Archive for the ‘History’ Category

With Reich in spirit, but with a different sense of the problem and its solution

October 4, 2015

In today’s editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Reich seeks some way of defining a solution to the pressing problems of how globalization and technological changes have made American workers less competitive. He rightly says that “reversing the scourge of widening inequality requires reversing the upward distributions [of income] within the rules of the market, and giving average people the bargaining power they need to get a larger share of the gains from growth.”

But Reich then says that the answer to this problem lies in politics, not economics. As I’ve pointed out before in this blog, focusing on marshaling political will is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Historically, politicians do not lead, they follow. As is demonstrated across events as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Preemption Act of 1841, mass movements of people have repeatedly demanded ways of cutting through the Gordian knots of injustice. And just as the political “leadership” across the Middle East and in the early U.S. dragged its feet, obstructed, and violently opposed change until it was already well underway, so, too, will that pattern repeat itself again in the current situation of inequitable income distribution.

The crux of the problem is that no one can give average people anything, not freedom (contra Dylan’s line in Blowin’ in the Wind about “allowing” people to be free) and certainly not a larger share of the gains from growth. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. People have to take what’s theirs. They have to want it, they have to struggle for it, and they have to pay for it, or they cannot own it and it will never be worth anything to them.

It is well known that a lack of individual property rights doomed communism and socialism because when everything is owned collectively by everyone, no one takes responsibility for it. The profit motive has the capacity to drive people to change things. The problem is not in profit itself. If birds and bees and trees and grasses did not profit from the sun, soil, and rain, there would be no life. The problem is in finding how to get a functional, self-sustaining economic ecology off the ground, not in unrealistically trying to manipulate and micromanage every detail.

The fundamental relevant characteristic of the profits being made today from intellectual property rights is that our individual rights to our own human and social capital are counter-productively restricted and undeveloped. How can it be that no one has any idea how much literacy or health capital they have, or what it is worth?! We have a metric system that tells us how much real estate and manufactured capital we own, and we can price it. But despite the well-established scientific facts of decades of measurement science research and practice, none of us can say, “I own x number of shares of stock in intellectual, literacy, or community capital, that have a value of x dollars in today’s market.” We desperately need an Intangible Assets Metric System, and the market rules, roles, and responsibilities that will make it impossible to make a profit while destroying human, social, and natural capital.

In this vein, what Reich gets absolutely correct is hidden inside his phrase, “within the rules of the market.” As I’ve so often repeated in this blog, capitalism is not inherently evil; it is, rather, unfinished. The real evil is in prolonging the time it takes to complete it. As was so eloquently stated by Miller and O’Leary (2007, p. 710):

“Markets are not spontaneously generated by the exchange activity of buyers and sellers. Rather, skilled actors produce institutional arrangements, the rules, roles and relationships that make market exchange possible. The institutions define the market, rather than the reverse.”

We have failed to set up the institutional arrangements needed to define human, social, and natural capital markets. The problem is that we cannot properly manage three of the four major forms of capital (human, social, and natural, with the fourth being manufactured/property) because we do not measure them in a common language built into scientifically, economically, legally and financially accountable titles, deeds, and other instruments.

And so, to repeat another one of my ad nauseum broken record nostrums, the problem is the problem. As long as we keep defining problems in the way we always have, as matters of marshalling political will, we will inadvertently find ourselves contributing more to prolonging tragic and needless human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation.

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), 701-734.

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Debt, Revenue, and Changing the Way Washington Works: The Greatest Entrepreneurial Opportunity of Our Time

July 30, 2011

“Holding the line” on spending and taxes does not make for a fundamental transformation of the way Washington works. Simply doing less of one thing is just a small quantitative change that does nothing to build positive results or set a new direction. What we need is a qualitative metamorphosis akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. In contrast with this beautiful image of natural processes, the arguments and so-called principles being invoked in the sham debate that’s going on are nothing more than fights over where to put deck chairs on the Titanic.

What sort of transformation is possible? What kind of a metamorphosis will start from who and where we are, but redefine us sustainably and responsibly? As I have repeatedly explained in this blog, my conference presentations, and my publications, with numerous citations of authoritative references, we already possess all of the elements of the transformation. We have only to organize and deploy them. Of course, discerning what the resources are and how to put them together is not obvious. And though I believe we will do what needs to be done when we are ready, it never hurts to prepare for that moment. So here’s another take on the situation.

Infrastructure that supports lean thinking is the name of the game. Lean thinking focuses on identifying and removing waste. Anything that consumes resources but does not contribute to the quality of the end product is waste. We have enormous amounts of wasteful inefficiency in many areas of our economy. These inefficiencies are concentrated in areas in which management is hobbled by low quality information, where we lack the infrastructure we need.

Providing and capitalizing on this infrastructure is The Greatest Entrepreneurial Opportunity of Our Time. Changing the way Washington (ha! I just typed “Wastington”!) works is the same thing as mitigating the sources of risk that caused the current economic situation. Making government behave more like a business requires making the human, social, and natural capital markets more efficient. Making those markets more efficient requires reducing the costs of transactions. Those costs are determined in large part by information quality, which is a function of measurement.

It is often said that the best way to reduce the size of government is to move the functions of government into the marketplace. But this proposal has never been associated with any sense of the infrastructural components needed to really make the idea work. Simply reducing government without an alternative way of performing its functions is irresponsible and destructive. And many of those who rail on and on about how bad or inefficient government is fail to recognize that the government is us. We get the government we deserve. The government we get follows directly from the kind of people we are. Government embodies our image of ourselves as a people. In the US, this is what having a representative form of government means. “We the people” participate in our society’s self-governance not just by voting, writing letters to congress, or demonstrating, but in the way we spend our money, where we choose to live, work, and go to school, and in every decision we make. No one can take a breath of air, a drink of water, or a bite of food without trusting everyone else to not carelessly or maliciously poison them. No one can buy anything or drive down the street without expecting others to behave in predictable ways that ensure order and safety.

But we don’t just trust blindly. We have systems in place to guard against those who would ruthlessly seek to gain at everyone else’s expense. And systems are the point. No individual person or firm, no matter how rich, could afford to set up and maintain the systems needed for checking and enforcing air, water, food, and workplace safety measures. Society as a whole invests in the infrastructure of measures created, maintained, and regulated by the government’s Department of Commerce and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The moral importance and the economic value of measurement standards has been stressed historically over many millennia, from the Bible and the Quran to the Magna Carta and the French Revolution to the US Constitution. Uniform weights and measures are universally recognized and accepted as essential to fair trade.

So how is it that we nonetheless apparently expect individuals and local organizations like schools, businesses, and hospitals to measure and monitor students’ abilities; employees’ skills and engagement; patients’ health status, functioning, and quality of care; etc.? Why do we not demand common currencies for the exchange of value in human, social, and natural capital markets? Why don’t we as a society compel our representatives in government to institute the will of the people and create new standards for fair trade in education, health care, social services, and environmental management?

Measuring better is not just a local issue! It is a systemic issue! When measurement is objective and when we all think together in the common language of a shared metric (like hours, volts, inches or centimeters, ounces or grams, degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius, etc.), then and only then do we have the means we need to implement lean strategies and create new efficiencies systematically. We need an Intangible Assets Metric System.

The current recession in large part was caused by failures in measuring and managing trust, responsibility, loyalty, and commitment. Similar problems in measuring and managing human, social, and natural capital have led to endlessly spiraling costs in education, health care, social services, and environmental management. The problems we’re experiencing in these areas are intimately tied up with the way we formulate and implement group level decision making processes and policies based in statistics when what we need is to empower individuals with the tools and information they need to make their own decisions and policies. We will not and cannot metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly until we create the infrastructure through which we each can take full ownership and control of our individual shares of the human, social, and natural capital stock that is rightfully ours.

We well know that we manage what we measure. What counts gets counted. Attention tends to be focused on what we’re accountable for. But–and this is vitally important–many of the numbers called measures do not provide the information we need for management. And not only are lots of numbers giving us low quality information, there are far too many of them! We could have better and more information from far fewer numbers.

