or another aspect, and that proportions of this kind hold constant no matter which particular persons are addressed and no matter which aspects of the situation are involved.


Is it possible to measure what people value—politically, socially, economically, spiritually, and culturally—in a way that embodies the Golden Rule? If so, could such a measure be used for realizing the political morality Hillary Rodham Clinton has advocated?  L. L. Thurstone presented methods for successfully revealing the necessary proportions in the 1920s; these were improved upon by the Danish mathematician Georg Rasch in the 1950s.  Thurstone’s and Rasch’s ideas are researched and applied today by Benjamin D. Wright and J. Michael Linacre.  These and other thinkers hold that measurement takes place only when application of the Golden Rule is possible.  That is, measurement is achieved only if someone’s measure does not depend on who is in the group she is measured with, on the particular questions answered or not answered, on who made the measure, on the brand name of the instrument, or on where the measure took place.

Measurement of this high quality is called scale-free because its quantities do not vary according to the particular questions asked (as long as they pertain to the construct of interest); neither do they vary according to the structure or combination of the particular rating scheme(s) employed (rating scale, partial credit, correct/incorrect, true/false, present/absent, involvement of judges, paired comparisons, etc.), or the brand name of the instrument measuring.  All of these requirements must hold if I am to treat a person as I would like to be treated, because if they do not hold, I do not know enough about her values or mine to say whether she’s receiving the treatment I’d prefer in the same circumstance.

In order to make the Golden Rule the basis of a political morality, we need to improve the quality of measurement in every sphere of our lives; after all, politics is more than just what politicians do, it is a basic part of community life.  Even though the technology and methods for high quality measurement in education, sociology, and psychology have existed for decades, researchers have been indifferent to their use.

That indifference may be near an end.  If people get serious about applying the Golden Rule, they are going to come up against a need for rigorous quantitative measurement.  We need to let them know that the tools for the job are available.

Data sources

Miller’s Scale Battery of International Patterns and Norms (SBIPN) (Miller, 1968, 1970, 1973), described in Miller (1983, pp. 462-468), is an instrument that presents possibilities for investigating quantitative relations among value systems.  The instrument is composed of 20 six-point rating scale items involving such cultural norms and patterns as social acceptance, family solidarity, trustfulness, moral code, honesty, reciprocity, class structure, etc.  Each pair of rating scale points (1-2, 3-4, 5-6) is associated with a 15-30 word description; raters judge national values by assigning ratings, where 1 indicates the most acceptance, solidarity, trust, morality, etc., and 6 the least.  Miller (1983, p. 462) reports test-retest correlations of .74 to .97 for the original 15 items on the survey as testing in the United States and Peru.  Validity claims are based on the scale’s ability to distinguish between values of citizens of the United States and Peru, with supporting research comparing values in Argentina, Spain, England, and the United States.

The SBIPN could probably be improved in several ways.  First, individual countries contain so many diverse ethnic groups and subcultures whose value systems are often in conflict that ratings should probably be made of them and not of the entire population.  The geographical location of the ethnic group or subculture rated should also be tracked in order to study regional variations.  Second, Miller contends that raters must have a college degree to be qualified as a SBIPN judge; the complexity of his rating procedure justifies this claim.  In order to simplify the survey and broaden the base of qualified judges, the three groups of short phrases structuring each six-point rating scale should be used as individual items rated on a frequency continuum.

For instance, the following phrases appear in association with ratings of 1 and 2 under social acceptance:

high social acceptance. Social contacts open and nonrestrictive. Introductions not needed for social contacts.  Short acquaintance provides entry into the home and social organizations.

Similar descriptions are associated with the 3-4 (medium social acceptance) and 5-6 (low social acceptance) rating pairs; only one rating from the series of six is assigned, so that a rating of 1 or 2 is assigned only if the judgment is of high social acceptance.  Instead of asking the rater to assign one of two ratings to all six of these statements (breaking apart the two conjunctive phrases), and ignoring the 10-20 phrases associated with the other four rating scale points, each phrase presented on the six-point continuum should be rated separately for the frequency of the indicated pattern or norm.  A four-point rating scale (Almost Always, Frequently, Sometimes, Rarely) should suffice.

Linacre’s (1993, p. 284) graphical presentation of Rasch-based Generalizability Theory indicates that reliability and separation statistics of .92 and 3.4, respectively, can be expected for a 20-item, six-point rating scale survey (Miller’s original format), assuming a measurement standard deviation of one logit.  360 items will be produced if each of the original 20 six-point items can be transformed into 18 four-point items (following the above example’s derivation of six items from one of the three blocks of one item’s descriptive phrases).  If only 250 of these items work to support the measurement effort, Linacre’s graph shows that a reliability of .99 and separation of 10 might be obtained, again assuming a measurement standard deviation of one logit.  Since not all of the survey’s items would probably be administered at once, these estimates are probably high.  The increased number of items, however, would be advantageous for use as an item bank in a computer adapted administration of the survey.

Expected results

Miller’s applications of the SBIPN provide specific indications of what might be expected from the revised form of the survey.  Family solidarity tends to be low, labor assimilated into the prevailing economic system, class consciousness devalued, and moral conduct secularly defined in the United States, in opposition to Colombia and Peru, where family solidarity is high, labor is antagonistic to the prevailing economic system, class structure is rigidly defined, and moral conduct is religiously defined.  At the other extreme, civic participation, work and achievement, societal consensus, children’s independence, and democracy are highly valued in the United States, but considerably less so in Colombia and Peru.

Miller’s presentation of the survey results will be improved on in several ways.  First, construct validity will be examined in terms of the data’s internal consistency (fit analysis) and the conceptual structure delineated by the items.  Second, the definition of interval measurement continua for each ethnic group or subculture measured will facilitate quantitative and qualitative comparisons of each group’s self-image with its public image.  Differences in group perception can be used for critical self-evaluation as well as information crucial for rectifying unjust projections of prejudice.

