Science and Measurement

There are multiple levels for questioning measurement.

The Questions:

1. What is measurement?

2. How is it done?

3. How did it develop, when and why?

4  Why is it so important: what is the function of measuring?

5. Is it being used appropriately?

The Elements:

  • Measurement is a social activity, in that measurement is not usually for one person only
  • Measurement is done to something (object, process, performance) in order to capture some characteristic of that something, for comparison, communication or replication
  • There must be sufficient language to communicate the measurement of that something’s characteristic(s), not just the words but the concepts behind the words
  • A way to record or capture the measurement of that something beyond language, such as writing, symbolic marks, numerical system, etc.
  • Scales against which to compare the measurement, either previous measurements done in a similar fashion or perhaps, some standards

In this post, I wanted to start with a discussion of how measurement is used in science –  in particular, in physics, since that discipline is the one that is held up as a model for all other applications of a scientific method.  I thought it would be good to establish a baseline or a model of how science uses measurement.  My original thinking, written some years ago was as follows:

Within the scientific method, variously attacked as “reductionism” and/or “blasphemy,” the basic structure of proof, from measurement to inference to defining the limits has a logic that allows correction, but rarely a change in the structure of the proof.  It is an important framework that allows the scientific dialogue to proceed in a comprehensible, although oftimes contentious, way, from measurement to inference, data and interpretation, with occasional overstatements, misleading statements and outright manipulation of data being corrected with apologies, broken reputations and the other usual consequences of human dispute.  However, within this framework, the expectations about meeting the basic requirements of gathering data and then providing some interpretation are invariable.  Critiques can be mounted on the method of measuring, what is measured, whether the results are significant, and whether the data has been interpreted in a way that follows from the measurements.  But the method is not necessarily questioned, except by those who feel that this methodology, this framework, ignores possible explanations that require supernatural interventions.

I thought that the above statement captured the essence of the scientific method.  Before I was ready to write this post, though, I thought I should see what an influential philosopher of science thought about “normal science”.  This meant that I had to read and think about “…one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books since the Second World War” as described in the blurb on the cover attributed to The Times Literary Supplement.  The book is, of course, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn.

In his book, Kuhn describes his understanding of “normal science”.  A cursory analysis of his descriptions of “normal science” left me feeling that he was somewhat patronizing, and alas, incomplete.  It may be that his descriptions are intended to set up the straw man that makes his thesis of scientific revolutions easier to argue or to articulate or to understand.

I have not read the reactions against and in support of his arguments, nor paid much attention to the academic, intellectual maelstrom that he created with his book.  Based on my experience in high tech businesses, a principal concept of his thesis, paradigm change, has been applied to a number of marketing situations by businesses where inappropriate would hardly be a strong enough description.  Such, at least, was my thinking before reading his book.

One of the notes in the book cites a paper he wrote, called “The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science”.  With the wonders of the internet operating in, for me, the best possible way, I was able to download a copy of the article, which I have also read.  It turned out to precede the book, and the first ten pages were an elaboration of why he is so patronizing about “normal science”.  His thesis about “normal science” has to do with the way that it is taught in textbooks, and since the article was published in 1961, I have been challenged to remember what my science textbooks were like then, since in 1960 – 1961, I was a sophomore in high school, having finished advanced biology as a freshman, and taking chemistry at that point.

Chemistry was too much like working in a kitchen mixing ingredients, something I still have trouble with, and little patience for.  (My final year in high school was devoted to Advanced Chemistry, for which I was woefully unprepared as a result of my earlier bad attitude, and  I would have flunked if the laser had not been invented only a few years before.  I was able to build a really crude approximation of a laser which once or twice actually projected a small red circle on a screen.  Was it actually laser light?  I have my doubts, but this project was sufficient to let me escape from high school with reasonable marks and my sense of the absurd intact.)

During my junior year, I took a course in Physics, using a now apparently discredited method called PSSC (I never knew what the acronym stood for) that was brand new that year.  I remember little of my Physics classes as far as the material we covered, though I now have at least some understanding of it, albeit patchy.  Given my current thinking about Physics, I am glad that the method has been discredited, for I might have been a physicist if I had had a better introduction to it.  But remembering what the “old style” textbooks as opposed to the “PSSC” science textbooks were like is more than I can do, so I will have to trust Kuhn’s description of them.

He begins the paper with a spirited challenge: that what is usually thought of as the function of measurement in the physical sciences is a myth, and that myth is propagated through the misapplication of it to the subjects of science textbooks.  A wonderfully iconoclastic statement if it holds up.