Previous postings in this blog document the fact that we have the intellectual, political, scientific, and economic resources we need to measure and manage human, social, and natural capital for authentic wealth. And the issue is not a matter of marshaling the will. It is hard to imagine how there could be more demand for better management of intangible assets than there is right now. The problem in meeting that demand is a matter of imagining how to start the ball rolling. What configuration of investments and resources will start the process of bursting open the chrysalis? How will the demand for meaningful mediating instruments be met in a way that leads to the spreading of the butterfly’s wings? It is an exciting time to be alive.

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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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A Framework for Competitive Advantage in Managing Intangible Assets

July 26, 2011

It has long been recognized that externalities like social costs could be brought into the market should ways of measuring them objectively be devised. Markets, however, do not emerge spontaneously from the mere desire to be able to buy and sell; they are, rather, the products of actors and agencies that define the rules, roles, and relationships within which transaction costs are reduced and from which value, profits, and authentic wealth may be extracted. Objective measurement is necessary to reduced transaction costs but is by itself insufficient to the making of markets. Thus, markets for intangible assets, such as human, social, and natural capital, remain inefficient and undeveloped even though scientific theories, models, methods, and results demonstrating their objective measurability have been available for over 80 years.

Why has the science of objectively measured intangible assets not yet led to efficient markets for those assets? The crux of the problem, the pivot point at which an economic Archimedes could move the world of business, has to do with verifiable trust. It may seem like stating the obvious, but there is much to be learned from recognizing that shared narratives of past performance and a shared vision of the future are essential to the atmosphere of trust and verifiability needed for the making of markets. The key factor is the level of detail reliably tapped by such narratives.

For instance, some markets seem to have the weight of an immovable mass when the dominant narrative describes a static past and future with no clearly defined trajectory of leverageable development. But when a path of increasing technical capacity or precision over time can be articulated, entrepreneurs have the time frames they need to be able to coordinate, align, and manage budgeting decisions vis a vis investments, suppliers, manufacturers, marketing, sales, and customers. For example, the building out of the infrastructure of highways, electrical power, and water and sewer services assured manufacturers of automobiles, appliances, and homes that they could develop products for which there would be ready customers. Similarly, the mapping out of a path of steady increases in technical precision at no additional cost in Moore’s Law has been a key factor enabling the microprocessor industry’s ongoing history of success.

Of course, as has been the theme of this blog since day one, similar paths for the development of new infrastructural capacities could be vital factors for making new markets for human, social, and natural capital. I’ll be speaking on this topic at the forthcoming IMEKO meeting in Jena, Germany, August 31 to September 2. Watch this spot for more on this theme in the near future.

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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.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Measurement, Metrology, and the Birth of Self-Organizing, Complex Adaptive Systems

February 28, 2011

On page 145 of his book, The Mathematics of Measurement: A Critical History, John Roche quotes Charles de La Condamine (1701-1774), who, in 1747, wrote:

‘It is quite evident that the diversity of weights and measures of different countries, and frequently in the same province, are a source of embarrassment in commerce, in the study of physics, in history, and even in politics itself; the unknown names of foreign measures, the laziness or difficulty in relating them to our own give rise to confusion in our ideas and leave us in ignorance of facts which could be useful to us.’

Roche (1998, p. 145) then explains what de La Condamine is driving at, saying:

“For reasons of international communication and of civic justice, for reasons of stability over time and for accuracy and reliability, the creation of exact, reproducible and well maintained international standards, especially of length and mass, became an increasing concern of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This movement, cooperating with a corresponding impulse in governing circles for the reform of weights and measures for the benefit of society and trade, culminated in late eighteenth century France in the metric system. It established not only an exact, rational and international system of measuring length, area, volume and mass, but introduced a similar standard for temperature within the scientific community. It stimulated a wider concern within science to establish all scientific units with equal rigour, basing them wherever possible on the newly established metric units (and on the older exact units of time and angular measurement), because of their accuracy, stability and international availability. This process gradually brought about a profound change in the notation and interpretation of the mathematical formalism of physics: it brought about, for the first time in the history of the mathematical sciences, a true union of mathematics and measurement.”

As it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for physics, so it has also been in the twentieth and twenty-first for the psychosocial sciences. The creation of exact, reproducible and well maintained international standards is a matter of increasing concern today for the roles they will play in education, health care, the work place, business intelligence, and the economy at large.

As the economic crises persist and perhaps worsen, demand for common product definitions and for interpretable, meaningful measures of impacts and outcomes in education, health care, social services, environmental management, etc. will reach a crescendo. We need an exact, rational and international system of measuring literacy, numeracy, health, motivations, quality of life, community cohesion, and environmental quality, and we needed it fifty years ago. We need to reinvigorate and revive a wider concern across the sciences to establish all scientific units with equal rigor, and to have all measures used in research and practice based wherever possible on consensus standard metrics valued for their accuracy, stability and availability. We need to replicate in the psychosocial sciences the profound change in the notation and interpretation of the mathematical formalism of physics that occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We need to extend the true union of mathematics and measurement from physics to the psychosocial sciences.

Previous posts in this blog speak to the persistent invariance and objectivity exhibited by many of the constructs measured using ability tests, attitude surveys, performance assessments, etc. A question previously raised in this blog concerning the reproductive logic of living meaning deserves more attention, and can be productively explored in terms of complex adaptive functionality.

In a hierarchy of reasons why mathematically rigorous measurement is valuable, few are closer to the top of the list than facilitating the spontaneous self-organization of networks of agents and actors (Latour, 1987). The conception, gestation, birthing, and nurturing of complex adaptive systems constitute a reproductive logic for sociocultural traditions. Scientific traditions, in particular, form mature self-identities via a mutually implied subject-object relation absorbed into the flow of a dialectical give and take, just as economic systems do.

Complex adaptive systems establish the reproductive viability of their offspring and the coherence of an ecological web of meaningful relationships by means of this dialectic. Taylor (2003, pp. 166-8) describes the five moments in the formation and operation of complex adaptive systems, which must be able

  • to identify regularities and patterns in the flow of matter, energy, and information (MEI) in the environment (business, social, economic, natural, etc.);
  • to produce condensed schematic representations of these regularities so they can be identified as the same if they are repeated;
  • to form reproductively interchangeable variants of these representations;
  • to succeed reproductively by means of the accuracy and reliability of the representations’ predictions of regularities in the MEI data flow; and
  • adaptively modify and reorganize representations by means of informational feedback from the environment.

All living systems, from bacteria and viruses to plants and animals to languages and cultures, are complex adaptive systems characterized by these five features.

In the history of science, technologically-embodied measurement facilitates complex adaptive systems of various kinds. That history can be used as a basis for a meta-theoretical perspective on what measurement must look like in the social and human sciences. Each of Taylor’s five moments in the formation and operation of complex adaptive systems describes a capacity of measurement systems, in that:

  • data flow regularities are captured in initial, provisional instrument calibrations;
  • condensed local schematic representations are formed when an instrument’s calibrations are anchored at repeatedly observed, invariant values;
  • interchangeable nonlocal versions of these invariances are created by means of instrument equating, item banking, metrological networks, and selective, tailored, adaptive instrument administration;
  • measures read off inaccurate and unreliable instruments will not support successful reproduction of the data flow regularity, but accurate and reliable instruments calibrated in a shared common unit provide a reference standard metric that enhances communication and reproduces the common voice and shared identity of the research community; and
  • consistently inconsistent anomalous observations provide feedback suggesting new possibilities for as yet unrecognized data flow regularities that might be captured in new calibrations.

Measurement in the social sciences is in the process of extending this functionality into practical applications in business, education, health care, government, and elsewhere. Over the course of the last 50 years, measurement research and practice has already iterated many times through these five moments. In the coming years, a new critical mass will be reached in this process, systematically bringing about scale-of-magnitude improvements in the efficiency of intangible assets markets.

