The mensura Christi provides insights into the making of modern measurement—and how the history of metrology created our modern world, subdivided into arbitrary units that define and shape our lives.
Brian, as you alluded to me a while back, you would get to this! Pun intended, it is a measure above! The history is great at showing the folly of measurement as being untethered to human choices and decisions. But the punchline you deliver at the end is the lesson we should take away. Some really import at things cannot be measured: motives, emotions, psychology, preferences (ordinal yes, cardinal no). Data is just a collection of measurement in which the measurement has been agreed upon by those using it. Big data is just a larger set of measurements. But data itself does not tell us anything about linkages or causality, though we can find correlations. The big mystery in the world is how do these data fit together? That is where data and empirical observation (if this, then that) come together to build models of the things we want to understand in the world. Economic phenomena, weather, physics, chemistry stem from observation and then we use data to build models to replicate what we observe. But in the end we need an agreed upon base by which comparisons (the measurement) can be made.
Still, data cannot explain human behavior, decision making, or personality traits like the dark triad. Those come from classification of observations. And even if data are available, we all interpret data differently based on our own experience.
We omit measuring things like “home production” as having value in GDP. Why? There is no money changing hands. If I pay somebody to do it, it counts in GDP. If I do it myself, no transaction occurs and it is not counted. In both cases the service gets done, but the measure is quite different. What is my value of happiness from reading your Substack? Certainly more than what I pay, but does that get measured? No. Why? Can’t measure something without a transaction and we do not transact intrinsic happiness.
Hope this finds all who read this happy in the most immeasurable ways so they do not become shackled to a spreadsheet!
A really intriguing post. It reminds me of Wordsworth's "we murder to dissect" (though I don't agree with him about books! Nor that we should stop thinking and just "immerse."). I've noticed that things like unemployment figures or inflation have a gazillion [note the precise measurement figure] different definitions. No wonder we talk past each other so much.
Obviously those varying measure are created for different purposes. But those are not clearly defined in most reporting.
I've been reading several books on "predictive brain" theory which says (much over simplified) that our own reality is shaped by the predictions the brain makes to fill in the gaps in perception. Most of the neuroscience supporting it seems to deal with things like pain perception and the effect of predicted assumptions on the kind of arousal that leads to trigger-happy cops.--this is an unconscious process: the cops may truly believe they are not prejudiced. So it helps explain the underpinnings of systemic racism.
And it does seem to explain confirmation bias, amongst other things. The same can be said about the "tech bros" reliance on data as the be all and end all capable of explaining the world. We need a lot less hubris and closer attention to the way we parcel out "reality." Thinking about measurement and its attempts to corral reality is a good place to start.
Wow, this essay on measurement is really thought provoking and a beautiful read. Thanks!!
I appreciate the suggestion those ancient, dogmatic Christian views are similar to some modern ‘tech-bro’ sentiments. I see things very much the same way. That sort of know-it-all, dismissive-of-everything-else thinking leads to nihilistic and/or apocalyptic nonsense, as far as I can tell. I am also a firm believer in science, a scientist, but 100% agree, the Universe is not entirely observable or material.
We humans have a tendency to believe we understand the world more completely than we do. It gives us a sense of security I guess. But even many of Einstein’s most famous theories have not been tested, cannot be tested. People tend to think the more we learn about the universe, the more things are settled. But as far as I can tell, the more we learn, the more questions pop up. And science can only answer the ones where we can consistently measure things - that is not nearly everything that is important. So science cannot possibly give us all the answers - philosophy and spirituality - mythos - must necessarily fill the gap. Its better it is filled consciously and rationally than allowed to be filled with whatever nonsense conveniently ends up there due to disrespect and neglect for the spiritual/philosophical, imo. Cheers and thank you again for a fascinating piece.
Please check out my piece on a similar subject, with a little dive into the philosophical implications of the “measurement problem” of quantum physics:
One of your best issues ever. But, how do we measure ever and forever? :-)
Incredible and little known facts (at least by me)! Thanks for a great read!
That was amazing. To be honest, I never thought about. Thank you for this. When I realize this was going to veer off, I thought of the way Rachel Maddow starts her show and most of her stories. Fantastic job.
Informative and interesting. We seem to be doing well at the DI, but the KW seems to be a bit more problematic.
“And, most importantly, we should recognize that measurement doesn’t just categorize the world, it always creates something new, by making us think differently about the world and our place within it.”
Regarding those closing remarks, I agree 100% and would maybe even go a step further. Recent experiments to do with the famous thought experiment ‘Schroedingers Cat’ and Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ fairly conclusively prove that measurement (or rather observation by conscious observer) can in fact change the nature of what is being observed. The famous “measurement problem” of quantum physics makes my brain hurt!