In the fourth paragraph of the paper, he gets to the heart of the matter, where he issues a caveat in brackets, as if adding enough information to make his case clearly.  The caveat has to do with, perhaps, another presentation during the same conference at which he delivered his paper, in which a

…Professor Boring [a truly unfortunate name… my addition] supposes that Descartes was measuring when he demonstrated the inverted image at the back of the eye-ball; presumably he would say the same thing about Franklin’s demonstration of the opposite polarity of the two coatings on a Leyden jar.1

After this comment describing the two “experiments”  as not really being “measuring” in a way that assumes the reader shares his disdain for Professor Boring’s supposition, he, Kuhn, makes an important distinction.  The distinction bears on what I have been developing, apparently independently from him, but since he wrote while I was in high school and he has had such a wide influence, perhaps I have been influenced by him indirectly.  The distinction is worth quoting his words:

I shall therefore suppose that a measurement (or a fully quantified theory) always produces actual numbers.  Experiments like Descartes’ or Franklin’s, above, will be classified as qualitative or as non-numerical, without, I hope, at all implying that they are therefore less important.  Only with that distinction between qualitative and quantitative available can I hope to show that large amounts of qualitative work have usually been prerequisite to fruitful quantification in the physical sciences.2

From this distinction it should be clear that Kuhn believes that theory, the qualitative portion of scientific work, precedes measurement, the quantitative portion.  This is not what I was taught, and believed for so long that I wrote the paragraph near the beginning, referring to the scientific method as measurement and inference.  Later in the paper, he elaborates this sentiment:

The new order provided by a revolutionary new theory in the natural sciences is always overwhelmingly a potential order.  Much work and skill, together with occasional genius, are required to make it actual.  And actual it must be made, for only through the process of actualization can occasions for new theoretical reformulations be discovered.  The bulk of scientific practice is thus a complex and consuming mopping-up operation that consolidates the ground made available by the most recent theoretical breakthrough and that provides essential preparation for the breakthrough to follow.  In such mopping-up operations, measurement has its overwhelmingly most common scientific function.3

This, then, shows the attitude that I have felt was patronizing.  To call a scientist’s work “mopping-up” when he or she is performing measurements seems to belittle it.  I do wonder if scientists, like many people, feel their work, from time to time, is just mopping-up.

Up to that point, Kuhn appears to speak with the authority of an Old Testament Prophet crying out against the excesses of the Israelites (Oh, ye moppers-up who put numbers ahead of quality, the Lord will smite you for your ass-backwardness…).  But in a footnote on that page, he makes a prediction that is questionable.  He seems to feel that Einstein’s general theory of relativity, while a quite nice piece of work, is “…largely fruitless, because unexploitable…”4.

In the footnote, in 1961, approximately 49 years ago, he states “Unlike the special theory, general relativity is today very little studied by students of physics.  Within fifty years we may conceivably have totally lost sight of this aspect of Einstein’s contribution.”5.

Although I am looking in from the outside, I know this prediction is wrong – wrong – wrong!, but it does have a year to run: who knows what will happen in the next 12 to 18 months?

At the very least, the number of things being measured and the ways to measure them in the last 50 years has increased at a rate that probably exceeds even Moore’s law of computer processing speed doubling every 12 to 18 months.  Is this merely the artifact of so many theories being developed, so many paradigms being announced in their qualitative form that we are mopping up at an ever more furious rate?  Gad, this gets really complex really fast, doesn’t it?

Is all of the genetic work, from explicating DNA to developing gene splicing to cloning, etc., just mopping up?  Is it just genetic engineering or is it gene science?

Is all of the space program supported by NASA just mopping up?  Or is it “just rocket engineering” as opposed to “rocket science”?

Much of the computer industry is devoted to measuring: from measuring the effect of electricity in a circuit board to testing whether it is operating correctly, to using computers to measure nearly everything measurable.  And, possibly, some things that should not be measured?

But there is more to the paper.

Kuhn describes a second problem with measurement: the measurement does not always match the expectations of those who perform the “mopping-up” – the theory that they are using is difficult to prove via measurements that are available at the time of the new paradigm, and instruments must often be created to provide sufficient measurement and then accuracy.  Originally, the results represent a “scatter” that can be interpreted in a number of ways, but if the belief in the paradigm is strong, ways will be found to reduce the scatter so that the measurements will agree with the theory, not the other way around.

There is a famous story about the ‘confirmation’ of Einstein’s general theory of relativity that supports Kuhn’s position.  When the ‘confirmation’ came, in a telegram to Einstein, he was asked what his reaction would have been if the results of the measurement, the amount of deflection of light due to the sun’s gravity, as measured during an eclipse, had not agreed with the prediction of his theory.  Evidently, he replied, as translated in Walter Isaacson’s fine book about Einstein (though a widely circulated story I knew of before Isaacson’s book), “Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord: the theory is correct.”

It now appears that Eddington, the astronomer who set out to confirm the theory, may have fudged the measurements to insure the agreement with the theory.  As Kuhn might have predicted, the measurement, the mopping-up, had been managed so that it agreed with the pre-existing theory.