How? What does a “data flow regularity” look like? How is it condensed into a a schematic and used to calibrate an instrument? How are local schematics combined together in a pattern used to recognize new instances of themselves? More specifically, how might enterprise resource planning (ERP) software (such as SAP, Oracle, or PeopleSoft) simultaneously provide both the structure needed to support meaningful comparisons and the flexibility needed for good fit with the dynamic complexity of adaptive and generative self-organizing systems?

Prior work in this area proposes a dual-core, loosely coupled organization using ERP software to build social and intellectual capital, instead of using it as an IT solution addressing organizational inefficiencies (Lengnick-Hall, Lengnick-Hall, & Abdinnour-Helm, 2004). The adaptive and generative functionality (Stenner & Stone, 2003) provided by probabilistic measurement models (Rasch, 1960; Andrich, 2002, 2004; Bond & Fox, 2007; Wilson, 2005; Wright, 1977, 1999) makes it possible to model intra- and inter-organizational interoperability (Weichhart, Feiner, & Stary, 2010) at the same time that social and intellectual capital resources are augmented.

Actor/agent network theory has emerged from social and historical studies of the shared and competing moral, economic, political, and mathematical values disseminated by scientists and technicians in a variety of different successful and failed areas of research (Latour, 2005). The resulting sociohistorical descriptions ought be translated into a practical program for reproducing successful research programs. A metasystem for complex adaptive systems of research is implied in what Roche (1998) calls a “true union of mathematics and measurement.”

Complex adaptive systems are effectively constituted of such a union, even if, in nature, the mathematical character of the data flows and calibrations remains virtual. Probabilistic conjoint models for fundamental measurement are poised to extend this functionality into the human sciences. Though few, if any, have framed the situation in these terms, these and other questions are being explored, explicitly and implicitly, by hundreds of researchers in dozens of fields as they employ unidimensional models for measurement in their investigations.

If so, might then we be on the verge of a yet another new reading and writing of Galileo’s “book of nature,” this time restoring the “loss of meaning for life” suffered in Galileo’s “fateful omission” of the means by which nature came to be understood mathematically (Husserl, 1970)? The elements of a comprehensive, mathematical, and experimental design science of living systems appear on the verge of providing a saturated solution—or better, a nonequilbrium thermodynamic solution—to some of the infamous shortcomings of modern, Enlightenment science. The unity of science may yet be a reality, though not via the reductionist program envisioned by the positivists.

Some 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan popularized the expression, “The medium is the message.” The special value quantitative measurement in the history of science does not stem from the mere use of number. Instruments are media on which nature, human or other, inscribes legible messages. A renewal of the true union of mathematics and measurement in the context of intangible assets will lead to a new cultural, scientific, and economic renaissance. As Thomas Kuhn (1977, p. 221) wrote,

“The full and intimate quantification of any science is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Nevertheless, it is not a consummation that can effectively be sought by measuring. As in individual development, so in the scientific group, maturity comes most surely to those who know how to wait.”

Given that we have strong indications of how full and intimate quantification consummates a true union of mathematics and measurement, the time for waiting is now past, and the time to act has come. See prior blog posts here for suggestions on an Intangible Assets Metric System, for resources on methods and research, for other philosophical ruminations, and more. This post is based on work presented at Rasch meetings several years ago (Fisher, 2006a, 2006b).

References

Andrich, D. (2002). Understanding resistance to the data-model relationship in Rasch’s paradigm: A reflection for the next generation. Journal of Applied Measurement, 3(3), 325-59.

Andrich, D. (2004, January). Controversy and the Rasch model: A characteristic of incompatible paradigms? Medical Care, 42(1), I-7–I-16.

Bond, T., & Fox, C. (2007). Applying the Rasch model: Fundamental measurement in the human sciences, 2d edition. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2006a, Friday, April 28). Complex adaptive functionality via measurement. Presented at the Midwest Objective Measurement Seminar, M. Lunz (Organizer), University of Illinois at Chicago.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2006b, June 27-9). Measurement and complex adaptive functionality. Presented at the Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium, T. Bond & M. Wu (Organizers), The Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong.

Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology: An introduction to phenomenological philosophy (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press (Original work published 1954).

Kuhn, T. S. (1977). The function of measurement in modern physical science. In T. S. Kuhn, The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change (pp. 178-224). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [(Reprinted from Kuhn, T. S. (1961). Isis, 52(168), 161-193.]

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

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

Lengnick-Hall, C. A., Lengnick-Hall, M. L., & Abdinnour-Helm, S. (2004). The role of social and intellectual capital in achieving competitive advantage through enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Journal of Engineering Technology Management, 21, 307-330.

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.

Stenner, A. J., & Stone, M. (2003). Item specification vs. item banking. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 17(3), 929-30 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt173a.htm].

Taylor, M. C. (2003). The moment of complexity: Emerging network culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weichhart, G., Feiner, T., & Stary, C. (2010). Implementing organisational interoperability–The SUddEN approach. Computers in Industry, 61, 152-160.

Wilson, M. (2005). Constructing measures: An item response modeling approach. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wright, B. D. (1977). Solving measurement problems with the Rasch model. Journal of Educational Measurement, 14(2), 97-116 [http://www.rasch.org/memo42.htm].

Wright, B. D. (1997, Winter). A history of social science measurement. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 16(4), 33-45, 52 [http://www.rasch.org/memo62.htm].

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104 [http://www.rasch.org/memo64.htm]). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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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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Newton, Metaphysics, and Measurement

January 20, 2011

Though Newton claimed to deduce quantitative propositions from phenomena, the record shows that he brought a whole cartload of presuppositions to bear on his observations (White, 1997), such as his belief that Pythagoras was the discoverer of the inverse square law, his knowledge of Galileo’s freefall experiments, and his theological and astrological beliefs in occult actions at a distance. Without his immersion in this intellectual environment, he likely would not have been able to then contrive the appearance of deducing quantity from phenomena.

The second edition of the Principia, in which appears the phrase “hypotheses non fingo,” was brought out in part to respond to the charge that Newton had not offered any explanation of what gravity is. De Morgan, in particular, felt that Newton seemed to know more than he could prove (Keynes, 1946). But in his response to the critics, and in asserting that he feigns no hypotheses, Newton was making an important distinction between explaining the causes or composition of gravity and describing how it works. Newton was saying he did not rely on or make or test any hypotheses as to what gravity is; his only concern was with how it behaves. In due course, gravity came to be accepted as a fundamental feature of the universe in no need of explanation.

Heidegger (1977, p. 121) contends that Newton was, as is implied in the translation “I do not feign hypotheses,” saying in effect that the ground plan he was offering as a basis for experiment and practical application was not something he just made up. Despite Newton’s rejection of metaphysical explanations, the charge of not explaining gravity for what it is was being answered with a metaphysics of how, first, to derive the foundation for a science of precise predictive control from nature, and then resituate that foundation back within nature as an experimental method incorporating a mathematical plan or model. This was, of course, quite astute of Newton, as far as he went, but he stopped far short of articulating the background assumptions informing his methods.

Newton’s desire for a logic of experimental science led him to reject anything “metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical” as a foundation for proceeding. Following in Descartes’ wake, Newton then was satisfied to solidify the subject-object duality and to move forward on the basis of objective results that seemed to make metaphysics a thing of the past. Unfortunately, as Burtt (1954/1932, pp. 225-230) observes in this context, the only thing that can possibly happen when you presume discourse to be devoid of metaphysical assumptions is that your metaphysics is more subtly insinuated and communicated to others because it is not overtly presented and defended. Thus we have the history of logical positivism as the dominant philosophy of science.

It is relevant to recall here that Newton was known for strong and accurate intuitions, and strong and unorthodox religious views (he held the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge only by royal dispensation, as he was not Anglican). It must be kept in mind that Newton’s combination of personal characteristics was situated in the social context of the emerging scientific culture’s increasing tendency to prioritize results that could be objectively detached from the particular people, equipment, samples, etc. involved in their production (Shapin, 1989). Newton then had insights that, while remarkably accurate, could not be entirely derived from the evidence he offered and that, moreover, could not acceptably be explained informally, psychologically, or theologically.

