Science can be a powerful trigger word. For some people science evokes a visceral wariness. Their objections are manifold and some I agree with:
- Science potentially makes objects of study out of everything and everyone. Being an object of study is dehumanizing. Even though it’s perfectly valid to challenge this, our dignity is tied up with being subjects not objects. Maybe we’re not autonomous subjects to the extent we like to think we are but it’s a bitter pill to have thrown down our throats that we’re not.
- Science (like everything else) is driven politically. Certain groups of people are objects of study more often than others. There is more research into the psychology of people on welfare than the psychology of tax avoiders for example. This makes the dehumanizing effect of science into a weapon. Research knowledge often feels like something taken from the communities who provide it to be used against them; like the science of how to lay out a supermarket for example.
- Scientific results have such huge ramifications in their areas of policy that they are an obvious site of corruption. It’s been shown (scientifically) that any study with a picture of a brain has more authority than the same study without. Food science is so corrupt at the consumer level that fruit based confectionary is sold to parents using scientific sounding claims of healthiness. That’s a criticism of the abuse of marketing more than a criticism of pure science itself, however the masters of marketing are very clever and the difference can be hard to spot. Is it any wonder we are sick of the sound of science?
- Science mistakenly produces “real things”. Or rather it produces models but the model is read as some piece of actual discovered reality instead (a process called “reification”). Something like depression is understood as a fixed phenomenon, a cluster of stable traits. Compare that with sadness which is not thought of as anything near as concretely real. Something like “skate punk” or “gender” gets fixed in the same way. This tendency may be resisted by scientists but we the public still respond to the science like this. This causes countless problems because we tend to think of “real things” as resistant to change and having an independent existence. Hence it can sometimes (not always) be a barrier to recovery from depression to actually receive the diagnosis. Similarly by treating gender as independently “real” we then treat atypical gender patterns as something broken inside a person – a gender dysphoria. This is really a criticism of our mind’s prejudices but those prejudices are amplified by scientific terms.
There is another common criticism of science which I strongly disagree with. This is that science is only interested in what can be measured and there are important things beyond our capacity for measurement. I think this criticism dangerously throws out baby with bathwater and I want to write in defense of measurement.
Measurement precedes modern science. It is the building block of careful thinking. When we “take the measure of” something we are engaged in profoundly important activity. We are establishing the worth of a statement. We are qualifying it.
When we reject measurement by entertaining phenomena that can’t be measured or even that shouldn’t be measured, we abandon more than just science. We have stopped caring about the meaning of our words with any degree of precision. That opens the door, the window, even the roof to more bullshit than we can imagine.
Consider if I told you I needed two eggs to make the cake I’m making. You can hear from this that one egg would be too few, three eggs too many; that the number of eggs matters. You can work out if you need to go to the shop to buy more eggs. Underlying all of this is some real concern for the results of our cooking, for our resources and for our effort (or the effort of the chicken).
Imagine if I told you that the cake needs egg but in no way can that egg be measured. I think that this is enough to cast suspicion on whether “needs” is the right word. Perhaps I want you to accept that it’s the principle of egg rather than the amount that matters. Would you wonder if you could save yourself a trip to the shops and just bluff your way through adding the egg? We have entered the land of bullshit and perhaps just saying you added egg would do.
Now I hear you saying (yes, I can hear you through the internet) “That’s all well and good with eggs in a cake but it doesn’t apply to everything. You can’t measure decency or love.” I think that attitude is exactly an open invitation to bullshit where some precision is rather what is needed.
If I say I am a good person then taking a measure of what I mean is a very valuable thing to do. Asking myself to quantify what I am talking about – asking how much time or money do I give to those in need, how much do I help my neighbours, what do I sacrifice for others – gives my statement some actual worth. If I can’t or won’t quantify my goodness then I ought to call my own bullshit. I ought to say I am a good person in a way that might as well be a perfectly ordinary person because there’s no discernible difference.
Similarly it is a perfectly valid and time-honoured exercise to measure a person’s love. If some smooth talker wants to woo me away from my happy home they are going to need to do more than just say they love me “heaps”. They need to lay some measurement on that love by saying they will look after me in my old age or they will take a bullet for me or something similar. Similarly if I want my partner aware that I love her it should be very possible for her to say how and to what extent I do. She should know the measure of my love. The alternative idea - that love is a nebulous, immeasurable quality to a relationship - is possibly the worst kind of bullshit of them all. It allows people to say “but I love you” to their partner while not looking up from a computer game on their partner’s worst day.
This isn't to say that all measurement is good measurement however. It may be that we need to remind ourselves that somethings can't be measured in a monetary amount or in grams or decibels or in any one set of standardized distinctions. My goodness may not be your goodness; my love may not be just like yours. It’s always a very legitimate question to ask as to whether or not something is being properly measured.
It's also important not to be seduced by a measurement that is easy to obtain. It is easy to measure hits on this blog and much harder to measure what inspiration and information my writing provides for readers. The latter is more important to me though. It's true that when we are bombarded by a simple measurement we can take for granted that is the one we should use.
However these concerns shouldn’t lead us to permit concepts that can’t be measured at all. That is effectively the removal of “How much?” or “To what extent?” from our language. These are distinctions that ought to matter. People who want those questions removed are either charlatans or are unwittingly paving the way for charlatans. If they try to sell you something of immeasurable worth, pin them down and ask them the measure of it. If they warn you of immeasurable danger I wouldn't buy their lucky charm.