Subjects make the measurements, even if only reading the meters. Subjects
make the inferences. Only subjects understand the consequences. We may
need to use computers to gather and collate great masses of data, but no
computer understands what it is doing. The measurements we get do not
match the idealized formulas. I understand that the time of a falling
body, done with maximum possible accuracy, produces a Gaussian
distribution. So it's all statistical, with results normally given +/-
Additionally, all humans are fallible, so they may get something wrong.
However, when several reasonably competent individuals get matching
results, there should be little reluctance to consider the measurement
objective. When different approaches yield identical results, we have
greater confidence. This is not absolute, for Newton's theory was long
OK, until the orbit of Mercury did not match predictions exactly (but
could be patched up by Vulcan or reshaping the sun) and the bending of
light observed during an eclipse. But now there are several approaches
that match relativity theory, nothing that doesn't. Still, including
gravity with the other three forces is a unified field theory presents a
problem. Newton's formulas are still good enough to launch rockets with
extreme requirements of accuracy.
One may also note that occasionally someone gets the idea of making a new
description, thereby generating a new science. Mendel got the idea of
dominant and recessive elements that became known as genes, replacing the
earlier gemmules. Now we recognize the sequence of nucleic acids in
chromosomes and various sizes of RNA molecules, and are struggling with
the notion that one gene=one protein is not true. But there is still a
long way to go understanding the genome and its connection to the
proteome. It looks as though the accuracy of the means of measurement is
still a vital consideration.
A different matter springs from the general coarseness of commonly used
language. If one is told that an object is green, it may be any shade,
light or dark, between yellow and blue. We can use modifiers of special
terms to narrow the shade, but for greater accuracy we can either go to
the set of Wratten filters and its accompanying reference book, used
under standard conditions, or fire up a spectrograph. How technical does
one have to be to be confident that it's not how we feel about the color,
but something that is essentially true of the object out there?
On Wed, 7 Jan 2009 10:28:00 -0500 "David Opderbeck"
I agree with Mike here except for the last sentence. Measurement doesn't
allow us to "move beyond" subjectivity. As you note, Mike, the choice of
what we choose to measure and how we interpret those measurements is not
purely objective. In addition, the choice of measurement method is not
purely objective. Statistical models are called "models" because they
only approximate reality.
I think Polanyi was right -- "subjective" and "objective" can't be
separated. And I think Bhaskar is right -- we make contact with reality
when we do science, and progressive knowledge is possible, but this
realism is always infused with the critical notion that every human
knowledge claim is situated and never purely objective.
David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology
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Received on Wed Jan 7 17:57:33 2009
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