What is absolutely fascinating about this constellation of factors is that it became a model for the conduct of science. Of course, Newton’s laws of motion were adopted as the hallmark of successful scientific modeling in the form of the Standard Model applied throughout physics in the nineteenth century (Heilbron, 1993). But so was the metaphysical positivist logic of a pure objectivism detached from everything personal, intuitive, metaphorical, social, economic, or religious (Burtt, 1954/1932).

Kuhn (1970) made a major contribution to dismantling this logic when he contrasted textbook presentations of the methodical production of scientific effects with the actual processes of cobbled-together fits and starts that are lived out in the work of practicing scientists. But much earlier, James Clerk Maxwell (1879, pp. 162-163) had made exactly the same observation in a contrast of the work of Ampere with that of Faraday:

“The experimental investigation by which Ampere established the laws of the mechanical action between electric currents is one of the most brilliant achievements in science. The whole, theory and experiment, seems as if it had leaped, full grown and full armed, from the brain of the ‘Newton of electricity.’ It is perfect in form, and unassailable in accuracy, and it is summed up in a formula from which all the phenomena may be deduced, and which must always remain the cardinal formula of electro-dynamics.

“The method of Ampere, however, though cast into an inductive form, does not allow us to trace the formation of the ideas which guided it. We can scarcely believe that Ampere really discovered the law of action by means of the experiments which he describes. We are led to suspect, what, indeed, he tells us himself* [Ampere’s Theorie…, p. 9], that he discovered the law by some process which he has not shewn us, and that when he had afterwards built up a perfect demonstration he removed all traces of the scaffolding by which he had raised it.

“Faraday, on the other hand, shews us his unsuccessful as well as his successful experiments, and his crude ideas as well as his developed ones, and the reader, however inferior to him in inductive power, feels sympathy even more than admiration, and is tempted to believe that, if he had the opportunity, he too would be a discoverer. Every student therefore should read Ampere’s research as a splendid example of scientific style in the statement of a discovery, but he should also study Faraday for the cultivation of a scientific spirit, by means of the action and reaction which will take place between newly discovered facts and nascent ideas in his own mind.”

Where does this leave us? In sum, Rasch emulated Ampere in two ways. He did so first in wanting to become the “Newton of reading,” or even the “Newton of psychosocial constructs,” when he sought to show that data from reading test items and readers are structured with an invariance analogous to that of data from instruments applying a force to an object with mass (Rasch, 1960, pp. 110-115). Rasch emulated Ampere again when, like Ampere, after building up a perfect demonstration of a reading law structured in the form of Newton’s second law, he did not report the means by which he had constructed test items capable of producing the data fitting the model, effectively removing all traces of the scaffolding.

The scaffolding has been reconstructed for reading (Stenner, et al., 2006) and has also been left in plain view by others doing analogous work involving other constructs (cognitive and moral development, mathematics ability, short-term memory, etc.). Dawson (2002), for instance, compares developmental scoring systems of varying sophistication and predictive control. And it may turn out that the plethora of uncritically applied Rasch analyses may turn out to be a capital resource for researchers interested in focusing on possible universal laws, predictive theories, and uniform metrics.

That is, published reports of calibration, error, and fit estimates open up opportunities for “pseudo-equating” (Beltyukova, Stone, & Fox, 2004; Fisher 1997, 1999) in their documentation of the invariance, or lack thereof, of constructs over samples and instruments. The evidence will point to a need for theoretical and metric unification directly analogous to what happened in the study and use of electricity in the nineteenth century:

“…’the existence of quantitative correlations between the various forms of energy, imposes upon men of science the duty of bringing all kinds of physical quantity to one common scale of comparison.’” [Schaffer, 1992, p. 26; quoting Everett 1881; see Smith & Wise 1989, pp. 684-4]

Qualitative and quantitative correlations in scaling results converged on a common construct in the domain of reading measurement through the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the Anchor Test Study and the calibration of the National Reference Scale for Reading (Jaeger, 1973; Rentz & Bashaw, 1977). The lack of a predictive theory and the entirely empirical nature of the scale estimates prevented the scale from wide application, as the items in the tests that were equated were soon replaced with new items.

But the broad scale of the invariance observed across tests and readers suggests that some mechanism must be at work (Stenner, Stone, & Burdick, 2009), or that some form of life must be at play (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010a), structuring the data. Eventually, some explanation accounting for the structure ought to become apparent, as it did for reading (Stenner, Smith, & Burdick, 1983; Stenner, et al., 2006). This emergence of self-organizing structures repeatedly asserting themselves as independently existing real things is the medium of the message we need to hear. That message is that instruments play a very large and widely unrecognized role in science. By facilitating the routine production of mutually consistent, regularly observable, and comparable results they set the stage for theorizing, the emergence of consensus on what’s what, and uniform metrics (Daston & Galison, 2007; Hankins & Silverman, 1999; Latour, 1987, 2005; Wise, 1988, 1995). The form of Rasch’s models as extensions of Maxwell’s method of analogy (Fisher, 2010b) makes them particularly productive as a means of providing self-organizing invariances with a medium for their self-inscription. But that’s a story for another day.

References

Beltyukova, S. A., Stone, G. E., & Fox, C. M. (2004). Equating student satisfaction measures. Journal of Applied Measurement, 5(1), 62-9.

Burtt, E. A. (1954/1932). The metaphysical foundations of modern physical science (Rev. ed.) [First edition published in 1924]. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dawson, T. L. (2002, Summer). A comparison of three developmental stage scoring systems. Journal of Applied Measurement, 3(2), 146-89.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1997). Physical disability construct convergence across instruments: Towards a universal metric. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 1(2), 87-113.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1999). Foundations for health status metrology: The stability of MOS SF-36 PF-10 calibrations across samples. Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, 151(11), 566-578.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 238(1), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/238/1/012016/pdf/1742-6596_238_1_012016.pdf.

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

Jaeger, R. M. (1973). The national test equating study in reading (The Anchor Test Study). Measurement in Education, 4, 1-8.

Keynes, J. M. (1946, July). Newton, the man. (Speech given at the Celebration of the Tercentenary of Newton’s birth in 1642.) MacMillan St. Martin’s Press (London, England), The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Volume X, 363-364.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Maxwell, J. C. (1879). Treatise on electricity and magnetism, Volumes I and II. London, England: Macmillan.

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.

Rentz, R. R., & Bashaw, W. L. (1977, Summer). The National Reference Scale for Reading: An application of the Rasch model. Journal of Educational Measurement, 14(2), 161-179.

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.

Shapin, S. (1989, November-December). The invisible technician. American Scientist, 77, 554-563.

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

Stenner, A. J., Smith, M., III, & Burdick, D. S. (1983, Winter). Toward a theory of construct definition. Journal of Educational Measurement, 20(4), 305-316.

Stenner, A. J., Stone, M., & Burdick, D. (2009, Autumn). The concept of a measurement mechanism. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 23(2), 1204-1206.

White, M. (1997). Isaac Newton: The last sorcerer. New York: Basic Books.

Wise, M. N. (1988). Mediating machines. Science in Context, 2(1), 77-113.

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

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Crisis and Opportunity

November 21, 2010

Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, Shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism (New York, Picador), provides a great way of framing how the shortcomings of capitalism might be corrected.  What I’m after is what might be called a reverse shock doctrine, though the reversal is not a simple mirror image. (This post assumes familiarity with some of my previously presented arguments, especially How bad…?, Reinventing…, and And here it is…)

Klein calls “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of the disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism'” (p. 6). She traces the origins of disaster capitalism to Milton Friedman’s articulation of:

“contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He [Friedman] observed that ‘only a crisis–actual or perceived–produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’12 Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the ‘tyranny of the status quo.’ He estimated that ‘a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity.’13 A variation on Machiavelli’s advice that injuries should be inflicted ‘all at once,’ this proved to be one of Friedman’s most lasting strategic legacies.” (pp. 7-8)

So what I propose is the positive opposite of disaster capitalism and the shock doctrine. The opposition takes two forms. First, what might be called genuine prosperity capitalism or whole wealth capitalism takes advantage of the crises induced by market failures to effect changes that are the diametric opposite of disaster capitalism. In Bolivia in 1985, for instance, the government countered hyperinflation with a shock program that implemented free market principles while incurring huge costs in terms of human suffering, social upheaval, and environmental impacts (Klein’s Chapter 7, pp. 177-193).

