Sunday, July 5, 2015

Better measurement, better science

Inscribed on the University of Chicago's Social Science Research Building is a saying by Lord Kelvin: "When you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory." . . .

Sinan Aral, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, has stated: "Revolutions in science have often been preceded by revolutions in measurement." From the incorrect number of chromosomes to the misclassification of species, our increased preoccupation with measuring our surroundings allows us to both increase our knowledge and find opportunities in which large amounts of our knowledge will be overturned. A corollary to Lord Kelvin's adage: If you can measure it, it can also be measured incorrectly. 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 8

More of the Kelvin quotation:
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.
Baron William Thomson Kelvin, Popular Lectures and Addresses: Vol. 1, Constitution of Matter,  2d ed.  (London, Macmillan & Co.: 1891), pp. 80-81 (lecture delivered May 3, 1883).

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