Posts Tagged ‘History’

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

April 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

A point of entry into thinking about how those conditions might be created is provided by a 2010 quote in the Miami Herald from Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (http://tinyurl.com/y7mqtzzn). Speth recounts his sense that scientific solutions to ecosystem and climate problems are insufficient because the actual causes of the problems are greed, selfishness, and apathy. So he appeals to religious leaders for help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Making sustainability impacts universally identifiable, individually owned, efficiently exchanged, and profitable

February 2, 2019

Sustainability impacts plainly and obviously lack common product definitions, objective measures, efficient markets, and associated capacities for competing on improved quality. The absence of these landmarks in the domain of sustainability interests is a result of inattention and cultural biases far more than it is a result of the inherent characteristics or nature of sustainability itself. Given the economic importance of these kinds of capacities and the urgent need for new innovations supporting sustainable development, it is curious how even those most stridently advocating new ways of thinking seem to systematically ignore well-established opportunities for advancing their cause. The wealth of historical examples of rapidly emerging, transformative, disruptive, and highly profitable innovations would seem to motivate massive interest in how extend those successes in new directions.

Economists have long noted how common currencies reduce transaction costs, support property rights, and promote market efficiencies (for references and more information, see previous entries in this blog over the last ten years and more). Language itself is well known for functioning as an economical labor-saving device in the way that useful concepts representing things in the world as words need not be re-invented by everyone for themselves, but can simply be copied. In the same ways that common languages ease communication, and common currencies facilitate trade, so, too, do standards for common product definitions contribute to the creation of markets.

Metrologically traceable measurements make it possible for everyone everywhere to know how much of something in particular there is. This is important, first of all, because things have to be identifiable in shared ways if we are to be able to include them in our lives, socially. Anyone interested in obtaining or producing that kind of thing has to be able to know it and share information about it as something in particular. Common languages capable of communicating specifically what a thing is, and how much of it there is, support claims to ownership and to the fruits of investments in entrepreneurial innovations.

Technologies for precision measurement key to these communications are one of the primary products of science. Instruments measuring in SI units embody common currencies for the exchange of scientific capital. The calibration and distribution of such instruments in the domain of sustainability impact investing and innovation ought to be a top-level priority. How else will sustainable impacts be made universally identifiable, individually owned, efficiently exchanged, and profitable?

The electronics, computer, and telecommunications industries provide ample evidence of precision measurement’s role in reducing transaction costs, establishing common product definitions, and reaping huge profits. The music industry’s use of these technologies combines the science and economics of precision measurement with the artistic creativity of intensive improvisations constructed from instruments tuned to standardized scales that achieve wholly unique levels of individual innovation.

Much stands to be learned, and even more to be gained, in focusing sustainability development on ways in which we can harness the economic power of the profit motive by combining collective efforts with individual imaginations in the domains of human, social, and natural capital. Aligning financial, monetary wealth with the authentic wealth and genuine productivity of gains in human, community, and environmental value ought to be the defining mission of this generation. The time to act is now.

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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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Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Revisiting The Federalist Paper No. 31 by Alexander Hamilton: An Analogy from Geometry

July 10, 2018

[John Platt’s chapters on social chain reactions in his 1966 book, The Steps to Man, provoked my initial interest in looking into his work. That work appears to be an independent development of themes that appear in more well-known works by Tarde, Hayek, McLuhan, Latour, and others, which of course are of primary concern in thinking through metrological and ecosystem issues in psychological and social measurement. My interest also comes in the context of Platt’s supervision of Ben Wright in Robert Mulliken’s physics lab at the U of Chicago in 1948. However, other chapters in this book concern deeper issues of complexity and governance that cross yet more disciplinary boundaries. One of the chapters in the book, for instance, examines the Federalist Papers and remarks on a geometric analogy drawn by Alexander Hamilton concerning moral and political forms of knowledge. The parallel with my own thinking is such that I have restated Hamilton’s theme in my own words within the contemporary context. The following is my effort in this regard. No source citations are given, but a list of supporting references is included at bottom. Hamilton’s original text is available at: https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-31.  ]