This was privatization on a massive scale, with the simultaneous near-complete abandonment of externalized welfare costs previously funded by tax revenues, shifting responsibility for the consequences of an environment more attuned to corporate welfare directly onto the poor. Of course, one of the reasons why this was possible is that no one is responsible for the indirect social and environmental costs. Because the unmeasured and unmanaged dead capital is off the books and not included in the models, it doesn’t count, no matter how essential it is to the overall functioning of the economy.

My plan would do just the opposite, not in the sense of shifting costs off society at large and onto business but in transforming dead capital into living. I propose taking advantage of market failures to internalize social and environmental costs, to follow through on the general capitalist principle that maximizing social welfare depends on having each firm in an economy maximize its total market value. The current (2007-2010) great recession, for instance, has laid bare the need for a new infrastructure of human, social, and natural capital metrics. Universally available uniform measures of each form of living capital would function as common currencies for the exchange of the value of intangible assets.

Such currencies are needed for reducing the astronomical transaction costs associated with 90% of the capital under management in the economy as a whole. It may be impossible to transform economic models and financial standards so completely outside of the context of a widespread disaster, and it may now be too late in the course of this disaster to begin the process. This period may someday be seen in retrospect, however, as the quiet before the real storm, and so I can do no better than to work toward accumulating a stockpile of new ideas that may come to be seen as vital tools essential to making needed changes when the opportunity arises.

Second, in contrast with Klein, rather than seeing the shock doctrine as a pure imposition of power, we would do better to understand the sources of that power and how it is sustained and perpetuated. What I want to consider is not an apology for the injustices, but a coherent narrative, however much it was a case of one step forward and five back.

Though it does not appear to have been intentional, the stage for the 1985 Bolivian crisis was set by the Reagan-era war on drugs, which had cut Bolivia’s export revenues by 50% in 1984 (p. 178). This economic disaster came just as Bolivia was making a political shift from dictatorship to democracy. It is highly ironic that the shock therapy was administered by an elected leftist government, but there is also a kind of consistency to the course of events that lends itself to a narrative of ongoing development.

With 20-20 hindsight, it is obvious that alternative policies, such as the legalization, regulation, and taxation of cocaine, could have prevented to some degree, at least, the tragic consequences of the shock doctrine that were suffered by the Bolivian people. But that does not change the fact that a fundamental level of progress was achieved in abandoning the socially irresponsible, humanly immoral, and economically unsustainable dictatorship, illegal drug trade, and state-owned mining operations. Would not the re-entrenchment of these in 1985 have produced far more suffering, upheaval, and environmental deterioration than actually did occur? After all, though labor and social leaders were temporarily kidnapped while the shock policies were implemented, mass murder was not part of this picture.

Even so, far from relieving anyone of responsibility, this damning with faint praise frames a perspective on a positive way forward. If free market principles had been expanded to include all the forms of capital (human, social, and natural in addition to the existing manufactured, liquid, and property), the shock doctrine might have instead been realized as a soothing, reassuring, care or love doctrine. Opportunities for instituting such a doctrine do not seem to be in short supply. They will apparently continue to offer themselves for as long as capitalism remains in its current incomplete state. And capitalism will remain in that state as long as we do not emulate Friedman’s example and accumulate a stockpile of ideas as to how the profit motive can be harnessed as a source of energy for growing genuine wealth: fulfilled human potential, safe and creative communities, and a thriving natural environment.

All of my work is focused on contributing to the stock of intellectual capital needed for realizing how true it is that love makes the world go round.

—————————————————-
p. 174, Repeats Friedman quote from p. 7:
“‘Only a crisis–actual or perceived–produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’33 It was to become a kind of mantra for his movement in the new democratic era. Allan Meltzer elaborated on the philosophy: ‘Ideas are alternatives waiting on a crisis to serve as the catalyst of change. Friedman’s model of influence was to legitimize ideas, to make them bearable, and worth trying when the opportunity comes.’34”

p. 175:
“The idea that market crashes can serve as catalysts for revolutionary change has a long history on the far left, most notably in the Bolshevik theory that hyperinflation, by destroying the value of money, takes the masses one step closer to the destruction of capitalism itself.35 This theory explains why a certain breed of sectarian leftist is forever calculating the exact conditions under which capitalism will reach ‘the crisis,’ much as evangelical Christians calibrate signs of the coming Rapture. In the mid-eighties, this Communist idea began to experience a powerful revival, picked up by Chicago School economists who argued that just as market crashes could precipitate left-wing revolutions, so too could they be used to spark right-wing counterrevolutions, a theory that become known as ‘the crisis hypothesis.’36
“Friedman’s interest in crisis was also a clear attempt to learn from the victories of the left after the Great Depression: when the market crashed, Keynes and his disciples, previously voices in the wilderness, had been ready and waiting with their ideas, their New Deal solutions. In the seventies and early eighties, Friedman and his corporate underwriters had attempted to mimic this process with their unique brand of intellectual disaster preparedness. They painstakingly built up a new network of right-wing think tanks, including Heritage and [p. 176] Cato, and produced the most significant vehicle to disseminate Friedman’s views, the ten-part PBS miniseries Free to Choose–underwritten by some of the largest corporations in the world, including Getty Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., PepsiCo, General Motors, Bechtel, and General Mills.37 When the next crisis hit, Friedman was determined that it would be his Chicago Boys who would be the ones ready with their ideas and their solutions.”

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False Modesty and the Progress of Science (or Lack Thereof)

April 5, 2010

In a talk given in 1999, Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, proclaimed the stature of James Clerk Maxwell in the history of science, positioning him at the rank of Newton and Einstein. Maxwell’s 1865 theory explaining and unifying the phenomena of electricity and magnetism turned out to be, according to Dyson (1999),

“the prototype for all the great triumphs of twentieth-century physics…the prototype for Einstein’s theories of relativity, for quantum mechanics, for the Yang-Mills theory of generalised gauge invariance, and for the unified theory of fields and particles that is known as the Standard Model of particle physics.”

Maxwell was a leading figure in British science in the period from 1856 until his death at 48 in 1879. He was an academic department head at 25, elected to the Royal Society at 30, was president of the section on mathematical and physical sciences of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at 35, and at 40 became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge, personally overseeing the building of the Cavendish Laboratory.

In addition to his intelligence and imagination, Maxwell had a wry sense of humor, and a rich spiritual life. But in 1870, giving an overview of recent advances in his presidential address to the British Association, he downplayed the importance of what we now know as his landmark 1865 paper on electromagnetism. He instead spoke enthusiastically about William Thomson’s work in electrical theory. Perhaps he did not want to take on the double challenge of trying to explain the new and complex mathematics of his own theory to the physicists, and the physical application of the equations, to the mathematicians. Maybe he thought it would be unfair to take advantage of his position to showcase his own work. But Dyson thinks Maxwell’s colleagues could have been motivated to overcome the difficulties experienced in interpreting the published work if only Maxwell had encouraged them to.

Dyson contends that, in being so “absurdly and infuriatingly modest,” Maxwell set back progress in physics by 20 years, just as Mendel’s monkish isolation held back biology by 50. Referring to his own work toward the end of his address, Maxwell began by saying, “Another theory of electricity which I prefer…”.  He then briefly described his work without taking credit for it.

But what if, as Dyson asks, Maxwell had instead had the confidence of Newton, who, at the start of the third volume of his Principia Mathematica, announced, “I now demonstrate the frame of the system of the world.” What if Maxwell had directly stated the truth with some panache, saying something to the effect of, “I now demonstrate the structure of the models integrating mathematics and physical phenomena that will dominate physics for the foreseeable future, and that will lead to revolutionary advances”? Even if he had not been so grandiose, if someone of his stature in the scientific community, known for his humility and personable nature, had spoken straightforwardly about what he believed to be true, people would have listened, and Freeman Dyson would not have been talking about 20-year delays in the advancement of science brought about by one of its most illustrious contributors.