Scientific importance

One of the most important benefits of this survey could be the opportunity to show that, although different value systems vary in their standards of what counts as acceptable behaviors and attitudes, the procedures by which values are calibrated and people’s personal values are measured do not vary.  That this should turn out to be the case will make it more difficult to justify and maintain hostile prejudices against others whose value systems differ from one’s own.  If people who do not share my values cannot immediately be categorized as godless, heathens, infidels, pagans, unwashed, etc., ie, in the category of the non-classifiable, then I should be less prone to disregard, hate, or fear them, and more able to build a cohesive, healthy, and integrated community with them.

The cultural prejudice structuring this proposal is that increased understanding of others’ values is good; that this prejudice needs to be made explicit and evaluated for its effect on those who do not share it is of great importance.  The possibility of pursuing a quantitative study of value systems may strike some as an area of research that could only be used to dominate and oppress those who do not have the power to defend themselves.  This observation implies that one reason why more rigorous scientific measurement procedures have failed to take hold in the social studies may be because we have unspoken, but nonetheless justifiable, reservations concerning our capacity to employ high quality information responsibly.  Knowledge is inherently dangerous, but a political morality based on the Golden Rule will require nothing less than taking another bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.



Fisher, William P. & Karen Pugliese. 1989.  Measuring the importance of pastoral care in rehabilitation. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 70, A-22 [Abstract].

Linacre, J. Michael. 1993. Rasch-based generalizability theory. Rasch Measurement, 7: 283-284.

Miller, Delbert C. 1968. The measurement of international patterns and norms: A tool for comparative research. Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 48: 531-547.

Miller, Delbert C. 1970. International Community Power Structures: Comparative Studies of Four World Cities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Miller, Delbert C. 1972. Measuring cross national norms: Methodological problems in identifying patterns in Latin America and Anglo-Saxon Cultures.  International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 13(3-4): 201-216.

Miller, Delbert C. 1983. Handbook of Research Design and Social Measurement. 4th ed. New York: Longman.

Externalities are to markets as anomalies are to scientific laws

October 28, 2011

Economic externalities are to efficient markets as any consistent anomaly is relative to a lawful regularity. Government intervention in markets is akin to fudging the laws of physics to explain the wobble in Uranus’ orbit, or to explain why magnetized masses would not behave like wooden or stone masses in a metal catapult (Rasch’s example). Further, government intervention in markets is necessary only as long as efficient markets for externalized forms of capital are not created. The anomalous exceptions to the general rule of market efficiency have long since been shown to themselves be internally consistent lawful regularities in their own right amenable to configuration as markets for human, social and natural forms of capital.

There is an opportunity here for the concise and elegant statement of the efficient markets hypothesis, the observation of certain anomalies, the formulation of new theories concerning these forms of capital, the framing of efficient markets hypotheses concerning the behavior of these anomalies, tests of these hypotheses in terms of the inverse proportionality of two of the parameters relative to the third, proposals as to the uniform metrics by which the scientific laws will be made commercially viable expressions of capital value, etc.

We suffer from the illusion that trading activity somehow spontaneously emerges from social interactions. It’s as though comparable equivalent value is some kind of irrefutable, incontestable feature of the world to which humanity adapts its institutions. But this order of things plainly puts the cart before the horse when the emergence of markets is viewed historically. The idea of fair trade, how it is arranged, how it is recognized, when it is appropriate, etc. varies markedly across cultures and over time.

Yes, “’the price of things is in inverse ratio to the quantity offered and in direct ratio to the quantity demanded’ (Walras 1965, I, 216-17)” (Mirowski, 1988, p. 20). Yes, Pareto made “a direct extrapolation of the path-independence of equilibrium energy states in rational mechanics and thermodynamics” to “the path-independence of the realization of utility” (Mirowski, 1988, p. 21). Yes, as Ehrenfest showed, “an analogy between thermodynamics and economics” can be made, and economic concepts can be formulated “as parallels of thermodynamic concepts, with the concept of equilibrium occupying the central position in both theories” (Boumans, 2005, p. 31).  But markets are built up around these lawful regularities by skilled actors who articulate the rules, embody the roles, and initiate the relationships comprising economic, legal, and scientific institutions. “The institutions define the market, rather than the reverse” (Miller & O’Leary, 2007, p. 710). What we need are new institutions built up around the lawful regularities revealed by Rasch models. The problem is how to articulate the rules, embody the roles, and initiate the relationships.

Noyes (1936, pp. 2, 13; quoted in De Soto 2000, p. 158) provides some useful pointers:

“The chips in the economic game today are not so much the physical goods and actual services that are almost exclusively considered in economic text books, as they are that elaboration of legal relations which we call property…. One is led, by studying its development, to conceive the social reality as a web of intangible bonds–a cobweb of invisible filaments–which surround and engage the individual and which thereby organize society…. And the process of coming to grips with the actual world we live in is the process of objectivizing these relations.”

 Noyes (1936, p. 20, quoted in De Soto 2000, p. 163) continues:

“Human nature demands regularity and certainty and this demand requires that these primitive judgments be consistent and thus be permitted to crystallize into certain rules–into ‘this body of dogma or systematized prediction which we call law.’ … The practical convenience of the public … leads to the recurrent efforts to systematize the body of laws. The demand for codification is a demand of the people to be released from the mystery and uncertainty of unwritten or even of case law.” [This is quite an apt statement of the largely unstated demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement.]

  De Soto (2000, p. 158) explains:

 “Lifting the bell jar [integrating legal and extralegal property rights], then, is principally a legal challenge. The official legal order must interact with extralegal arrangements outside the bell jar to create a social contract on property and capital. To achieve this integration, many other disciplines are of course necessary … [economists, urban planners, agronomists, mappers, surveyers, IT specialists, etc]. But ultimately, an integrated national social contract will be concretized only in laws.”

