The Standard for All Measurements: Our Judgment

08 September 2022 in Resource Center.

Collaborating for Comprehensivity has the vision of engaging groups of people to compose ever broader and deeper and more integrated understandings of our worlds and its peoples. To facilitate explorations of particular ideas it is invaluable to share relevant resources with participants so they can be better informed for the conversation. It is most convenient for participants if such references are free to read on-line, though this is not always possible. Since not all participants will have time to review the resources, a summary of them should be provided to make each exploration as accessible as possible.

In order to really understand how measurement works, both in physics and in general, this essay begins with a 1927 analysis by Percy Bridgman on the activity of measuring lengths. The first part of his pathbreaking book The Logic of Modern Physics (pp. 3-28 are our current interest) is free to read on-line, so it is an excellent resource for this and other topics about an operational approach to learning which emphasizes the activities and procedures involved in how we come to understand the world. Participants are invited to read the first three sections of Bridgman’s book under the heading “The Operational Character of Concepts”, namely “Einstein’s Contribution in Changing Our Attitude Toward Concepts”, “Detailed Discussion of the Concept of Length”, and “The Relative Character of Knowledge”. This essay summarizes this material for those who do not have time to read Bridgman’s account and organizes it to explore the nature of comprehensive measurement.

This is the third part in a trilogy of essays exploring comprehensive measurement using multiple sources and traditions of inquiry and action. This approach to comprehensive measurement was inspired by Chapter 6 “Interpretation and Measurement” and Chapter 8 “Judgment” in “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman; however, that book is not free to read on-line. The first part of this trilogy was The Measurements of Life; the second part was Measuring Beliefs.

The Nature of Measurement

In our culture, measurement is one of our highest values. Measurement guides our science, our corporations, our organizations, our civil society, and our government. But what is measurement? How does measurement work? How can we scope the nature of comprehensive measurement as an important tool in working to understand it all and each other?

In the resource The Measurements of Life, we used the definition of a measure from Wiktionary: “A standard against which something can be judged; a criterion.” Wiktionary defines a standard as “having recognized excellence or authority”. We might infer that a measurement is an authoritative judgment. Can we justify such a definition in science?

Percy Bridgman, the winner of the 1946 Nobel prize in physics, believed that how the activity of measurement was performed was crucial to our understanding. He called the consideration of activities, doings, or happenings an operational analysis. He used the approach to decisive effect in his Nobel-prize winning research on high-pressure physics where he invented a series of new ways of measuring pressure when all available gauges failed at the pressures he produced.

To better understand this way of understanding measurement, let’s follow Bridgman’s operational analysis of measuring length from “The Logic of Modern Physics” (1927). Bridgman’s full description is fascinating reading. Let me summarize it.


Even the most basic length measuring procedures involving the coincidence of the ends of our ruler with the object to be measured can be complicated. We need to worry about the material of the ruler, its temperature, its mechanical, gravitational, and electromagnetic interactions, not to mention the difficulty in laying the ruler down successively in a straight line. For measuring large objects we need the procedures of the surveyor who combines the outputs of their angle measuring theodolite with the results of their rulers. The angular character of these measurements depend on the optical nature of light which includes the assumption that the line of sight is straight in the sense of Euclidean geometry. But space or the optics of light might be non-Euclidean, therefore there may be curvilinear distortions that affect our measurements. Bridgman reports that numerous checks have been made to reassure us that the error from these factors is small for most terrestrial measurements. But we have no way of ensuring that some non-Euclidean effect might distort our results. Indeed many measurements on Earth require accounting for the spheroidal nature of our home planet; Bridgman points out that the speed of Earth’s rotation affects some of them. The complications compound if the object we are measuring is moving instead of stationary.

Bridgman writes, “In principle the operations by which length is measured should be uniquely specified.” Until we prove that each possible variation in our operational procedures does not affect our result, we must estimate the error of each of our actions to know how precisely we can report the length. Bridgman observes, “all our experience is subject to error”. So to be cautious and comprehensive, we should record the trajectory, velocity, and acceleration of all motions involved in each of our measurement procedures. This diligence first becomes significant if the speed of the object is very high. Then the Einsteinian relativistic effects need to be taken into account including the difficulties of synchronized clocks to make simultaneous measurements. Bridgman indicates that Einstein’s length is conceptually different from our stationary or low speeds notion of length since different operations are involved, though the two “lengths” have “certain features in common” as Bridgman puts it.

Can two operations that agree in certain aspects but differ in others be considered “the same”? Is there one concept of length or several partially overlapping ones that are hodgepodged together?