It would seem that Maxwell’s legacy of self-deprecating modesty might have been inherited by one of his intellectual heirs, Georg Rasch, and the vast majority of those who have adopted Rasch’s measurement models in their research. Rasch explicitly based the mathematics of his approach to psychological measurement on Maxwell’s mathematics (see my previous postings here for more). Rasch accomplished for psychology the same integration of mathematics with substance that Maxwell accomplished for physics. Rasch’s students, Wright, Andrich, Andersen, and Fischer among them, poured passion and insight into developments in models, theory, estimation, software, fit statistics, applications, students, publications, and professional associations for decades. But you would never know that from reading most of the research using his models over the last 30 years, or from taking courses with most of the university professors who purport to apply Rasch’s ideas.

So, all that just to say that there are reasons and purposes motivating these blog postings that may not be readily apparent, but which have their historical precedents and future potentials. There is no more worthy challenge for me, personally, than following Rasch’s lead in figuring out how to demonstrate the frame of the system of the world of social relationships and intangible assets. After all, if no one does this, how many additional decades might be lost before researchers gain the thorough understandings of Rasch’s models that will lead the way to whole new classes of human, scientific, and economic triumphs?

Dyson, F. (1999, July). Why is Maxwell’s theory so hard to understand? In Fourth International Congress Industrial and Applied Mathematics (http://www.clerkmaxwellfoundation.org/DysonFreemanArticle.pdf). Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Modern, Postmodern, or Amodern?

February 17, 2010

A few points of clarification might be in order for those wondering what the fuss is all about in the contrast between the modern and the postmodern (and the amodern, which is really what we ought to be about).

The modern world view takes its perspective from the foundational works of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. One of its characteristic features is often referred to as the Cartesian duality, or subject-object split, in which we (the subjects) enter the previously-existing objective world as blank slates who deal with reality by adapting to the facts of existence (which are God-given in the full Christian version). Many Marxists, feminists, and postmodernists see modernism as a bastion of white males in positions of political and economic superiority oblivious to the way their ideas were shaped by their times, and happy to take full advantage of their positions for their own gain.

Postmodernism takes a variety of forms and has not yet really jelled into any kind of uniform perspective; in fact, it might not ever do so, as one of its few recurrent themes has to do with the fragmentation of thinking and its local dependence on the particular power relations of different times and places. That said, a wide variety of writers trace out the way we are caught up in the play of the language games that inevitably follow from the mutual implication of subject and object. Subject and object each imply the other in the way language focuses attention selectively and filters out 99% of incoming stimuli. Concepts originate in metaphors that take their meaning from the surrounding social and historical context, and so perception and cognition are constrained by the linguistic or theoretical paradigms dominating the thoughts and behaviors of various communities. We cannot help but find ourselves drawn up into the flow of discourses that always already embody the subject-object unities represented in speaking and writing.

When we choose discourse over violence, we do so on the basis of a desire for meaning (Ricoeur, 1974), of an inescapable attraction to the beautiful (Gadamer, 1989, 1998), of a care that characterizes the human mode of being (Heidegger, 1962), of a considerateness for the human vulnerability of others and ourselves (Habermas, 1995), of an enthrallment with the fecund abundance of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1984), of the joy we experience in recognizing ourselves in each other and the universal (Hegel, 2003), of the irresistible allure of things (Harman, 2005), or of the unavoidable metaphysical necessity that propositions must take particular forms (Derrida, 1978).

All violence is ultimately the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1974), in which discourse is cut off by the imposition of one particularity as representative of a potentially infinite whole. This reductionism is an unjustified reduction of a universal that precludes efforts aimed at determining how well what is said might work to represent the whole transparently. Of course, all reductions of abstract ideals to particular expressions in words, numbers, or other signs are, by definition, of a limited length, and so inevitably pose the potential for being nonsensical, biased, prejudiced, and meaningless. Measures experimentally justifying reductions as meaningfully and usefully transparent are created, maintained, and reinvented via a balance of powers. In science, powers are balanced by the interrelations of theories, instruments, and data; in democracy, by the interrelations of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Just as science is continuously open to the improvements that might be effected by means of new theories, instrumentation, or data, so, too, are democratic governments continuously reshaped by new court decisions, laws, and executive orders.

An essential idea here is that all thinking takes place in signs; this is not an idea that was invented or that is owned by postmodernists. C. S. Pierce developed the implications of semiotics in his version of pragmatism, and the letters exchanged by William James and Helen Keller explored the world projected by the interrelations of signs at length. The focus on signs, signification, and the play of signifiers does not make efforts at thinking futile or invalidate the search for truth. Things come into language by asserting their independent real existence, and by being appropriated in terms of relations with things already represented in the language. For instance, trees in the forest did not arrive on the scene hallmarked “white pine,” “pin oak,” etc. Rather, names for things emerge via the metaphoric process, which frames new experiences in terms of old, and which leads to a kind of conceptual speciation event that distinguishes cultural, historical, and ecological times and places from each other.

Modernists interpret the cultural relativism that emerges here as reducing all value systems to a false equality and an “anything goes” lack of standards. Unfortunately, the rejection of relativism usually entails the adoption of some form of political or religious fundamentalism in efforts aimed at restoring bellwether moral reference points. One of the primary characteristics of the current state of global crisis is our suspension in this unsustainable tension between equally dysfunctional alternatives of completely relaxed or completely rigid guides to behavior.

But the choice between fundamentalism and relativism is a false dichotomy. Science, democracy, and capitalism have succeeded as well as they have not in spite of, but because of, the social, historic, linguistic, and metaphoric factors that influence and constitute the construction of objective meaning. As Latour (1990, 1993) puts it, we have never actually been modern, so the point is not to be modern or postmodern, but amodern. We need to appropriate new, more workable conceptual reductions from the positive results produced by the deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. Though many postmodernists see deconstruction as an end in itself, and though many modernists see reductionism as a necessary exercise of power, there are other viable ways of proceeding through all three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982; Fisher, 2010b) that remain to be explored.

The amodern path informs the trajectory of my own work, from the focus on the creation of meaning in language to meaningful measurement (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b), and from there to the use of measurement and metrological networks in bringing human, social, and natural capital to life as part of the completion of the capitalist and democratic projects (Fisher, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010a). Though this project will also ultimately amount to nothing more than another failed experiment, perhaps sooner than later, it has its openness to continued questioning and ongoing dialogue in its favor.

References

Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/WP_Fisher_Jr_2000.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Rev. ed.). New York: Crossroad (Original work published 1960).

Gadamer, H.-G. (1998). Praise of theory: Speeches and essays ( Foreword by Joel Weinsheimer, Ed.) (C. Dawson, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

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

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

Hegel, G. W. F. (2003). Phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Dover (Original work published 1931).

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Irigaray, L. (1984). An ethics of sexual difference (C. Burke & G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

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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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Review of “The Science of Liberty” by Timothy Ferris

February 15, 2010

The topic of Timothy Ferris’ (2010) “The Science of Liberty” is fascinating; the author recounts many entertaining and illuminating historical episodes in science, with their often profound implications for political and economic experimentation. But as Gary Rosen says in his New York Times review, Ferris ultimately gives up “on any real effort to argue for the decisive influence of science as such. He is content to speak of science metaphorically, as the model for openness and experimentalism in all the major realms of liberal-democratic endeavor.” This is unfortunate, as there is much to say and more to be done in documenting and extending the material practices of science into political and economic applications (Ashworth, 2004; Jasanoff, 2004, 2005).

And more than that, Ferris misses two important opportunities that could have made this book into something more compelling. First, the voluminous literature on the co-production of social orders across political, economic, and scientific contexts is almost completely ignored. Worse, when Ferris does touch on it, as he does in the work of Bruno Latour, he turns it into an example of an antiscientific attitude that he is content to “jeer and dismiss,” as Rosen puts it in the Times.