  “Implementing major legal change is a political responsibility. There are various reasons for this. First, law is generally concerned with protecting property rights. However, the real task in developing and former communist countries is not so much to perfect existing rights as to give everyone a right to property rights–‘meta-rights,’ if you will. [Paraphrasing, the real task in the undeveloped domains of human, social, and natural capital is not so much the perfection of existing rights as it is to harness scientific measurement in the name of economic justice and grant everyone legal title to their shares of their ownmost personal properties, their abilities, health, motivations, and trustworthiness, along with their shares of the common stock of social and natural resources.] Bestowing such meta-rights, emancipating people from bad law, is a political job. Second, very small but powerful vested interests–mostly repre- [p. 159] sented by the countries best commercial lawyers–are likely to oppose change unless they are convinced otherwise. Bringing well-connected and moneyed people onto the bandwagon requires not consultants committed to serving their clients but talented politicians committed to serving their people. Third, creating an integrated system is not about drafting laws and regulations that look good on paper but rather about designing norms that are rooted in people’s beliefs and are thus more likely to be obeyed and enforced. Being in touch with real people is a politician’s task. Fourth, prodding underground economies to become legal is a major political sales job.”

 De Soto continues (p. 159), intending to refer only to real estate but actually speaking of the need for formal legal title to personal property of all kinds, which ought to include human, social, and natural capital:

  “Without succeeding on these legal and political fronts, no nation can overcome the legal apartheid between those who can create capital and those who cannot. Without formal property, no matter how many assets they accumulate or how hard they work, most people will not be able to prosper in a capitalist society. They will continue to remain beyond the radar of policymakers, out of the reach of official records, and thus economically invisible.”

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

De Soto, H. (2000). The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

Mirowski, P. (1988). Against mechanism: Protecting economics from science. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Noyes, C. R. (1936). The institution of property. New York: Longman’s Green.

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A New Agenda for Measurement Theory and Practice in Education and Health Care

April 15, 2011

Two key issues on my agenda offer different answers to the question “Why do you do things the way you do in measurement theory and practice?”

First, we can take up the “Because of…” answer to this question. We need to articulate an historical account of measurement that does three things:

  1. that builds on Rasch’s use of Maxwell’s method of analogy by employing it and expanding on it in new applications;
  2. that unifies the vocabulary and concepts of measurement across the sciences into a single framework so far as possible by situating probabilistic models of invariant individual-level within-variable phenomena in the context of measurement’s GIGO principle and data-to-model fit, as distinct from the interactions of group-level between-variable phenomena in the context of statistics’ model-to-data fit; and
  3. that stresses the social, collective cognition facilitated by networks of individuals whose point-of-use measurement-informed decisions and behaviors are coordinated and harmonized virtually, at a distance, with no need for communication or negotiation.

We need multiple publications in leading journals on these issues, as well as one or more books that people can cite as a way of making this real and true history of measurement, properly speaking, credible and accepted in the mainstream. This web site is a draft article of my own in this vein that I offer for critique; other material is available on request. Anyone who works on this paper with me and makes a substantial contribution to its publication will be added as co-author.

Second, we can take up the “In order that…” answer to the question “Why do you do things the way you do?” From this point of view, we need to broaden the scope of the measurement research agenda beyond data analysis, estimation, models, and fit assessment in three ways:

  1. by emphasizing predictive construct theories that exhibit the fullest possible understanding of what is measured and so enable the routine reproduction of desired proportionate effects efficiently, with no need to analyze data to obtain an estimate;
  2. by defining the standard units to which all calibrated instruments measuring given constructs are traceable; and
  3. by disseminating to front line users on mass scales instruments measuring in publicly available standard units and giving immediate feedback at the point of use.

These two sets of issues define a series of talking points that together constitute a new narrative for measurement in education, psychology, health care, and many other fields. We and others may see our way to organizing new professional societies, new journals, new university-based programs of study, etc. around these principles.

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Consequences of Standardized Technical Effects for Scientific Advancement

January 24, 2011

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.


Ackermann, J. R. (1985). Data, instruments, and theory: A dialectical approach to understanding science. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Baird, D. (1997, Spring-Summer). Scientific instrument making, epistemology, and the conflict between gift and commodity economics. Techné: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, 2(3-4), 25-46. Retrieved 08/28/2009, from

Baird, D. (2002, Winter). Thing knowledge – function and truth. Techné: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, 6(2). Retrieved 19/08/2003, from

Burdick, H., & Stenner, A. J. (1996). Theoretical prediction of test items. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 10(1), 475 [].

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (1992, Fall). The image of objectivity. Representations, 40, 81-128.

Galison, P. (1999). Trading zone: Coordinating action and belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York, New York: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hagstrom, W. O. (1965). Gift-giving as an organizing principle in science. The Scientific Community. New York: Basic Books, pp. 12-22. (Rpt. in B. Barnes, (Ed.). (1972). Sociology of science: Selected readings (pp. 105-20). Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books.

Hankins, T. L., & Silverman, R. J. (1999). Instruments and the imagination. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Hyde, L. (1979). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage Books.

Ihde, D. (1998). Expanding hermeneutics: Visualism in science. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1961). The function of measurement in modern physical science. Isis, 52(168), 161-193. (Rpt. in The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change (pp. 178-224). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1977).

Lapré, M. A., & Van Wassenhove, L. N. (2002, October). Learning across lines: The secret to more efficient factories. Harvard Business Review, 80(10), 107-11.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Maasen, S., & Weingart, P. (2001). Metaphors and the dynamics of knowledge. (Vol. 26. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought). London: Routledge.