Even if the speeds are modest, the difficulties of getting ruler and object into coincidence can be challenging as anyone who has attempted a precise measurement well knows. When we try to measure the lengths of objects at the astronomical scale, the optical nature of such large scale measurements cannot be checked by a ruler. Astronomers resort to inferences using the hypothesized principles of physics to infer lengths. Bridgman observes, “Thus at greater and greater distances not only does experimental accuracy become less, but the very nature of the operations by which length is to be determined becomes indefinite”. At this scale the possibly non-Euclidean nature of space or optics becomes a significant source of uncertainty.

The nature of the operations involved changes again when we measure very small lengths. Machinists use guage blocks, which Bridgman calls Johanssen gauges after their inventor, to measure at the micrometer scale (millionths of a meter). Such precise measurements are possible, but it requires extra care to avoid dirt or adsorbed films of liquid or gas or working in a vacuum. Bridgman observes, “the gauges themselves are atomic in structure, that they have no definite boundaries, and therefore no definite length, but that the length is a hazy thing, varying rapidly in time between certain limits”. Bridgman also mentions microscopy. As I understand it, x-rays and electrons have small enough wavelength to discern very fine details at this scale but the quantum electrodynamics interactions between measuring rod and object give indefinite lengths. Bridgman’s point is clear: length measurements at the atomic scale become indefinite.

Bridgman concludes, “We have made the discovery that there are essential physical limitations to the operations which defined the concept of length.” In addition, he points out that when the actual procedures differ between one kind of measurement procedure and another, we might have two or more different concepts. Bridgman explains it this way:

We must always be prepared some day to find that an increase in experimental accuracy may show that the two different sets of operations which give the same results in the more ordinary part of the domain of experience, lead to measurably different results in the more unfamiliar parts of the domain.

“The Logic of Modern Physics” (1927) by P. W. Bridgman, p. 24.

In Bridgman’s last treatise on the operational approach he pioneered, he notes that while it is impossible to be certain that our measurements are not faulty due to unknown factors, we can do enough testing of our doubts and the doubts of our critics to have some rudimentary confidence in our ability to measure and understand the world. Here is how Bridgman put it:

In the end, when we come to the place where human weariness and the shortness of life forces us to stop analyzing our operations, we are pretty much driven to accept our primitive operations on the basis of a feeling in our bones that we know what we are doing.

“The Way Things Are” (1959) by P. W. Bridgman, pp. 43-44.

We might now apprehend that measurement in physics is the process of making an adequate exploration of the macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive considerations that might guide us to an adequate assessment or judgment of a physical concept. We might then realize that measurement is about our competence in making an uncertain but authoritative judgment given a conscientious evaluation of such considerations. So it seems that measurement, in general, is nothing more than an authoritative judgment however uncertain.

The comprehensive explorer, like the physicist, is always encompassed by an inescapable morass of uncertainty. Nevertheless, we can undertake adequately broad and deep evaluations or measurements to develop competent judgments even though we can never be certain of our resulting beliefs. Our judgments are the authority or standard for our interpretation of our measurements.

Is judgment the standard for all our measurements?

Comprehensive Measurement

In examining the quantitative measurement of length, we learned that the operational criterion for determining value is our judgment adequately and conscientiously applied. Now, let’s consider comprehensive measurement which, if we better understood it, might help us better understand the world and each other. Comprehensive measurement is any attempt to broadly and deeply take stock of or evaluate a situation, initiative, or intention. How might we approach the task of comprehensive measurement?

We began outlining comprehensive measurement in the resources The Measurements of Life and Measuring Beliefs. Our approach was inspired by Chapter 6 “Interpretation and Measurement” in “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. It invites us to consider four broad ways for assessing the worth of our lives as summarized in this table:

Spirit of LifeWays of LifeQualities of LifeStandards of Life
Ineffable Measures (dawning awareness; integrated sensibility)Nominal Measures (lists, taxonomies, and definitions)Qualitative Measures (values revealed through careful explorations)Quantitative Measures (values that can be put on a scale by refined operational procedures)
Values revealed by looking deeply into our hearts, spirits, minds, and/or souls to try to sense any unformed, incipient, ineffable, intuitive, or spiritual factors or concerns whose significance, if only we could name them, would affect our evaluation.Values revealed in lists of names of factors or concerns, with or without hierarchial structure. In many cases, such named lists provide a sufficiently detailed form of evaluation.Values revealed by qualitative research, the professional name for probing explorations. Examples include essays, reviews, literature surveys, historical or philosophical analyses, ethnography, ethology, interviews, focus groups, and case studies.The patterns of these variables can be tested in randomized control studies, the gold standard for scientific research. If warranted, key factors can be tracked as standards for performance.
The Measurements of Life (inspired by “The Design Way” Chapter 6)

The overview provided by the measurements of life is helpful for reminding us of the full range of measures possible. As we go from left to right in the table we proceed from in-breadth (contextualizing) measures to in-depth (clarifying) measures. So, the headings provide four guideposts for identifying relevant measures at different depths or level of rigor to more thoroughly evaluate our situation. Each measure we consider should be evaluated for its affect on the worth of our lives. To determine an overall measure for our situation, initiative, or intention we need to judge the integrated weighted significance of all the constituent measures considered.

