Monday, May 28, 2012

Measure me.

Science can be a powerful trigger word. For some people science evokes a visceral wariness. Their objections are manifold and some I agree with:

  • Science potentially makes objects of study out of everything and everyone. Being an object of study is dehumanizing. Even though it’s perfectly valid to challenge this, our dignity is tied up with being subjects not objects. Maybe we’re not autonomous subjects to the extent we like to think we are but it’s a bitter pill to have thrown down our throats that we’re not.
  • Science (like everything else) is driven politically. Certain groups of people are objects of study more often than others. There is more research into the psychology of people on welfare than the psychology of tax avoiders for example. This makes the dehumanizing effect of science into a weapon. Research knowledge often feels like something taken from the communities who provide it to be used against them; like the science of how to lay out a supermarket for example.
  • Scientific results have such huge ramifications in their areas of policy that they are an obvious site of corruption. It’s been shown (scientifically) that any study with a picture of a brain has more authority than the same study without. Food science is so corrupt at the consumer level that fruit based confectionary is sold to parents using scientific sounding claims of healthiness. That’s a criticism of the abuse of marketing more than a criticism of pure science itself, however the masters of marketing are very clever and the difference can be hard to spot. Is it any wonder we are sick of the sound of science?
  • Science mistakenly produces “real things”. Or rather it produces models but the model is read as some piece of actual discovered reality instead (a process called “reification”). Something like depression is understood as a fixed phenomenon, a cluster of stable traits. Compare that with sadness which is not thought of as anything near as concretely real. Something like “skate punk” or “gender” gets fixed in the same way. This tendency may be resisted by scientists but we the public still respond to the science like this. This causes countless problems because we tend to think of “real things” as resistant to change and having an independent existence. Hence it can sometimes (not always) be a barrier to recovery from depression to actually receive the diagnosis. Similarly by treating gender as independently “real” we then treat atypical gender patterns as something broken inside a person – a gender dysphoria. This is really a criticism of our mind’s prejudices but those prejudices are amplified by scientific terms.

There is another common criticism of science which I strongly disagree with. This is that science is only interested in what can be measured and there are important things beyond our capacity for measurement. I think this criticism dangerously throws out baby with bathwater and I want to write in defense of measurement.

Measurement precedes modern science. It is the building block of careful thinking. When we “take the measure of” something we are engaged in profoundly important activity. We are establishing the worth of a statement. We are qualifying it.

When we reject measurement by entertaining phenomena that can’t be measured or even that shouldn’t be measured, we abandon more than just science. We have stopped caring about the meaning of our words with any degree of precision. That opens the door, the window, even the roof to more bullshit than we can imagine.

Consider if I told you I needed two eggs to make the cake I’m making. You can hear from this that one egg would be too few, three eggs too many; that the number of eggs matters. You can work out if you need to go to the shop to buy more eggs. Underlying all of this is some real concern for the results of our cooking, for our resources and for our effort (or the effort of the chicken).

Imagine if I told you that the cake needs egg but in no way can that egg be measured. I think that this is enough to cast suspicion on whether “needs” is the right word. Perhaps I want you to accept that it’s the principle of egg rather than the amount that matters. Would you wonder if you could save yourself a trip to the shops and just bluff your way through adding the egg? We have entered the land of bullshit and perhaps just saying you added egg would do.

Now I hear you saying (yes, I can hear you through the internet) “That’s all well and good with eggs in a cake but it doesn’t apply to everything. You can’t measure decency or love.” I think that attitude is exactly an open invitation to bullshit where some precision is rather what is needed.

If I say I am a good person then taking a measure of what I mean is a very valuable thing to do. Asking myself to quantify what I am talking about – asking how much time or money do I give to those in need, how much do I help my neighbours, what do I sacrifice for others – gives my statement some actual worth. If I can’t or won’t quantify my goodness then I ought to call my own bullshit. I ought to say I am a good person in a way that might as well be a perfectly ordinary person because there’s no discernible difference.

Similarly it is a perfectly valid and time-honoured exercise to measure a person’s love. If some smooth talker wants to woo me away from my happy home they are going to need to do more than just say they love me “heaps”. They need to lay some measurement on that love by saying they will look after me in my old age or they will take a bullet for me or something similar. Similarly if I want my partner aware that I love her it should be very possible for her to say how and to what extent I do. She should know the measure of my love. The alternative idea - that love is a nebulous, immeasurable quality to a relationship - is possibly the worst kind of bullshit of them all. It allows people to say “but I love you” to their partner while not looking up from a computer game on their partner’s worst day.

This isn't to say that all measurement is good measurement however. It may be that we need to remind ourselves that somethings can't be measured in a monetary amount or in grams or decibels or in any one set of standardized distinctions. My goodness may not be your goodness; my love may not be just like yours. It’s always a very legitimate question to ask as to whether or not something is being properly measured.

It's also important not to be seduced by a measurement that is easy to obtain. It is easy to measure hits on this blog and much harder to measure what inspiration and information my writing provides for readers. The latter is more important to me though. It's true that when we are bombarded by a simple measurement we can take for granted that is the one we should use.