Michell, J. (1999). Measurement in psychology: A critical history of a methodological concept. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nersessian, N. J. (2002). Maxwell and “the Method of Physical Analogy”: Model-based reasoning, generic abstraction, and conceptual change. In D. Malament (Ed.), Essays in the history and philosophy of science and mathematics (pp. 129-166). Lasalle, Illinois: Open Court.

Price, D. J. d. S. (1986). Of sealing wax and string. In Little Science, Big Science–and Beyond (pp. 237-253). New York, New York: Columbia University Press. p. 240:

Rabkin, Y. M. (1992). Rediscovering the instrument: Research, industry, and education. In R. Bud & S. E. Cozzens (Eds.), Invisible connections: Instruments, institutions, and science (pp. 57-82). Bellingham, Washington: SPIE Optical Engineering 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.

Roche, J. (1998). The mathematics of measurement: A critical history. London: The Athlone Press.

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

Turner, J. (1955, November). Maxwell on the method of physical analogy. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 6, 226-238.

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The Birds and the Bees of Living Meaning

November 22, 2010


How the New Renaissance Will be Conceived in and Midwifed from the Womb of Nature

Sex, Reproduction, and the Consumer Culture

Human sexuality is, of course, more than the sum of its biological parts. Many parents joke that human reproduction would halt and the species would go extinct were it not for the intense pleasure of sexual experience. Many social critics, for their part, have turned a jaded eye on the rampant use of sexual imagery in the consumer culture. The association of sexual prowess with anything from toothpaste to automobiles plays up an empty metaphor of immediate gratification that connotes shortchanged consumers, unfairly boosted profits, and no redeeming long term value.

We would, of course, be mistaken to make too much of a connection between the parents’ joke and the critics’ social commentary. A bit of humor can help release tension when the work of child rearing and homemaking becomes stressful, and it is unlikely that trade would come to a halt if hot dates were banned from TV commercials. Commerce, in the broad sense of the term, is an end in itself.

But perhaps there is more of a connection than is evident at first blush. Advertising is an extremely compressed form of communication. It competes with many other stimuli for fleeting seconds of attention and so has to get its message across quickly. What better, simpler, more genetically programmed message could there be than the promise of attracting a desirable mate?

This hint is the tip of the tip of an iceberg. The larger question is one that asks how the role of desire and its satisfaction in the procreation of the species might serve as a model for economic activity. Might sexual satisfaction and the resulting reproductive success be taken as a natural model for profit and the resulting economic success?

Though this model has been assumed or described to various extents in the domains of ecological, behavioral, and heterodox economics, what we might call its molecular genetics have not yet been described. At this level, the model functions as a positive-sum game, and not as the zero-sum game so often assumed in economics. Properly conceived and experienced, neither sexuality nor profit give one-sided results, with someone necessarily winning and someone else necessarily losing. Rather, in the optimal circumstances we presumably want to foster, both parties to the exchanges must get what they want and contribute to the overall product of the exchange.

In this scenario, profit has to be further defined as not mere gratification and conquest, but as long term reproductive viability and sustainability. The intensity of sexual desire and satisfaction would likely not have evolved without stakes as high as the continuity of the species. And, indeed, researchers are finding strong positive relationships between firms’ long term profitability and their relations with labor, their communities, and the natural environment. Broadly conceived, for commerce to continue, social intercourse can and ultimately must result in viable offspring situated in a supportive environment.

Living vs Dead Capital

All of this suggests that we might be onto something. But for the metaphor to work, we need to take it further. We find what we need in the language of ecological economics and natural capital, and in the distinction between economically alive and economically dead capital.

The ancient root metaphor hidden in the word “capital” derives from the Latin capitus, head. Some might locate scientific or intellectual capital in a calculating center, like the brain, but others might bring out a sense of capital as part of the natural order. The concept of capital likely emerged in early agricultural economies from a focus on head of livestock: cattle, sheep, horses, etc. We might also conjecture about an even earlier prehistorical sense of capital as naturally embodied in the herds of antelope, deer, elk, or bison that migratory hunters pursued. In both cases, given grazing and water resources supplied by nature, herds replenished themselves with the passing of the seasons, giving birth to new life of their own accord.

There is a sense then in which plant and animal life profits enough from naturally available resources to sustain itself. Though the occurrence of population booms and busts still parallels economic cycles, hunters, fishers, and farmers can be imagined as profiting from managing naturally self-restoring resources within the constraints of a sustainable ecology.

Living capital and the sustenance of ongoing ecologically sound profitability are not restricted, however, to forms of capital stock that walk, crawl, swim, or fly. De Soto (2000) makes a distinction between dead and living capital that explains why capitalism thrives in some countries, but has not yet in others. De Soto points out that the difference between successful and failing capitalist countries lies in the status of what he calls transferable representations within networks of legal and financial institutions. Transferable representations are nothing but the legally recognized and financially fungible titles and deeds that make it possible for the wealth locked up in land, buildings, and equipment to be made exchangeable for other forms of wealth. Titles, deeds, and the infrastructure they function within are, then, what comprise the difference between dead and living capital.

In North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, property can be divided into shares and sold, or accumulated across properties into an expression of total wealth and leveraged as collateral for further investment, all with no need to modify the property itself in any way. De Soto’s point is that this is often not so in the Third World and former communist countries, where it commonly takes more than 10 years of full time work to obtain legal title, and then similar degrees of effort to maintain it. The process requires so much labor that few have the endurance or resources to complete it. They then must deny themselves the benefits of having an address, and cannot receive mail, electrical service, or take out a mortgage. The economy is then encumbered by the dead weight of the inefficiencies and frictions of frozen capital markets.

