Quicklink: What and How we Measure

Measurement and Its Discontents: When does quantifying something help us learn — and when does it mislead us?

The problem is not that we don’t yet have precise enough tools for measuring such things; it’s that there are two wholly different ways of measuring.

In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs y pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this “ontic” measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties.

But there’s another way of measuring that does not involve placing something alongside a stick or on a scale. This is the kind of measurement that Plato described as “fitting.” This involves less an act than an experience: we sense that things don’t “measure up” to what they could be. This is the kind of measuring that good examples invite. Aristotle, for instance, called the truly moral person a “measure,” because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings. We might call this “ontological” measuring, after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists.

The distinction between the two ways of measuring is often overlooked, sometimes with disastrous results.

Nice delineation of a common conceptual confusion regarding measurement – merely being able to measure something about a phenomenon might not always tell us useful information about the phenomenon. The IQ scale versus “intelligence” is the most obvious example.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, language, Science, Sociology

1 reply

  1. This post was as big as 1 football field.

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