 

Communication requires that we rely on the shared understandings of a common language. Language puts in play combinations of words, concepts, and things that enable us to relate to one another at varying levels of complexity. Often, we need only to convey the facts of a situation in a simple denotative statement about something learned (“the cat is on the mat”). We also need to be able to think at a higher level of conceptual complexity referred to as metalinguistic, where we refer to words themselves and how we learn about what we’ve learned (“the word ‘cat’ has no fur”). At a third, metacommunicative, level of complexity, we make statements about statements, deriving theories of learning and judgments from repeated experiences of metalinguistic learning about learning (“I was joking when I said the cat was on the mat”).

Human reason moves freely between expressions of and representations of denotative facts, metalinguistic instruments like words, and metacommunicative theories. The combination of assurances obtained from the mutual supports each of these provides the others establishes the ground in which the seeds of social, political, and economic life take root and grow. Thought itself emerges from within the way the correspondence of things, words, and concepts precedes and informs the possibility of understanding and communication.

When understanding and communication fail, that failure may come about because of mistaken perceptions concerning the facts, a lack of vocabulary, or misconceptions colored by interests, passions, or prejudices, or some combination of these three.

The maxims of geometry exhibit exactly this same pattern combining concrete data on things in the world, instruments for abstract measurement, and formal theoretical concepts. Geometry is the primary and ancient example of how the beauty of aesthetic proportions teaches us to understand meaning. Contrary to common sense, which finds these kinds of discontinuities incomprehensible, philosophy since the time of Plato’s Symposium teaches how to make meaning in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences between the local facts of a situation and the principles to which we may feel obliged to adhere. Geometry meaningfully and usefully, for instance, represents the undrawable infinite divisibility of line segments, as with the irrational length of the hypotenuse of a right isosceles triangle that has the other two sides with lengths of 1.

This apparently absurd and counter-intuitive skipping over of the facts in the construction of the triangular figure and the summary reference to the unstateable infinity of the square root of two is so widely accepted as to provide a basis for real estate property rights that are defensible in courts of law and financially fungible. And in this everyday commonplace we have a model for separating and balancing denotative facts, instrumental words, and judicial theories in moral and political domains.

Humanity has proven far less tractable than geometry over the course of its history regarding possible sciences of morals and politics. This is understandable given humanity’s involvement in its own ongoing development. As Freud put it, humanity’s Narcissistic feeling of being the center of the universe, the crown of creation, and the master of its own mind has suffered a series of blows as it has had to come to terms with the works of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud himself. The struggle to establish a common human identity while also celebrating individual uniqueness is an epic adventure involving billions of tragic and comedic stories of hubris, sacrifice, and accomplishment. Humanity has arrived at a point now, however, at which a certain obstinate, perverse, and disingenuous resistance to self-understanding has gone too far.

Although the mathematical sciences excel in refining the precision of their tools, longstanding but largely untapped resources for improving the meaningfulness and value of moral and political knowledge have been available for decades. “The obscurity is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject.” Methods for putting passions on the table for sorting out take advantage of the lessons beauty teaches about meaning and thereby support each of the three levels of complexity in communication.

At this point we encounter the special relevance of those three levels of complexity to the separation and balance of powers in government. The concrete denotative factuality of data is the concern of the executive branch, as befits its orientation to matters of practical application. The abstract metalinguistic instrumentation of words is the concern of the legislative branch, in accord with its focus on the enactment of laws and measures. And formal metacommunicative explanatory theories are the concern of the judicial branch, as is appropriate to its focus on constitutional issues.