Latour’s work, however, is part of an area of academic research that has emerged in the last 30 years with a focus on the way scientific values embody, insinuate, and disseminate implicit moral, political, and economic values, values that are ineluctably spread and adopted along with the technologies that carry them. The basic idea is expressed in Alder’s (2002) history of the meter:

“Just as the French Revolution had proclaimed universal rights for all people, the savants argued, so too should it proclaim universal measures. And to ensure that their creation would not be seen as the handiwork of any single group or nation, they decided to derive its fundamental unit from the measure of the world itself.” (p. 3)

“Ought not a single nation have a uniform set of measures, just as a soldier fought for a single patrie? Had not the Revolution promised equality and fraternity, not just for France, but for all the people of the world? By the same token, should not all of the world’s people use a single set of weights and measures to encourage peaceable commerce, mutual understanding, and the exchange of knowledge? That was the purpose of measuring the world.” (p. 32)

But instead of capitalizing on this primary theme in Alder’s book, the only mention of it by Ferris (p. 124) is as a source for a contemporary’s comment on the execution of Lavoisier by the Revolutionaries. Hunt (1994), however, points out that this focus on standardization provides the medium through which the material practices and implicit values of science are exported from the laboratory into the broader social world, where they have unintended political and economic effects. Recounting the development of electrical standards, Hunt observes that

“Such standardization—first of resistance coils, then of production materials—is a good example of the process Bruno Latour discusses in the section ‘Metrologies’ in Science in Action. Standardization of instruments and materials enables scientists and engineers to extend their networks of calculation and control by simply making and sending out what are, in effect, little pieces of their laboratories and testing rooms. They can then travel around the world without, in a sense, ever having to leave their laboratories—as long as they are able to put certified copies or extensions of their instruments wherever they have to go.” (p. 56)

Hunt continues, providing more detail on how the social order implied by standard values comes to be constructed:

“As useful as the precision and control afforded by standardization was within a single company’s system, it became even more important when an exchange of materials was involved—when standardization became part of contract specifications. By providing fixed and agreed reference points in which both parties could have confidence, standard resistances were crucial in settling or heading off possible disputes. By enabling engineers to secure the comparability and even uniformity of their copper and gutta-percha, to identify and police deviations, and to reproduce the properties of successful cables in a predictable way, reliable standards were crucial to the growth of the cable manufacturing industry and to the efficient operation and extension of the world cable system.” (p. 57)

Electrical engineers, then, rigorously established the natural properties of resistance as it shows itself in repeated experiments, designed their systems to conform with those properties, earned economic and legal successes by efficiently deploying standard resistances, and worked together to create a global system. In other words, as Ferris himself emphasizes, scientific practices imply and lead toward democratic practices by being antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative. And every year on World Metrology Day (May 20), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) repeats the same mantra emphasizing the vital importance of technical standards and common product definitions for free trade and liberal democracy.

The same basic point made by Latour is also made by Schaffer (1992; also see Wise, 1995 and many others), working in the same area of the history of electrical standards as Hunt:

“The physical values which the laboratory fixes are sustained by the social values which the laboratory inculcates. Metrology has not often been granted much historical significance. But in milieux such as those of Victorian Britain the propagation of standards and values was the means through which physicists reckoned they could link their work with technical and economic projects elsewhere in their society. Instrumental ensembles let these workers embody the values which mattered to their culture in their laboratory routines. Intellectualist condescension distracts our attention from these everyday practices, from their technical staff, and from the work which makes results count outside laboratory walls.” (pp. 22-23)

Had Ferris taken the trouble to look at Latour’s 1999 book, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, or Latour’s 1990 and 1993 contrasts of the postmodern and amodern, he would have found lengthy replies to exactly those disputes he unknowingly re-provokes. Far from denying that anything exists objectively in nature, as Ferris implies, Latour and the field of science studies examines how we enter into dialogue with nature, and how things come into words as objects of discourse by asserting their independent real existence in very specific and reproducible ways. Ferris commits a gross reductionism in casting as postmodern nonsense this field’s efforts in tracing out the microscopic details of what is said and done, how instruments are read and the readings recorded, and how the recorded values take their places in forms, memos, bills, invoices, laws, accounting spreadsheets, manufacturing specifications, operating instructions, etc. Ferris would have had quite a different book to write if he had followed the implications of networked thinking coordinated via standards and brought them to bear on recent developments in the social sciences and economics (Fisher, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010a).

Ferris does his “jeer and dismiss” thing again in a second way, instead of engaging substantively with the likes of Heidegger or Derrida. In joining with Gross and Levitt (1994), and Alan Bloom (1987), in their dismissals of Derrida and deconstruction, for instance, Ferris (pp. 258-259) has simply found it easier to project irrational conclusions on writers whose work he cannot be troubled to read carefully enough to understand (as on page 238, where “logocentric” is said to be “a fascist epithet aimed at those who employ logic”). Derrida’s comment that “a critique of what I do is indeed impossible” (quoted on page 242) hardly renders his work “immune to criticism,” as Ferris says. The point is that it is impossible to critique effectively what Derrida does without doing it yourself, which puts you in the unresolvable situation of having to employ the same assumptions as the ones you’re criticizing.

Closer attention to Derrida’s extensive considerations of this issue would show the sensitivity and care that are required in trying, for instance, to be as faithful as Levi-Strauss was to the double intention of being able “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he [Levi-Strauss] criticizes” (Derrida, 1978, p. 284). Postmodernism is essentially this kind of a twist on the old maxim about being able to continue thinking critically while holding two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. This double intention permeates Derrida’s writings from the beginning of his career. In a 1968 discussion of his work, for instance, he said, “I try to place myself at a certain point at which—and this would be the very ‘content’ of what I would like to ‘signify’—the thing signified is no longer easily separable from the signifier” (Wahl, et al., 1988, pp. 88-89). In saying this, the speaker is obviously making an effort at a clear separation of what is signified from the signifiers representing it.

What complicates things is that what are signified in that sentence are precisely the difficulties entailed in effecting the separation referred to. Though this point is lost on those unable or unwilling to do the work of thinking these self-referential recursive patterns through, the discourses of deconstruction often show awareness of the need to assume the convergence and separation of signifier and signified even while specific instances of their inseparability are analyzed (Gasché, 1987; Spivak, 1990, 1993). This follows from the fact that deconstruction is but the third of three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330), where the prior two moments are reduction and application (Fisher, 2010b).

Any time things are put into words in spoken or written expressions of limited lengths, reduction takes place. Reductionism occurs when things are misrepresented, when the utility or fairness of the way something is conceptualized is biased, prejudiced, or ineffective. Of course, language is historical and cultural, human attention is inevitably selective, and so words and concepts are always colored by the interests and prejudices of their times. These places in which the meaning of things remains stuck on and inseparable from local particularities may become increasingly apparent over time, as words are applied constructively in creating meaning, socially. Eventually, new distinctions and new aggregations of previously lumped or segregated classifications will be demanded just to be able to continue meaningful communication. And so the cycle progresses through applications to a period of critical evaluation and on to new reductions with new applications.

But this process need not be construed only negatively, since it also stands for nothing more than the fact that there is always room for improvement. Industrial quality improvement methods adopted over the last 60+ years are well-known, for instance, for asserting that there is no best way of doing something, that the standard way of doing something is always flawed in some way. The ontological method comprehensively outlines the life cycle of concepts (Fisher, 2010b), and so offers positive potentials for informing experimental evaluations of new possibilities in science, capitalism, and democracy.

And so, though one could never gather this from reading Ferris, late in his life Derrida diligently urged his critics to read him as closely as he was reading them, saying in one interview (Derrida, 2003) that:

“…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.” (pp. 62-63)

This is from someone who holds “truly meaningful utterance is impossible” (Gross & Levitt, 1994, p. 76), and who stands as the representative of a movement (deconstruction) that “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy” (Bloom, 1987, p. 387)? Far from defeating or debunking “lackluster scholars,” which is how Ferris (pp. 257-258) credits Gross and Levitt, and Bloom, they actually do nothing but demonstrate their failure to grasp the issues. The situation is again similar to one brought up by Thomas Kuhn regarding the nature of interpretation.

