Lessons from Physical Measurement

Do we measurement practitioners in social science face challenges unknown to our colleagues in physical measurement? Not according to these comments from a 1969 Conference concerned with the teaching of better physical science measurement.

"There is at all levels a serious lack of knowledge of what things can or should be measured, and far too many unnecessary or useless measurements are demanded and made because of tradition and lack of knowledge of fundamentals. There is still a touching faith in "the black-box method" whereby, to measure "whatnots", you buy a"whatnot-meter"; then provided that it cost enough, and looks impressive enough, you have solved your problems. Queries like "Does it give the right answer?" or "Does it in fact measure what it purports to measure?" are dismissed as rocking the boat. In spite of glowing claims by the manufacturer, no instrument can be trusted to work correctly indefinitely."1

"To measure anything whatever accurately is to acquire a deeper grasp of the substance and nature of the measured magnitude as well as the effect of the environmental conditions of the magnitude and the ways in which it is or ought to be used. New developments, inventions and theories, however, more often than not precede the relevant measurement, it follows therefore that new developments are generally not fully understood and properly taught until the measurement techniques are available."3

"It is obvious to anyone who has studied technological progress over the period of the last century that the surge in progress coincides with great improvements in our ability to measure and establish a system of standards."7

"Where more precise measurements are involved, a very good knowledge of principles coupled with willingness to consider the effects of external and obscure factors is necessary for success, but at all levels perhaps the most important thing is a healthy skepticism. It is this critical attitude which distinguishes a good measurements man and which is so absent in those whose measurements education has been fragmentary. It is just this critical attitude which is so difficult to impart to students, who besides seeking certainty (Gives us a formula!) realize that their attitude is not likely to be tested in an assessed examination. Again it is this critical attitude in ourselves which is so upsetting when we ask ourselves "How can we be certain?" or "Within what limits can we be certain?" or "What exactly are we measuring?"5

"The writer has seen relics of instruments in all the important science museums of Western Europe and these instruments were, for the most part, invented and made by the scientists in order to establish original theories; such is the poor quality of most of these instruments that the writer can only conclude that the progress of science has been considerably delayed for the want of trained metrologists in the past."6

"The superior optical equipment of the Germans [due to better measurement techniques] was a serious embarrassment to the British during the 1914-18 war."7

"The measurement expert will, of course, need to gain familiarity with the industry in which he works. This is primarily so that he will know to measure the right things, but it is also necessary to give conviction to his arguments in discussions with his colleagues."4

"It is one of the aims of measurement education to convince the students that all measurements are comparisons."9

"Of all the physical concepts which occur in variable magnitude, very few indeed can be compared in magnitude directly. Many errors arise because of a failure to understand what the practice of particular measurements involves. Take for example the comparison of masses in a chemical balance. Failure to realize that a comparison process involves, in the act of measurement, a comparison of torques can lead to many uncorrected errors, as any good analytical chemist knows."6

"A fact quite often overlooked is that there are actually two interpretations involved. An interpretation of the data obtained in terms of the measurements [fit analysis] and what can be deduced from these measurements for the problem investigated."8

"The metrologist must consider the elements affecting measurement precision: resolution (sensitivity, signal-to-noise ratio, granularity) and stability under varying conditions. Next he must consider accuracy, which must be clearly distinguished from precision; and he must provide reference and working standards and calibration procedures by which the bias of his measurements can be held within limits that are realistically prescribed."2

References:

All are to papers in Rawcliffe J. et al. (1969) Conference on Measurement Education. July 8-10, 1969. University of Warwick, Coventry, England. London: Institute of Electrical Engineers.

1. Clifford P. M. Inspection, Calibration and Standardization p.75-77.

2. Harris F. K. A Cooperative Experiment in Measurement Education p.140-141.

3. Karo D., Ross G. The Improvement and Modernization of Measurement Education in Universities and Industry p.91-96.

4. Noltingk B. E. Education for Innovation in Measurement Techniques p.45-49.

5. Price E. M. Proposals for the Improvement of Measurement Education in National Certificate Courses in Electrical and Electronic Engineering p.41-44.

6. Rawcliffe J. Measurement, Metrology and Progress p.150-158

7. Rawcliffe J. Some Observations on the Present Status of Measurement Education p.78-81.

8. Reisen G. Training Units for the Laboratory Class p.135-141.

9. Walker R. Training for Calibration - A Basic Six Weeks Course. p.121-125.


Lessons from Physical Measurement. Rawcliffe J. et al. … Rasch Measurement Transactions, 1997, 11:1 p. 544-5.

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