However these concerns shouldn’t lead us to permit concepts that can’t be measured at all. That is effectively the removal of “How much?” or “To what extent?” from our language. These are distinctions that ought to matter. People who want those questions removed are either charlatans or are unwittingly paving the way for charlatans. If they try to sell you something of immeasurable worth, pin them down and ask them the measure of it. If they warn you of immeasurable danger I wouldn't buy their lucky charm.


  1. "It is easy to measure hits on this blog and much harder to measure what inspiration and information my writing provides for readers."
    To make that easier there are these tickboxes for you to state your reaction to a piece. Are those tickboxes useful?
    Also please feel free to make comment. Comments really do help my writing.

  2. Very interesting blog Tony.
    Personally, I agree as a Christian that "goodness" and "love" are real, measurable concepts and to say otherwise makes them so relative that they become meaningless.
    If I say I am a good person as I stand next to Bashar al-Assad, then naturally my words will appear to be true.
    We need a standard of goodness to be measured by for the word to have any meaning.

    The question I ask is, in previous discussions you have expressed a problem with the idea that God holds us accountable by his standards of judgement, which - although it takes into account all subjective factors - is universal, objective and definable. Isn't this a good (and even necessary) thing for the concept of "good" to be measurable?

  3. Simon, You raise a good question. I would emphatically state that you need to argue something additional to what I have said here to say that our measurments have to be tied to an "objective" standard. (Sometimes I wonder if objective is the right word for God's opinion? Is it not Gods subjectivity? Or is God a kind of philosophical full stop whose subjectivity just is the magical objectivity? I think objective is a strange word perhaps for anything.)
    To explain, an inch is not "objective" but merely a matter of current consensus amongst humanity. Such agreement about meaning is all thats needed for conversation to make sense and that agreement only has to be between the conversation participants (so if you are measuring your goodness for yourself or with your partner you don't have to use my measurements or those of the Pope).
    In scientific reasearch there is something specifically called operational definitions used. So if I was to research the sadness of cats I would set up a range of criteria (such as refusal to eat, wailing, lack of interest in toys or whatever) and then say for the purpose of this study a score of X on those measures is what I mean by sadness. You could then either accept my operational defintion or not. In citing my sad cat study you should say something like "9 out of 10 cats were saddened after being pushed off the couch, where sadness is considered to be a score of X on the following measures..."
    Good science is awfully careful like that, but of course what makes it in the newspaper is "Most Cats sad off couch".

  4. It's a good question to ask how should we respond to God's opinion. Should it be seen as our "objectivity"?
    I think if, as I do, you see God as not simply a fellow-being in the Universe, but as the Creator and sustainer of reality, then yes, you could say, God's reality IS objective reality. I say this because there is no greater reality than God, nothing that defines him or is "objective" to him. To use the root of the words - God is the ultimate Object and all else is his Subjects. They are subject to his creation, his definition and in the end, his accountability. God is not subject to anything outside himself and so h is by nature "objective".
    Now, again, this is only my own understanding on the issue and I know others have a very different concept of God.

    If on the other hand, you think God is just another player in The Game of Life, then you may take into account his opinion on certain issues (acknowledging his possible greater knowledge or wisdom) but you will not define your reality by them. Your reality is your reality and his reality is his. You can both have your own opinions on a variety of topics and you can just agree to disagree on points of difference.

    This sense of autonomy from God is I think deep in the heart of humanity and is probably the greatest defining characteristic of our sinful nature.

    This idea of "co-subjectivity" with God (you like that phrase? I just made it up.) is what makes the idea of God's judgement so abhorrent - almost offensive! "Who is he to judge me?", we say. And in those very words we turn the picture upside down and judge God.

    I think the first step of Christianity is at the very least to acknowledge who is the subject and who is the object. Who is the created and who is the Creator.

    As Father Cavanaugh says in the 1993 movie 'Rudy', "Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I'm not Him."

  5. Simon, a few points. 1. God does not need to be subject to a crow-bar to be a subject of knowledge. We are talking about Her. We have opinions about Her. That makes Her a subject of this conversations and these sentences. I think "objective" reality is a very hard concept to define actually. It would be something we would be incapable of having an opinion of perhaps? I'm not sure, it seems a very woolly idea to me. Assertion (particularly from anyone claiming to be the maker/knower of objective reality) definitely doesn't seem convincing of it. Even re-assertion combined with admonition. Personally objective is such a wooly word I much prefer "independant" reality which the Buddhists use. I agree with them there is no reality entirely independant of "mind".
    2. Surely even you would admit that there are language games for which there is no independant reality. How tasty is strawberry icecream? God isn't the final arbitrer of that. She just has her own opinion on strawberry icecream. I think that goodness and love occupy that space more sensibly.
    3. It seems you might be saying that it is our "sinful nature" to judge God according to any standard of good or love. We should merely take God at Her word. I am saying that if anyone comes to you saying they love you or are good but that you shouldn't take a measure of it then they are a bullshit artist. That I think puts us on different pages.