For each of us to give our own individual understandings fair play in ways that do not give free rein to unfettered prejudices entangled in words and subtle confusions, we need to be able to communicate in terms that, so far as possible, function equally well within and across each of these levels of complexity. It is only to state the obvious to say that we lack the language needed for communication of this kind. Our moral and political sciences have not yet systematically focused on creating such languages. Outside of a few scattered works, they have not even yet consciously hypothesized the possibility of creating these languages. It is nonetheless demonstrably the case that these languages are feasible, viable, and desirable.

Though good will towards all and a desire to refrain so far as possible from overt exclusionary prejudices for or against one or another group cannot always be assumed, these are the conditions necessary for a social contract and are taken as the established basis for what follows. The choice between discourse and violence includes careful attention to avoiding the violence of the premature conclusion. If we are ever to achieve improved communication and a fuller realization of both individual liberties and social progress, the care we invest in supports for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must flow from this deep source.

Given the discontinuities between language’s levels of complexity, avoiding premature conclusions means needing individualized uncertainty estimates and an associated tolerance for departures from expectations set up by established fact-word-concept associations. For example, we cannot allow a three-legged horse to alter our definition of horses as four-legged animals. Neither should we allow a careless error or lucky guess to lead to immediate and unqualified judgments of learning in education. Setting up the context in which individual data points can be understood and explained is the challenge we face. Information infrastructures supporting this kind of contextualization have been in development for years.

To meet the need for new communicative capacities, features of these information infrastructures will have to include individualized behavioral feedback mechanisms, minimal encroachments on private affairs, managability, modifiability, and opportunities for simultaneously enhancing one’s own interests and the greater good.

It is in this latter area that our interests are now especially focused. Our audacious but not implausible goal is to find ways of enhancing communication and the quality of information infrastructures by extending beauty’s lessons for meaning into new areas. In the same way that geometry facilitates leaps from concrete figures to abstract constructions and from there to formal ideals, so, too, must we learn, learn about that learning, and develop theories of learning in other less well materialized areas, such as student-centered education, and patient-centered health care. Doing so will set the stage for new classes of human, social, and natural capital property rights that are just as defensible in courts of law and financially fungible as real estate.

When that language is created, when those rights are assigned, and when that legal defensibility and financial fungibility are obtained, a new construction of government will follow. In it, the separation and balance of executive, legislative, and judicial powers will be applied with equal regularity and precision down to the within-individual micro level, as well as at the between-individual meso level, and at the social macro level. This distribution of freedom and responsibility across levels and domains will feed into new educational, market, health, and governmental institutions of markedly different character than we have at present.

A wide range of research publications appearing over the last several decades documents unfolding developments in this regard, and so those themes will not be repeated here. Some of these publications are listed below for those interested. Far more remains to be done in this area than has yet been accomplished, to say the least.

 

 

Sources consulted or implied

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Black, P., Wilson, M., & Yao, S. (2011). Road maps for learning: A guide to the navigation of learning progressions. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, 9, 1-52.

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. (2005, August 1-3). Data standards for living human, social, and natural capital. In Session G: Concluding Discussion, Future Plans, Policy, etc. Conference on Entrepreneurship and Human Rights [http://www.fordham.edu/economics/vinod/ehr05.htm], Pope Auditorium, Lowenstein Bldg, Fordham University.

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Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November 19). Draft legislation on development and adoption of an intangible assets metric system. Retrieved 6 January 2011, from Living Capital Metrics blog: https://livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/draft-legislation/

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep. No. http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC:. National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital, Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business, Tulane University (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2340674).

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Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

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Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). How beauty teaches us to understand meaning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). A nondualist social ethic: Fusing subject and object horizons in measurement. TMQ–Techniques, Methodologies, and Quality, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Oon, E. P.-T., & Benson, S. (2018). Applying Design Thinking to systemic problems in educational assessment information management. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 1044, 012012.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Oon, E. P.-T., & Benson, S. (2018). Rethinking the role of educational assessment in classroom communities: How can design thinking address the problems of coherence and complexity? Measurement, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013). On the potential for improved measurement in the human and social sciences. In Q. Zhang & H. Yang (Eds.), Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium 2012 Conference Proceedings (pp. 1-11). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2016). Theory-based metrological traceability in education: A reading measurement network. Measurement, 92, 489-496.