In the same way that the mass migration of settlers to the American West forced the resolution of conflicting property claims in the nineteenth century via the Preemption Act, so, too, are the contemporary mass migrations of rural people to megacities around the globe forcing the creation of a new way of legitimating property ownership. DeSoto’s research shows that Third World and former communist countries harbor trillions of dollars of unleverageable dead capital. Individual countries have more wealth tied up as dead capital locked in their impoverished citizens’ homes than in their entire stock markets and GDPs.

So dead capital can be clearly and decisively distinguished from living capital. Living capital is represented by a title or deed legally sanctioned by society as a generally accepted demonstration of ownership. Capital is dead, or, better, not yet brought to life, when its general value (any value it may have beyond its utilitarian function) cannot be represented so as to be leveragable or transferable across time, space, applications, enterprises, etc.

An essential point is this: Human, social, and natural forms of capital are dead in the same way that Third World property is dead capital. We lack a means of representing the value of these forms of capital that is transferable across individuals and contexts. The sense of scientific capital as mobile, additive, and divisible, and as deployed via networks of metrological (measurement science) laboratories, is especially helpful here, as it provides a root definition of what capital is. The geometry of the geodetic survey information incorporated into titles and deeds provides a fundamental insight into capitalism and living capital. But an even better understanding can be found by looking more deeply into the metaphor equating sexual and economic success.

The Birds and the Bees

We all learn as children where babies come from. Spontaneous questions from curious kids can be simultaneously intimidating and hilarious. Discovering that we each came into existence at a certain point in time raises many questions. Children are usually interested, however, in a short answer to a specific question. They go about their processes of creating meaningful stories about the world slowly, bit by bit. Contrary to many parents’ fears, children are less interested in the big picture than they are in knowing something immediately relevant.

Today we are engaged in a similar process that involves both self-discovery and its extension into a model of the world. In the last 100 years, we have endured one crisis of alienation, war, and terrorism after another. So many different stresses are pulling life in so many different directions that it has become difficult to fit our lives into meaningful stories about the world. Anxiety about our roles and places relative to one another has led many of us to be either increasingly lax or increasingly rigid about where we stand. Being simultaneously intelligent and compassionate is more difficult than ever.

But perhaps we know more than we are aware of. Perhaps it would help for us to consider more closely where we as a people, with our modern, global culture, come from. Where did the ideas that shape our world come from? Where do new ideas in general come from? What happens when an idea comes alive with meaning and spreads with such rapidity that it seems to spring forth fully formed in many widely distant places? How does a meme become viral and spread like an epidemic? Questions like these have often been raised in recent years. It seems to me, though, that explorations of them to date have not focused as closely as they could have on what is most important.

For when we understand the reproductive biology of living meaning, and when we see how different species of conceptual life interrelate in larger ecologies, then we will be in the position we need to be in to newly harmonize nature and culture, male and female, black and white, capitalism and socialism, north and south, and east and west.

What is most important about knowing where modern life comes from? What is most important is often that which is most obvious, and the most taken for granted. Given the question, it is interesting that rich metaphors of biological reproduction are everywhere in our thinking about ideas and meaning. Ideas are conceived, for instance, and verbs are conjugated.

These metaphors are not just poetic, emotionally soothing, or apt in a locally specific way. Rather, they hold within themselves some very practical systematic consequences for the stories we tell about ourselves, others, our communities, and our world. That is to say, if we think clearly enough about where ideas come from, we may learn something important about how to create and tell better stories about ourselves, and we may improve the quality of our lives in the process.

So what better place to start than with one of the oldest and most often repeated stories about the first bite from the apple of knowledge? The Western cultural imagery associated with erotic sexuality and knowledgeable experience goes back at least to Eve, the apple, the Tree of Knowledge, and the serpent, in the Garden of Eden. This imagery is complemented by the self-described role of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, as a midwife of ideas. Students still give apples to their teachers as symbols of knowledge, and a popular line of computers originally targeting the education market is named for the fruit of knowledge. The Socratic method is still taught, and charges teachers with helping students to give birth to fully formed ideas able take on lives of their own.

Socrates went further and said that we are enthralled with meaning in the same way a lover is captivated by the beloved. By definition, attention focuses on what is meaningful, as we ignore 99.99% of incoming sensory data. Recognition, by definition, is re-cognition, a seeing-again of something already known, usually something that has a name. Things that don’t have names are very difficult to see, so things come into language in special ways, via science or poetry. And the names of things focus our attention in very specific ways. Just as “weed” becomes a generic name for unwanted wild plants that might have very desirable properties, so, too, does “man” as a generic name for humans restrict thinking about people to males. The words we use very subtly condition our perceptions and behaviors, since, as Socrates put it, we are captivated by them.

The vital importance of sexuality to the reproductive potential of the species is evident in the extent to which it has subliminally been incorporated into the syntax, semantics, and grammar of language. Metaphoric images of procreation and reproduction so thoroughly permeate culture and language that the verb “to be” is referred to as the copula. New ideas brought into being via a copulative relation of subject and object accordingly are said to have been conceived, and are called concepts. One is said to be pregnant with an idea, or to have the seed or germ of an idea. Questions are probing, penetrating, or seminal. Productive minds are fertile or receptive. The back-and-forth give-and-take of conversation is referred to as social intercourse, and intercourse is the second definition in the dictionary for commerce. Dramatic expositions of events are said to climax, or to result in an anti-climax. Ideas and the narrative recounting of them are often called alluring, captivating, enchanting, spellbinding, or mesmerizing, and so it is that one can in fact be in love with an idea.

Philosophers, feminists, and social theorists have gone to great lengths in exploring the erotic in knowing, and vice versa. Luce Irigaray’s meditations on the fecund and Alfred Schutz’s reflections on our common birth from women both resonate with Paul Ricoeur’s examination of the choice between discourse and violence, which hinges on caring enough to try to create shared meaning. In all of these, we begin from love. Such a hopeful focus on nurturing new life stands in the starkest contrast with the existentialist elevation of death as our shared end.