However, he does try to limit his apparent patronizing:

Exploring the agreement between theory and experiment into new areas or to new limits of precision is a difficult, unremitting, and, for many, exciting job.  Though its object is neither discovery nor confirmation, its appeal is quite sufficient to consume almost the entire time and attention of those physical scientists who do quantitative work.  It demands the very best of their imagination, intuition, and vigilance.6

So here is Kuhn’s version of normal science.  I was expecting to confirm what I had learned and believed for all the years since high school when I first opened his book.  His stance clearly disagrees with what I thought, but then I am the product of the textbooks he so roundly criticizes.

He does leave some “wiggle-room” though, when he goes on to his section IV. Extraordinary Measurement.  “…it is through abnormal states of scientific research that measurement comes occasionally to play a major role in discovery and in confirmation.”7

He describes how anomalies can become important enough that scientists begin to doubt the current version of normal science: the current paradigm.  A potential example which occurred a few years after his paper and book, in 1965, is the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the big bang.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson took extreme measures (there’s that word “measures” again, being used in yet another different way) to increase the sensitivity of the microwave antenna on which they were working, and to eliminate noise.  They kept measuring to see if they had eliminated the hiss.  They were stymied, because they couldn’t eliminate the hiss.  They were able to detect it (measure it?) whatever way they aimed the antenna, and they figured it might be a source located outside of the galaxy.

Approximately simultaneously, a group working with Robert Dicke at Princeton had been working on the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, and one of the group, Jim Peebles, was about to publish a paper about their theory and calculations.  A connection, evidently a mutual acquaintance, mentioned the paper to Penzias, who called, got a pre-published version of it, and invited the Princeton group to hear what he and Wilson had detected.  Both groups felt that the noise at the microwave antenna was the sought-for proof that the origin of the Universe occurred during a “big bang”: the radiation was of the same intensity and wavelength in all directions.

The crisis, the abnormal state that Kuhn refers to, was that there were two competing explanations of the cosmos: the steady-state universe being one, and the big bang being the other, with insufficient data to actually prove one or the other.  Penzias and Wilson were not looking at answers related to the competing explanations and certainly were not trying to eliminate the hiss based on thinking its source was beyond the earth’s atmosphere.   Both theories had preceded the measurement, but the measurement which led to the ‘confirmation’ was not done as part of an experimental strategy to confirm the theory: instead it was developed separately.

Perhaps that is the kind of thing that Kuhn means when he talks about extraordinary measurement.  And in this case, the measurement was not really “mopping up”, it was the discovery.

Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, is important in that he has made people think more seriously about the way that science advances.  Whether he is right or wrong is no longer important: I find parts that I agree with and parts that I disagree with.  I am not persuaded that, as he states, the development of electrical theory and the marrying of electricity with magnetism represents a whole new discipline that sprang from the heads of people without measurement preceding it.  I believe that many of the phenomena had been detected and theories were in place to explain them, just not very good theories.  I think that some of these were explanations that were as fully scientific as people wanted to make them, which served for a long time.  Yes, the explanations have changed, but in part it is because the technology to measure advanced, the impulse to measure became stronger, and the desire for clarity began to reign.

I see the interplay of theory and measurement to be more of an exchange than Kuhn evidently does.  And, since humans have such an over-active pattern-making sense, clearly any theory that is developed has a theory that preceded it, whether it was astrology preceding astronomy, alchemy preceding chemistry, or the theories of humors preceding modern medicine.  Since theories of the world apparently date back quite a ways, there will always have been a theory that requires a paradigm shift.

But that does not fully get to the place I was hoping I would find myself, if only I were to read his book.

Where I was looking to go was to understand why measurement has been so successful as a strategy for physical sciences, and where using analogies to apply scientific measurement becomes inappropriate.  From the number of times I heard, while working in high tech industries, that this new thing will change the ruling paradigm, meaning it’s going to make a lot of money or is the new “killer app”, was not usually an appropriate analogy to the kinds of thing that Kuhn applies paradigms to.  Similarly, using measurement of employees in business, unlike some of the appropriate business measures, appears to be done largely with the intent to control behavior and performance, and while it does have a “positive” effect, at times, on the bottom line, it can have a disastrous effect on the people submitting to being measured.

Some bold statements: I will elaborate (and prove?) these ideas in subsequent entries. For now, however, it is enough to say that Kuhn’s book and the article that I found by him certainly are great triggers for thinking, whether one agrees with him, partially agrees with him or does not agree at all.


1 T.S.Kuhn, “The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science,” Isis, LII (1961), p. 162.

2 Ibid, p. 162.

3 Ibid, p. 168.

4 Ibid, p. 168.

5 Ibid, p. 168.

6 Ibid, p. 174.

7 Ibid, p. 178.

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