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Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Counting and quantification: Comparing psychometric and metrological perspectives on visual perceptions of number. Measurement, 71, 46-55.

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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.

Ricoeur, P. (1966). The project of a social ethic. In D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Political and social essays (pp. 160-175). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. Evanston, IL: Northwestern 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.

Ricoeur, P. (1977). The rule of metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language (R. Czerny, Trans.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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Wright, B. D. (1958, 7). On behalf of a personal approach to learning. The Elementary School Journal, 58, 365-375. (Rpt. in M. Wilson & W. P. Fisher, Jr., (Eds.). (2017). Psychological and social measurement: The career and contributions of Benjamin D. Wright (pp. 221-232). New York: Springer Nature.)

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

April 15, 2011

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

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

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

We need multiple publications in leading journals on these issues, as well as one or more books that people can cite as a way of making this real and true history of measurement, properly speaking, credible and accepted in the mainstream. This web site http://ssrn.com/abstract=1698919 is a draft article of my own in this vein that I offer for critique; other material is available on request. Anyone who works on this paper with me and makes a substantial contribution to its publication will be added as co-author.

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

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

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

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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.

Simple ideas, complex possibilities, elegant and beautiful results

February 11, 2011

Possibilities of great subtlety, elegance, and power can follow from the simplest ideas. Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with offering a variation on this theme, but the basic idea is much older. Philosophy, for instance, began with Plato’s distinction between name and concept. This realization that words are not the things they stand for has informed and structured each of several scientific revolutions.

How so? It all begins from the reasons why Plato required his students to have studied geometry. He knew that those familiar with the Pythagorean theorem would understand the difference between any given triangle and the mathematical relationships it represents. No right triangle ever definitively embodies a perfect realization of the assertion that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The mathematical definition or concept of a triangle is not the same thing as any actual triangle.

The subtlety and power of this distinction became apparent in its repeated application throughout the history of science. In a sense, astronomy is a geometry of the heavens, Newton’s laws are a geometry of gravity, Ohm’s law is a geometry of electromagnetism, and relativity is a geometry of the invariance of mass and energy in relation to the speed of light. Rasch models present a means to geometries of literacy, numeracy, health, trust, and environmental quality.

We are still witnessing the truth, however partial, of Whitehead’s assertion that the entire history of Western culture is a footnote to Plato. As Husserl put it, we’re still struggling with the possibility of creating a geometry of experience, a phenomenology that is not a mere description of data but that achieves a science of living meaning. The work presented in other posts here attests to a basis for optimism that this quest will be fruitful.

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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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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Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

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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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.

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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.

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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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Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Contesting the Claim, Part III: References

July 24, 2009

References

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Fischer, G. H. (1981, March). On the existence and uniqueness of maximum-likelihood estimates in the Rasch model. Psychometrika, 46(1), 59-77.

Fischer, G. H. (1995). Derivations of the Rasch model. In G. Fischer & I. Molenaar (Eds.), Rasch models: Foundations, recent developments, and applications (pp. 15-38). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1988). Truth, method, and measurement: The hermeneutic of instrumentation and the Rasch model [diss]. Dissertation Abstracts International, 49, 0778A, Dept. of Education, Division of the Social Sciences: University of Chicago (376 pages, 23 figures, 31 tables).

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. (1997, June). What scale-free measurement means to health outcomes research. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation State of the Art Reviews, 11(2), 357-373.

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. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563.

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. (2008, Summer). The cash value of reliability. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 22(1), 1160-3 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt221.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, July). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), in press.