Cultural inhibitions concerning sexuality can be interpreted as regulating it for the greater good. But Western moral proscriptions typically take a form in which sexuality is regarded as a kind of animal nature that must be subjugated in favor of a higher cultural or spiritual nature. In this world view, just as the natural environment is to be dominated and controlled via science and industry, sexual impulses are controlled, with the feminine relegated to a secondary and dangerous status.

Though promiscuity continues to have destructive effects on society and personal relationships, significant strides have been taken toward making sexual relations better balanced, with sex itself considered an essential part of health and well-being. Puritanical attitudes reject sexual expression and refuse to experience fully this most ecstatic way in which we exist, naturally. But accepting our nature, especially that part of it through which we ensure the continuity of the species, is essential to reintegrating nature and culture.

Finding that sexuality permeates every relationship and all communication is a part of that process. The continuity of the species is no longer restricted to concern with biological reproduction. We must learn to apply what we know from generations of experience with sexual, family, and social relationships in new ways, at new levels of complexity. In the same way that lovemaking is an unhurried letting-be that lingers in caring caresses mutually defining each lover to the other, so must we learn to see analogous, though less intense, ways of being together in every form of communion characteristic of communication and community. Love does indeed make the world go round.

Commerce and Science

There are many encouraging signs suggesting that new possibilities may yet be born of old, even ancient, ideas and philosophies. Many have observed over the last several decades that a new age is upon us, that the modern world’s metaphor of a clockwork universe is giving way to something less deterministic and warmer, less alien and more homey. In many respects, what the paradigm shift comes down to is a recognition that the universe is not an inanimate machine but an intelligent living system. Cold, hard, facts are being replaced with warm, resilient ones that are no less objective in the way they assert themselves as independent entities in the world.

In tune with this shift, increasing numbers of businesses and governments are realizing that long term profitability depends on good relationships with an educated and healthy workforce in a stable sociopolitical context, and with respect to the irreplacable environmental services provided by forests, watersheds, estuaries, fisheries, and ecological biodiversity. As Senge (in de Geus, 1997, p. xi) points out,

In Swedish, the oldest term for ‘business’ is narings liv, literally ‘nourishment for life.’ The ancient Chinese characters for ‘business,’ [are] at least 3,000 years old. The first of these characters translates as ‘life’ or ‘live.’ It can also be translated as ‘survive’ and ‘birth.’ The second translates as ‘meaning.’

Ready counterparts for these themes are deeply rooted in the English language. Without being aware of it, without having made any scholarly inquiry into Socrates’ maieutic arts, virtually every one of us already knows everything we need to know about the birth of living meaning. In any everyday assertion that something is such and so, in linking any subject with a predicate, we re-enact a metaphor of reproductive success in the creation of new meaning.

And here, at the very center of language and communication, the reproduction of meaning in conversation requires a copulative act, a conjugal relation, a coupling of subjects and objects via predicates. The back and forth movement of social intercourse is the deep structure that justifies and brings out its full discursive meaning as a pleasurable and productive process that involves probing, seminal questions; conceiving, being pregnant with, and Socratically midwifing ideas; dramatic climaxes; and a state of enchantment, hypnosis, or rapture that focuses attention and provokes passionate engagement.

When has an idea been successfully midwifed and come to life? We know an idea has come to life when we can restate it in our own words and obtain the same result. We know an idea has come to life when we can communicate it to someone else and they too can apply it in their own terms in new situations.

In his book on resolving the mystery of capital, De Soto points out that living capital can be acted on in banks and courts because it is represented abstractly in instruments like titles and deeds. Dead capital, in contrast, for which legal title does not exist, cannot be used as the basis for a mortgage or a small business loan, nor can one claim a right to the property in court.

Similarly, electrical appliances and machinery are living capital because they work the same way everywhere they can be connected to a standardized power grid by trained operators who have access to the right tool sets. Before the advent of widely shared standards, however, something as simple as different sized hoses and connections on hydrants allowed minor disasters to become catastrophes when fire trucks from different districts responding to an alarm were unable to put their available tools to use.

The distinction between dead and living capital is ultimately scientific, metrological, and mathematical. In ancient Greece, geometrical and arithmetical conversations were the first to be referred to as mathematical because they regularly arrive at the same conclusions no matter who the teacher and student are, and no matter which particular graphical or numerical figures are involved. That is, living meaning is objective; it stays the same, within a range of error, independent of the circumstances in which it is produced.

We can illustrate the conception, gestation, and birth of meaning in terms that lead directly to powerful methods of measurement using tests, assessments, and surveys. In yet another instance of linguistic biomimicry, the mathematical word “matrix” is derived from the ancient Greek word for womb. The matrix of observations recorded from the interaction of questions and answers is the fertile womb in which new ideals are conceived and gestated, and from which they are midwifed.

How? The monotony of the repeated questions and answers in the dialogue reveals the inner logic of the way the subject matter develops. By constantly connecting and reconnecting with the partner in dialogue, Socrates ensures that they stay together, attending to the same object. The reiterated yesses allow the object of the conversation to play itself out through what is said.

Conversational objects can exhibit strongly, and even strikingly, constant patterns of responses across different sets of similar questions posed at different times and places to different people by different interviewers, teachers, or surveyers. We create an increased likelihood of conceiving and birthing living meaning when questions are written in a way that enables them all to attend to the same thing, when they are asked of people also able to attend to that conversational object, and when we score the responses consistently as indicating right or wrong, agree or disagree, frequent or rare, etc.

