A "Pretty Situation": Instrumental and Social Resolutions of Scientific Disputes

Just as the general public was astonished at Galileo's tenacious support of his theory of gravity in the face of numerous experiments showing lighter weights to fall more slowly than heavier weights, so did Newton's theory of light refraction involve an ambiguous relation with its instruments and data:
"Agreement [among scientists regarding theory and the existence of phenomena] may be facilitated by operations on the instruments themselves. ... research has shown that the difficulty with replication is largely ascribed to differences between pieces of experimental apparatus. ... Standardization and calibration of instruments ... favor agreement. If this calibration is not achieved, one returns to the situation so well described by Schaffer (1989) with respect to Newton's experiments on the refraction of light in prisms: Newton's `law' did not compel experimenters such as Rizetti: `it could be a pretty situation,' the Italian exclaimed, `that in places where experiment is in favor of the law, the prisms for doing it work well, yet in places where it is not in favor, the prisms for doing it work badly.' For such critics, Newton's prisms never became transparent devices .... The transparency of instruments ... became important in the second half of the nineteenth century [and] `let nature speak for itself' .... Of course, this agreement [achieved when instruments become transparent] in turn depends on collaboration and compromise .... Once it is achieved, however, it is inscribed in the calibrated instruments and provides a solid basis for new agreements." (Callon, 1995, pp. 47-48).

Paraphrasing Rizetti, Rasch measurement appears to be in the "pretty situation" of not working well in places where it is out of favor, but of working fine where it is in favor. Because the theory in dispute is not of a particular substantive area of study, but is epistemological and ontological, involving theories of knowledge and existence, Rasch measurement's situation is especially "pretty". And as Callon (p. 48) notes, there are an endless number of ways for scientific agreement to come about. Social, political, and economic factors often contribute as much or more to scientific agreement as logic, parsimony, elegance, mathematical beauty, theory, or invariant evidence do.

Rasch measurement practitioners are well-known to favor the latter set of factors over the former, but new views on the history of science and technology assert that "technology is society made durable" (Latour, 1991). In other words, measurement technology comes into being only to the extent that the relationships it embodies map, fit, extend, and are absorbed into analogous social relationships. Research has shown how Rasch measurement brings to life the point of Duncan's observation that "the social roots of social measurement are in the social process itself" and that "quantification is implicit ... in the social process itself before any social scientist intrudes" (Duncan, 1984, pp. 221).

Fortunately, actions speak louder than words, and the verbal rhetoric of the Rasch community's emphasis on logic and theory is probably matched or exceeded by its active emphasis on economic practicality and political fairness. Rasch measurement theory is well-known to be practitioner-friendly, and construct- rather than content-oriented, which means that it is also more examinee/respondent-friendly than many competing measurement approaches. So it would appear that one should not make too much of the failure of Rasch's measurement theory to penetrate very far into the overt rhetoric of the various communities of measurement theoreticians, such as IRT and deterministic additive conjoint theory. After all, the perceptual, reading, and conversational practices of these theoreticians are better modeled, refined, and extended into the world by Rasch than by these theoreticians' own models, which should make the application of Rasch's models both more meaningful and more efficacious than application of the other models.

William P. Fisher, Jr.

Callon, Michel. 1995. Four models for the dynamics of science. In S. Jasanoff et al (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (pp. 29-63). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Duncan, Otis Dudley. 1984. Notes on Social Measurement: Historical and Critical. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Schaffer, Simon. 1989. Glass works, Newton's prisms, and the uses of experiment. In D. Gooding, T. Pinch, & S. Schaffer (Eds.), The Uses of Experiments: Studies in the Natural Sciences (pp. 67-104). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. Technology is society made durable. In J. Law (Ed.), A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology, and Domination (Sociological Review Monograph, pp. 103-130). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

A "Pretty Situation": Instrumental and Social Resolutions of Scientific Disputes Fisher W.P.Jr. … Rasch Measurement Transactions, 2001, 15:1 p.808


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Rasch Publications
Rasch Measurement Transactions (free, online) Rasch Measurement research papers (free, online) Probabilistic Models for Some Intelligence and Attainment Tests, Georg Rasch Applying the Rasch Model 3rd. Ed., Bond & Fox Best Test Design, Wright & Stone
Rating Scale Analysis, Wright & Masters Introduction to Rasch Measurement, E. Smith & R. Smith Introduction to Many-Facet Rasch Measurement, Thomas Eckes Invariant Measurement: Using Rasch Models in the Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences, George Engelhard, Jr. Statistical Analyses for Language Testers, Rita Green
Rasch Models: Foundations, Recent Developments, and Applications, Fischer & Molenaar Journal of Applied Measurement Rasch models for measurement, David Andrich Constructing Measures, Mark Wilson Rasch Analysis in the Human Sciences, Boone, Stave, Yale
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