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The “Standard Model,” Part II: Natural Law, Economics, Measurement, and Capital

July 15, 2009

At Tjalling Koopmans’ invitation, Rasch became involved with the Cowles Commission, working at the University of Chicago in the 1947 academic year, and giving presentations in the same seminar series as Milton Friedman, Kenneth Arrow, and Jimmie Savage (Linacre, 1998; Cowles Foundation, 1947, 1952; Rasch, 1953). Savage would later be instrumental in bringing Rasch back to Chicago in 1960.

Rasch was prompted to approach Savage about giving a course at Chicago after receiving a particularly strong response to some of his ideas from his old mentor, Frisch, when Frisch had come to Copenhagen to receive an honorary doctorate in 1959. Frisch shared the first Nobel Prize in economics with Tinbergen, was a co-founder, with Irving Fisher, of the Econometric Society,  invented words such as “econometrics” and “macro-economics,” and was the editor of Econometrica for many years. As recounted by Rasch (1977, pp. 63-66; also see Andrich, 1997; Wright, 1980, 1998), Frisch was struck by the disappearance of the person parameter from the comparisons of item calibrations in the series of equations he presented. In response to Frisch’s reaction, Rasch formalized his mathematical ideas in a Separability Theorem.

Why were the separable parameters  significant to Frisch? Because they addressed the problem that was at the center of Frisch’s network of concepts: autonomy, better known today as structural invariance (Aldrich, 1989, p. 15; Boumans, 2005, pp. 51 ff.; Haavelmo, 1948). Autonomy concerns the capacity of data to represent a pattern of relationships that holds up across the local particulars. It is, in effect, Frisch’s own particular way of extending the Standard Model. Irving Fisher (1930) had similarly stated what he termed a Separation Theorem, which, in the manner of previous work by Walras, Jevons, and others, was also presented in terms of a multiplicative relation between three variables. Frisch (1930) complemented Irving Fisher’s focus on an instrumental approach with a mathematical, axiomatic approach (Boumans, 2005) offering necessary and sufficient conditions for tests of Irving Fisher’s theorem.

When Rasch left Frisch, he went directly to London to work with Ronald Fisher, where he remained for a year. In the following decades, Rasch became known as the foremost advocate of Ronald Fisher’s ideas in Denmark. In particular, he stressed the value of statistical sufficiency, calling it the “high mark” of Fisher’s work (Fisher, 1922). Rasch’s student, Erling Andersen, later showed that when raw scores are both necessary and sufficient statistics for autonomous, separable parameters, the model employed is Rasch’s (Andersen, 1977; Fischer, 1981; van der Linden, 1992).

Whether or not Rasch’s conditions exactly reproduce Frisch’s, and whether or not his Separability Theorem is identical with Irving Fisher’s Separation Theorem, it would seem that time with Frisch exerted a significant degree of influence on Rasch, likely focusing his attention on statistical sufficiency, the autonomy implied by separable parameters, and the multiplicative relations of variable triples.

These developments, and those documented in previous of my blogs, suggest the existence of powerful and untapped potentials hidden within psychometrics and econometrics. The story told thus far remains incomplete. However compelling the logic and personal histories may be, central questions remain unanswered. To provide a more well-rounded assessment of the situation, we must take up several unresolved philosophical issues (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004).

It is my contention that, for better measurement to become more mainstream, a certain kind of cultural shift is going to have to happen. This shift has already been underway for decades, and has precedents that go back centuries. Its features are becoming more apparent as long term economic sustainability is understood to involve significant investments in humanly, socially and environmentally responsible practices.  For such practices to be more than just superficial expressions of intentions that might be less interested in the greater good than selfish gain, they have to emerge organically from cultural roots that are already alive and thriving.

It is not difficult to see how such an organic emergence might happen, though describing it appropriately requires an ability to keep the relationship of the local individual to the global universal always in mind. And even if and when that description might be provided, having it in hand in no way shows how it could be brought about. All we can do is to persist in preparing ourselves for the opportunities that arise, reading, thinking, discussing, and practicing. Then, and only then, might we start to plant the seeds, nurture them, and see them grow.

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