When test, assessment, and survey instruments are properly designed, they bring meaning to life. They do so by making it possible to arrive at the same measure (the same numeric value, within a small range) for a given amount (of literacy, numeracy, health, motivation, innovation, trustworthiness, etc.) no matter who possesses it and no matter which particular collection of items or instrument is used to measure it. For numbers to be meaningful, they have to represent something that stays the same across particular expressions of the thing measured, and across particular persons measured.

We typically think of comparability in survey or testing research as requiring all respondents or examinees to answer the same questions, but this has not been true in actual measurement practice for decades. The power grid, electrical outlets, and appliances are all constructed so as to work together seamlessly across the vast majority of variations in who is using them, when and where they are used, what they are used for, and why they are used. In parallel fashion, educators are increasingly working to ensure that books, reading tests, and instructional curricula also work together no matter who publishes or administers them, or who reads them or who is measured by them.

The advantages of living literacy capital, for instance, go far beyond what can be accomplished with dead literacy capital. When each teacher matches books to readers using her or his personal knowledge, opportunities for uncontrolled variation emerge, and many opportunities for teachers to learn from each other are closed off. When each teacher’s tests are scored in terms of test-dependent counts of correct answers, knowing where any given child stands relative to the educational objectives is made unnecessarily difficult.

In contrast with these dead capital metrics, living literacy capital, such as is made available by the Lexile Framework for Reading and Writing (, facilitates systematic comparisons of reading abilities with text reading difficulties, relative to different rates of reading comprehension. Instruction can be individualized, which acknowledges and addresses the fact that any given elementary school classroom typically incorporates at least four different grade levels of reading ability.

Reading is thereby made more enjoyable, both for students who are bored by the easiness of the standard classroom text and for those who find it incomprehensible. Testing is transformed from a pure accountability exercise irrelevant to instruction into a means of determining what a child knows and what can optimally be taught next. Growth in reading can be plotted, not only within school years but across them. Students can move from one school to another, or from grade to grade, without losing track of where they stand on the continuum of reading ability, and without unnecessarily making teachers’ lives more difficult.

In the context of living literacy capital, publishers can better gauge the appropriateness of their books for the intended audiences. Teachers can begin the school year knowing where their students stand relative to the end-of-year proficiency standard, can track progress toward it as time passes, and can better ensure that standards are met. Parents can go online, with their children, to pick out books at appropriate reading levels for birthday and holiday gifts, and for summer reading.

Plainly, what we have achieved with living literacy capital is a capacity to act on the thing itself, literacy, in a manner that adheres to the Golden Rule, justly and fairly treating each reader the way any other reader would want to be treated. In this system of universally uniform and ubiquitously accessible metrics, we can act on literacy itself, instead of confusing it with the reading difficulty of any particular text, the reading ability of any particular student, or any interaction between them. In the same way that titles and deeds make it possible to represent owned property in banks and courts abstractly, so, too, does a properly conceived, calibrated, and distributed literacy metric enable every member of the species of literate humans to thrive in ecological niches requiring an ability to read as a survival skill.

The technical means by which literacy capital has been brought to life should be applied to all forms of human, social, and natural capital. Hospital, employment, community, governance, and environmental quality, and individual numeracy, health, functionality, motivation, etc. are all assessed using rating systems that largely have not yet been calibrated, much less brought together into frameworks of shared uniform metric standards. The body of research presenting instrument calibration studies is growing, but much remains to be done. All of the prior posts in this blog and all of my publications, from the most technical to the most philosophical, bear on the challenging problems we face in becoming stewards of living meaning.

The issues are all of a piece. We have to be the change we want to make happen. It won’t work if we mechanically separate what is organically whole. There’s nothing to do but to keep buzzing those beautiful flowers blooming in the fields, pollinating them and bringing back the bits of nourishment that feed the hive. In this way, this season’s fruit ripens, the seeds of new life take shape, and may yet be planted to grow in fertile fields.

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Tuning our assessment instruments to harmonize our relationships

January 10, 2010

“Music is the art of measuring well.”
Augustine of Hippo

With the application of Rasch’s probabilistic models for measurement, we are tuning the instruments of the human, social, and environmental sciences, with the aim of being able to harmonize relationships of all kinds. This is not an empty metaphor: the new measurement scales are equivalent, mathematically, with the well-tempered, and later 12-tone equal temperament, scales that were introduced in response to the technological advances associated with the piano.

The idea that the regular patterns found in music are akin to those found in the world at large and in the human psyche is an ancient one. The Pythagoreans held that

“…music’s concordances [were] the covenants that tones form under heaven’s watchful eye. For the Pythagoreans, though, the importance of these special proportions went well beyond music. They were signs of the natural order, like the laws governing triangles; music’s rules were simply the geometry governing things in motion: not only vibrating strings but also celestial bodies and the human soul” (Isacoff, 2001, p. 38).

I have already elsewhere in this blog elaborated on the progressive expansion of geometrical thinking into natural laws and measurement models; now, let us turn our attention to music as another fertile source of the analogies that have proven so productive over the course of the history of science (also explored elsewhere in this blog).

You see, tuning systems up to the invention of the piano (1709) required instruments to be retuned for performers to play in different keys. Each key had a particular characteristic color to its sound. And not only that, some note pairings in any key (such as every twelfth 5th in the mean tone tuning) were so dissonant that they were said to howl, and were referred to as wolves. Composers went out of their way to avoid putting these notes together, or used them in rare circumstances for especially dramatic effects.

Dozens of tuning systems had been proposed in the 17th century, and the concept of an equal-temperament scale was in general currency at the time of the piano’s invention. Bach is said to have tuned his own keyboards so that he could switch keys fluidly from within a composition. His “Well-Tempered Clavier” (published in 1722) demonstrates how a well temperament allows one to play in all 24 major and minor keys without retuning the instrument. Bach also is said to have deliberately used wolf note pairings to show that they did not howl in the way they did with the mean tone tuning.