As I’ve noted previously in this blog, Kuhn (1977) recounts an experience from the summer of 1947 that led to his appreciation for an explicit theory of interpretation. He had been completely perplexed by Aristotle’s account of motion, in which Aristotle writes a great many things that appear blatantly absurd. Kuhn was very puzzled and disturbed by this, as Aristotle made many astute observations in other areas, such as biology and political behavior. He eventually came to see what Aristotle was in fact talking about, and he then came to routinely offer the following maxim to his students:

“When reading the works of an important thinker [or anyone else who is held by some to have a modicum of coherence], look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.” (p. xii)

As Kuhn goes on to say, if his book was addressed primarily to historians, this point wouldn’t be worth making, as historians are in the business of precisely this kind of interpretive back-and-forth, as are many philosophers, literary critics, writers, social scientists, educators, and artists. But as a physicist, Kuhn says that the discovery of hermeneutics not only made history seem consequential, it changed his view of science. As is well known, his skill in practicing hermeneutics changed a great many people’s views of science.

Derrida’s efforts to explain the meaning of his difficult language and prose are not, then, late after-thoughts presented only in response to critics—and to followers who often seem to misunderstand deconstruction as much as those presenting themselves as defenders of truth and reason. His purpose is akin to Kuhn’s in that he is urging people who find absurdities in his writing to reconsider and ask themselves how a sensible person could have written them.

Derrida’s reference to measuring the distance from standards clearly intersects with Latour’s interests in metrology. Standards in rhetoric, grammar, orthography, etc. in fact form an implicit model for metrological standards and their coordinations of thoughts and behaviors on mass scales. This sense of measuring is no empty metaphor, as is plain in Derrida’s (1989) book-length study of Edmund Husserl’s (1970) Origins of Geometry, one of the founding documents of Continental philosophy and postmodernism.

“The mathematical object seems to be the privileged example and most permanent thread guiding Husserl’s reflection… [on phenomenology] because the mathematical object is ideal. Its being is thoroughly transparent and exhausted by its phenomenality” (Derrida, 1989, p. 27).

Accordingly, its “universality and objectivity make the ideal object into the ‘absolute model for any object whatsoever'” (Bernet, 1989, p. 141, quoting Derrida, 1989, p. 66). Heidegger (1967) similarly reflected at length on the mathematical object. He was, after all, Husserl’s student, dealt extensively with mathematical thinking (Heidegger, 1967; Kisiel, 1973), took more courses in mathematics and physics at one point in his studies than he did in philosophy (Kisiel, 2002, p. x), and remained well enough versed in mathematics to serve on dissertation committees for his university (Krell, 1977, p. 12).

Far from being the antiscientific nonsense portrayed by Ferris, there are strong parallels between mathematical logic and the themes being played out in postmodern studies (Tasic, 2001; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b). In direct opposition to Ferris’ characterization of logocentricism as a charge levied against those who use logic, Derrida (1981) wrote that those most guilty of logocentrism are those who resist logic, saying that

“…resistance to logical-mathematical notation has always been the signature of logocentricism and phonologism in the event to which they have dominated metaphysics and the classical semiological and linguistic projects.” (p. 34)

“A grammatology that would break with this system of presuppositions, then, must in effect liberate the mathematization of language, and must also declare that ‘the practice of science in fact has never ceased to protest the imperialism of the Logos, for example by calling upon, from all time, and more and more, nonphonetic writing.’ [see Of Grammatology, pp. 12, 10, 3, 284-6] Everything that has always linked logos to phone’ has been limited by mathematics, whose progress is in absolute solidarity with the practice of nonphonetic inscription. About these ‘grammatological’ principles and tasks there is no possible doubt, I believe. But the extension of mathematical notation, and in general the formalization of writing, must be very slow and very prudent, at least if one wishes it to take over effectively the domains from which it has been excluded so far.” (p. 34)

“The effective progress of mathematical notation goes along with the deconstruction of metaphysics, with the profound renewal of mathematics itself, and the concept of science for which mathematics has always been the model.” (p. 35)

Derrida is here speaking to a form of nonphonetic writing, a kind of mathematical symbolization that effects a transparency inaccessible to forms of notation that stand for words representing some kind of particular thing. Though the problems are complex, the project Derrida describes follows in specific ways from Heidegger (1967; Kisiel, 1973, 2002; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004) and from other influences on him.

So, contrary to Ferris’ claims (p. 259), Latour, Heidegger, and Derrida have not ignored science as a source of knowledge, reduced it to arbitrary social constructs, or turned their back on learning. In fact, Heidegger (1967) traces the roots of mathematical thinking to learning, to how we learn through what we already know, and to how things that can be taught and learned were the original mathematical objects. There are indeed great potentials for further advancing the impact of science on democracy, but we are needlessly blinded to real possibilities when our ideas are driven more by unexamined prejudices than by the critical application of clear thinking. In this review, I’ve hardly been able to crack open the door to the issues in need of careful study, but I offer it in the hope that others will take the time to stop, study, and think in future work in this area.

References

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

Ashworth, W. J. (2004, 19 November). Metrology and the state: Science, revenue, and commerce. Science, 306(5700), 1314-7.

Bernet, R. (1989). On Derrida’s ‘Introduction’ to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry. In H. J. Silverman (Ed.), Derrida and deconstruction (pp. 139-153). New York: Routledge.

Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Derrida, J. (1976). Of grammatology (G. C. Spivak, Trans.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1981). Positions (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1972 (Paris: Minuit)).

Derrida, J. (1989). Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An introduction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (2003). Interview on writing. In G. A. Olson & L. Worsham (Eds.), Critical intellectuals on writing (pp. 61-9). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

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Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gasché, R. (1987). Infrastructures and systemacity. In J. Sallis (Ed.), Deconstruction and philosophy: The texts of Jacques Derrida (pp. 3-20). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Gross, P. R., & Levitt, N. (1994). Higher superstition: The academic left and its quarrels with science. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Hunt, B. J. (1994). The ohm is where the art is: British telegraph engineers and the development of electrical standards. In A. van Helden, & T. L. Hankins (Eds.), Instruments [Special issue]. Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences, 9, 48-63. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology: An introduction to phenomenological philosophy (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press (Original work published 1954).

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

Jasanoff, S. (2005). Designs on nature: Science and democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kisiel, T. (1973). The mathematical and the hermeneutical: On Heidegger’s notion of the apriori. In E. G. Ballard & C. E. Scott (Eds.), Martin Heidegger: In Europe and America (pp. 109-20). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Kisiel, T. J. (2002). Heidegger’s way of thought: Critical and interpretative signposts (A. Denker & M. Heinz, Eds.). New York: Continuum.

Krell, D. F. (1977). General introduction: “The Question of Being.” In D. F. Krell (Ed.), Basic writings by Martin Heidegger (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper & Row.

Kuhn, T. S. (1977). The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s hope: Essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University 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.

Spivak, G. C. (1990). The post-colonial critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge.

Tasic´, V. (2001). Mathematics and the roots of postmodern thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wahl, J., Parain, B., Derrida, J., Comtesse, G., Hersch, J., Goldmann, L., et al. (1988). The original discussion of “Différance” (D. Wood, S. Richmond, & M. Bernard, Trans.). In D. Wood & R. Bernasconi (Eds.), Derrida and Différance (pp. 83-95). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. (Reprinted from Wahl, J., Parain, B., Derrida, J., Comtesse, G., Hersch, J., Goldmann, L., et al. (1968, July-September). Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 62.)

Wise, M. N. (1995). Precision: Agent of unity and product of agreement. Part III–“Today Precision Must Be Commonplace.” In M. N. Wise (Ed.), The values of precision (pp. 352-61). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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

January 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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