column |  Measure is (not) knowing

column | Measure is (not) knowing

There were two kinds of naturalists, as British philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1620. One tried to capture the world in theoretical schemes and got stuck in illusions. The other kind, as diligently and thoughtlessly as ants, collected data about all sorts of things. According to Bacon, modern naturalists were doing things differently. They worked with the best of these two species, deducing theoretical laws from carefully collected observations like bees extracting honey from nectar.

Since then, this “modern” method has been further improved and adapted. Measurement methods are becoming more complex. New mathematics helped put laws into formulas. Most importantly, those formulas used to make predictions can be confirmed or refuted in purposefully designed experiments – an excellent way to test the validity and strength of basic ideas and theories.

“In analogy with knowledge,” Dutch Nobel laureate Heike Kamerlingh Onnes summed up this method in 1882 during his inaugural lecture in Leiden. Then Onnes liquefies helium, creates the coldest place on Earth in his lab and discovers “superconductivity.” No wonder such an experimental man put “measurement” first.

Nor is it surprising that theorists assert that inverse ‘knowledge’ often inspires analogy. Take the predictions of the Higgs boson, which led to the construction of cathedral-sized detectors at the European Institute for Particle Research CERN near Geneva. The gist, of course, is that the subtle interaction between measurement and knowledge and between reasoning and testing provides a growing view of the world.

This is exactly why it is unfortunate that Onnes’ statement has been eroded so quickly by “measure is to know”. Because that’s not just what analogy is like in science, as Bacon already explained. In addition to measurement, knowledge also requires the reasoning and context that knowledge constitutes. Scientists who rigorously ignore this context, or blindly ignore the limits of measurements, are doing science a disservice, and sometimes people too.

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What ignoring restrictions can do is illustrated by research into the side effects of medications. These rates are usually given for normal men and in and of themselves it is not surprising that the averages are assumed here. Physicists who measure one electron instantly know all the electrons, but each person is the product of unique genes and a unique environment. Working with averages is often the only option. It is questionable whether it is smart to exclude women from the study because of their “disruptive” hormones. In any case, it is clear that anyone who continues to ignore that the data does not represent the average woman will steal half the population with a potentially incorrect dose and its consequences.

The consequences of ignoring context are becoming apparent in the science itself, with an over-emphasis on the so-called h-index. As a measure of the number of publications and citations by scholars, the h index does not take into account issues such as teaching, book writing, and the additional context of scholarly practice. But the blind focus on the h-index, which has become a standard for the course of scientific careers, has overshadowed all these other aspects so much that it now has to be brought back into the spotlight through special programs. Incidentally, the same excessive concentration has caused controversy over nitrogen concentrations for decades, while plant and animal species are rapidly and silently disappearing from the Netherlands.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about “measurement is knowledge” is that that phrase indicates the existence of an indisputably and infinitely accurate measurement, and thus constitutes a fertile ground for “delay measurements” tactics. Just like the language of delay coined by poet Lake Marsman, measurements of delay mask political deadlock. Think Groningen, where cracks appear in walls and holes fall in roofs, while government and companies continue to demand more research into the link between gas extraction and earthquakes. Or consider the long line of climate reports that have shown increasingly convincingly the link between human actions and climate change, yet have been rejected often if not emphatically enough.

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In general, isn’t it time to step back from “measurement is knowledge”, at least as a description of how science works? Perhaps the physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek’s “think, play, and repeat” idea provides evidence for this. This thinking of names emphasizes the creative side of searching through ‘play’ and shows through ‘repetition’ that there is always more to know. Measure is knowledge can then be used to weigh cheese or go ahead, to count birds or particles – within a clear context.

Margaret van der Heyden Physicist and Professor of Scientific Communication at Eindhoven University of Technology.

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