Equal temperament is not equal-interval in the Pythagorean sense of same-sized changes in the frequencies of vibrating strings. Rather, those frequencies are scaled using the natural logarithm, and that logarithmic scale is what is divided into equal intervals. This is precisely what is also done in Rasch scaling algorithms applied to test, assessment, and survey data in contemporary measurement models.

Pianos are tuned from middle C out, with each sequential pair of notes to the left and right tuned to be the same distance away from C. As the tuner moves further and further away from C, the unit distance of the notes from middle C is slightly adjusted or stretched, so that the sharps and flats become the same note in the black keys.

What is being done, in effect, is that the natural logarithm of the note frequencies is being taken. In statistics, the natural logarithm is called a two-stretch transformation, because it pulls both ends of the normal distribution’s bell curve away from the center, with the ends being pulled further than the regions under the curve closer to the center. This stretching effect is of huge importance to measurement because it makes it possible for different collections of questions addressing the same thing to measure in the same unit.

That is, the instrument dependency of summed ratings or counts of right answers  or categorical response frequencies is like a key-dependent tuning system. The natural logarithm modulates transitions across musical notes in such a way as to make different keys work in the same scaling system, and it also modulates transitions across different reading tests so that they all measure in a unit that remains the same size with the same meaning.

Now, many people fear that the measurement of human abilities, attitudes, health, etc. must inherently involve a meaningless reduction of richly varied and infinite experience to a number. Many people are violently opposed to any suggestion that this could be done in a meaningful and productive way. However, is not music the most emotionally powerful and subtle art form in existence, and simultaneously also incredibly high-tech and mathematical? Even if you ignore the acoustical science and the studio electronics, the instruments themselves embody some of the oldest and most intensively studied mathematical principles in existence.

And, yes, these principles are used in TV, movies, dentists’ offices and retail stores to help create sympathies and environments conducive to the, sometimes painful and sometimes crass, commercial tasks at hand. But music is also by far the most popular art form, and it is accessible everywhere to everyone any time precisely as a result of the very technologies that many consider anathema in the human and social sciences.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more a matter of who controls the technology than it is one of the technology itself. In the current frameworks of the human and social sciences, and of the economic domains of human, social, and natural capital, whoever owns the instrument owns the measurement system and controls the interpretation of the data, since each instrument measures in its own unit. But in the new Rasch technology’s open architecture, anyone willing to master the skills needed can build instruments tuned to the reference standard, ubiquitous and universally available scale. What is more, the demand that all instruments measuring the same thing must harmonize will transfer control of data interpretation to a public sphere in which experimental reproducibility trumps authoritarian dictates.

This open standards system will open the door to creativity and innovation on a par with what musicians take for granted. Common measurement scales will allow people to jam out in an infinite variety of harmonic combinations, instrumental ensembles, choreographed moves, and melodic and rhythmic patterns. Just as music ranges from jazz to symphonic, rock to punk to hiphop to blues to country to techno, or atonal to R & B, so, too, do our relationships. A whole new world of potential innovations opens up in the context of methods for systematically evaluating naturally occurring and deliberately orchestrated variations in organizations, management, HR training methods, supply lines, social spheres, environmental quality, etc.

The current business world’s near-complete lack of comparable information on human, social, and natural capital is oppressive. It puts us in the situation of never knowing what we get for our money in education and healthcare, even as costs in these areas spiral into absolutely stratospheric levels. Having instruments in every area of education, health care, recreation, employment, and commerce tuned to common scales will be liberating, not oppressive. Having clear, reproducible, meaningful, and publicly negotiated measures of educational and clinical care outcomes, of productivity and innovation, and of trust, loyalty, and environmental quality will be a boon.

In conclusion, consider one more thing. About 100 years ago, a great many musicians and composers revolted against what they felt were the onerous and monotonous constraints of the equal-tempered tuning system. Thus we had an explosion of tonal and rhythmic innovations across the entire range of musical artistry. With the global popularity of world music’s blending of traditional forms with current technology and Western forms, the use of alternatives to equal temperament has never been greater. I read once that Joni Mitchell has used something like 32 different tunings in her recordings. Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young are also famous for using unique tunings to define their trademark sounds. What would the analogy of this kind of creativity be in the tuning of tests and surveys? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to seeing it, experiencing it, and maybe even contributing to it. Les Paul may not be the only innovator in instrument design who figured out not only how to make it easy for others to express themselves in measured tones, but who also knew how to rock out his own yayas!

References and further reading:

Augustine of Hippo. (1947/2002). On music. In Writings of Saint Augustine Volume 2. Immortality of the soul and other works. (L. Schopp, Trans.) (pp. 169-384). New York: Catholic University of America Press.

Barbour, J. M. (2004/1954). Tuning and temperament: A historical survey. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Heelan, P. A. (1979). Music as basic metaphor and deep structure in Plato and in ancient cultures. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 2, 279-291.

Isacoff, S. M. (2001). Temperament: The idea that solved music’s greatest riddle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jorgensen, O. (1991). Tuning: Containing the perfection of eighteenth-century temperament, the lost art of nineteenth-century temperament and the science of equal temperament. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University.

Kivy, P. (2002). Introduction to a philosophy of music. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Mathieu, W. A. (1997). Harmonic experience: Tonal harmony from its natural origins to its modern expression. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International.

McClain, E. (1984/1976). The myth of invariance: The origin of the gods, mathematics and music from the Rg Veda to Plato (P. A. Heelan, Ed.). York Beach, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, Inc.

Russell, G. (2001/1953). Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization (4th ed.). Brookline, MA: Concept Publishing.

Stone, M. (2002, Autumn). Musical temperament. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 16(2), 873.

Sullivan, A. T. (1985). The seventh dragon: The riddle of equal temperament. Lake Oswego, OR: Metamorphous Press.

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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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