As we begin to assess any situation, we might start with the spirit of life. We might look at the whole of the integrated sensibility we have of our situation, initiative, or intention. We might list all the factors we think are relevant. Then we can ask what incipient, dawning awareness might help us further evaluate our situation. We might be so led to name more considerations. We might identify qualitative research explorations we should undertake to better understand the situation. We might identify quantitative research initiatives we should undertake to better determine key factors and set standards. Then we might again look deep into our hearts, spirits, minds, and soul to see if we can’t identify any additional unformed, incipient, ineffable, intuitive, or spiritual factors or concerns that we should keep paying attention to as we gather any detailed measurements we might choose to collect. In all cases we try to tune into how these factors impinge on our situation and affect the worth of our lives.

The measurements of life helps us search for a broad collection of measures at various levels of depth and rigor that are relevant in our particular situation. We must first inquire into the set of measurements to collect. Then we need to decide on the operational procedures we will use to collect our measurement data. Percy Bridgman’s operational analysis reminds us of the uncertainties that any measurement procedure involves. Once we have collected our data, we will want to consolidate them into an evaluation or integrated measurement of our situation. We should include all our demonstrative measurements from the ways, qualities, and standards of life as well as any unformed, ineffable, intuitive, and/or spiritual measures from our spirit of life. Our integrated measurement will be our judgment of the integrated significance of weighing each of our particular measures on the worth of our lives.

In this way we might begin to see how judgment is each individual’s personal application of all our gathered measurements for a particular situation (our particular knowledge). This leads to the very important definition of judgment in “The Design Way”:

Judgment is knowing based on knowledge that is inseparable from the knower. By this we mean that judgment is based on a type of knowledge that is generated in the particularity or uniqueness of a situation[.]

Chapter 8 on “Judgment” in “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman

Perhaps, we thought that the knowledge that is separable from the knower, that is objective knowledge, was at the heart of measurement. But we have just determined that our judgement is at the heart of measurement.

Let’s recapitulate. We learned from Bridgman’s operational analysis that the only confidence we can have of our measurements is our judgment from all our experiences testing alternative operational procedures. Moreover, we have to judge which measurements to weigh most heavily and how to integrate all the measures we have considered into our evaluation of a particular situation. In addition, each person’s sense of the spirit of life measures will be unique. Our judgement for a measurement is the integrated significance we determine from our weighings of the many factors considered upon the worth of our lives in a particular situation.

Judgement is unique to particular individuals with their particular comprehensivity in particular situations. It cannot be delegated to government, corporations, organizations, or even to artificial intelligence (AI). Instead it is the uniqueness of our judgment that is necessary to decide when our inquiry is adequate, when our approach is adequate, when our measurement is adequate, when our procedures are adequate, and what kind of adequate judgment we should make. In the final analysis, we discover that all measurement is subjective: it is subject to the individual’s particular judgment.

The measurements of life and Bridgman’s operational analysis of measurement give us a preliminary procedure for comprehensive measurement. As we learn more, we may refine our emerging approach. At this stage, we can take as our first cut analysis that comprehensive measurement is a form of judgment that integrates an adequate set of particular in-breadth and in-depth measurement procedures to conscientiously evaluate each particular situation of concern with the worth of our lives criterion.

How will you practice comprehensive measurement for your comprehensivity, your way of understanding our worlds ever more extensively and ever more intensively.

Comprehensive Measurement, Judgment, and Our Comprehensivity

We can think of our comprehensivity as how we integrate all we have learned in breadth for context and all we have learned in depth for clarity. In that sense our comprehensivity is how we measure our lives. The indicated integrative function of our comprehensivity requires measurement which, in turn, depends on our judgment. Conversely, comprehensive measurement is about applying one’s comprehensivity to evaluate particular situations of interest. Now, we can see that comprehensive measurement is central to our comprehensivity. Judgment is the standard or criterion for our measurements. So judgment is also of central importance for understanding and developing our comprehensivity.

As we discussed in the resource on The Comprehensive Design of Our Lives, our comprehensivity is a vitally important way in which we shape and design our lives. Measurement and judgment can now be seen as important faculties or tools for shaping our lives. Learning to think carefully about and practice good operational procedures for making good measurements to better inform our judgments will affect the way we shape and design our lives.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 14 September 2022 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 2h1m video from the 14 September 2022 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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