Our increasingly quantified world

By | October 24, 2011

Robert P. Crease, author of World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, writes in the NYT:

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. In his book “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould recounted the costs, both to society and to human knowledge, of the misguided attempt to measure human intelligence with a single quantity like I.Q. or brain size. Intelligence is fundamentally misapprehended when seen as an isolatable entity rather than a complex ideal. So too is teaching ability when measured solely by student test scores.


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