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Measurements presuppose theories

(cited in Gillies’ “Philosophical theories of probability”): 

“Against this view [operationalism] it can be shown that measurements presuppose theories. There is no measurement without a theory and no operation which can be satisfactorily described in non-theoretical terms. The attempts to do so are always circular; for example, the description of the measurement of length needs a (rudimentary) theory of heat and temperature-measurement; but these in turn involve measurements of length.” (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1963)

Punched card equipment and questionnaires

“It can be said that some of the questionnaires used in these surveys contain everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, and once such a questionnaire has been filled in by a sizable group its author has the ‘basic’ data at hand for a half dozen articles. If he is fortunate enough to have punched card equipment, it becomes the misfortune of his professional contemporaries to find the literature being filled with results of cross tabulations which are so lacking in rationale as to be nonsensical. The ‘hypothesis’ step in scientific reasoning and research seems to be all too frequently ignored by the users of these techniques.”

– Quinn McNemar (1946, p. 293) [Opinion-attitude methodology. Psychological Bulletin, 43(4), 289–374].

The fetish of statistics

“The newly mathematized statistics became a fetish in fields that wanted to be sciences. During the 1920s, when sociology was a young science, quantification was a way of claiming status, as it became also in economics, fresh from putting aside its old name of political economy, and in psychology, fresh from a separation from philosophy. In the 1920s and 1930s even the social anthropologists counted coconuts.”

Deirdre McCloskey, The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics

Not just more facts but a government that knows what to do with them

“The Cabinet Ministers, the army of their subordinates . . . have for the most part received a university education, but no education in statistical method. We legislate without knowing what we are doing. The War Office has some of the finest statistics in the world. What comes of them? Little or nothing. Why? Because the Heads do not know how to make anything of them. Our Indian statistics are really better than those of England. Of these no use is made in administration. What we want is not so much (or at least not at present) an accumulation of facts, as to teach men who are to govern the country the use of statistical facts.” 

Florence Nightingale in a letter to Benjamin Jowett, from Kopf, E. W. (1916). Florence Nightingale as statistician. Publications of the American Statistical Association, 15(116), 388–404. 

Mental testing

“The unfortunate habit in the mental testing field of devising a new test, administering it to some arbitrarily chosen group of subjects, calling these ‘the standardization population’, and then leaving it at that, does not seem to call for comment.” (Ehrenberg, 1955, p. 26, footnote 1)

Ehrenberg, A. S. C. (1955). Measurement and mathematics in psychology. British Journal of Psychology, 46(1), 20–9.

Uncertainty

“We think that we know about uncertainty, and that when we have added a standard error or a confidence interval to a point estimate we have increased knowledge in some way or other. To many people, it does not look like that; they think that we are taking away their certainties – we are actually taking away information, and, if that is all that we can do, we are of no use to them. This was brought home to me forcibly when Peter Moore and I appeared before the Employment Select Committee of the House of Commons – which is not a random sample of the population at large. Our insistence that we could not deliver certainties was regarded as a sign of weakness, if not downright incompetence. One may laugh at that, but that is the way it was – and that is what we are up against. We must persist […].” (David Bartholomew, discussion of Goldstein and Spiegelhalter 1996, p. 428).

Distress

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“The address that Moore delivered to the British Academy, entitled ‘Proof of an External World,’ caused him a great deal of torment in its preparation. He worked hard at it, but the concluding portion displeased him, and he could not get it right as the time approached for his appearance before the Academy. On the day of the lecture he was still distressed about the ending of the paper. As he was about to leave the house to take the train to London, Mrs. Moore said, in order to comfort him, ‘Cheer up! I’m sure they will like it.’ To which Moore made this emphatic reply: ‘If they do, they’ll be wrong!’” [Source]

Hewitt and Harman v. the UK

This is an interesting case from a while back. concerning Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman.

“In 1985, evidence emerged that MI5 (also known as the Security Service) was systematically infringing the applicants’ rights under the [Euro Human Rights] Convention when a former officer of MI5, Ms Cathy Massiter, made certain allegations to this effect on a television program. According to Ms Massiter, the applicants had been classified as subversive and as communist sympathizers, and these grave libels were published within MI5 and were available for publication to other agencies with whom MI5 had a relationship. Their files recorded details of passport applications, data from surveillance by local police, Special Branch and by special agents, and references to them or by them on telephone intercepts picked up under warrants issued in relation to other persons. Such intercepts, in the second applicant’s case, were likely to include confidential conversations which she, as a practising solicitor, had had with certain of her clients. The first applicant’s file included information about her personal relationship with a former member of the Communist Party. Surveillance of both applicants was continued after they had left the National Council for Civil Liberties on the basis that they were both candidates for elected office.

“On 19 May 1986, the applicants lodged an application with the European Commission of Human Rights against the United Kingdom government alleging breaches of their right to privacy (Article 8), their right to freedom of expression (Article 10), their right to freedom of association (Article 11) and their right to an effective remedy (Article 13) in respect of the violations arising from the nature and consequences of the surveillance to which they had been subjected by MI5. The application was declared admissible on 12 May 1988.

“In its Report dated 9 May 1989 the Commission concluded by a majority that given the existence of practices in the United Kingdom permitting secret surveillance and given further the reasonable likelihood that the applicants were the subjects of surveillance the compilation and retention by the Security Service of information concerning the private lives of the applicants constituted an infringement of their right to privacy under Article 8 (1) of the Convention. The Commission further concluded that the domestic law of the United Kingdom contained neither legal rules formulated with sufficient precision nor a framework indicating with the requisite degree of certainty the scope and manner of the exercise of discretion by the Security Service in the carrying out of secret surveillance activities to render interference “in accordance with the law” within Article 8 (2). Finally the Commission concluded that since no information was forthcoming in relation to how the United Kingdom had chosen to provide an effective remedy under its domestic law that the applicants did not have an effective remedy as required by Article 13.”

There’s some interesting detail therein about the workings of the Security Service, e.g.,

“The procedure for opening a file is strictly controlled. It may start as a temporary file, which has a maximum life of three years, when there is uncertainty whether the criteria for opening a permanent file are satisfied. These criteria have their basis in the Service’s functions and require high standards of accuracy. If and when these criteria are satisfied, the permanent file will be opened. The Service then applies a system of colour coding which controls how files are used. Once a file is opened, there is a period coded “green:, during which inquiries may be made about the subject. The length of the green period varies according to the reason why the particular file was made. It may be extended as a result of the receipt of new information. At the end of the green period it changes to “amber”, under which inquiries are prohibited, but any relevant information that the Service receives about the subject may be added to the file. After the designated amber period the file is coded “red”. During this period, inquiries continue to be prohibited and any addition of substantive information is also prohibited. Finally, after a period of red coding, the file is microfilmed. The hard copy is destroyed and the entry for the file in the Service’s central index is transferred from the Live Index to the Research Index. The Research Index is usually consulted only when it is thought that old files may exist which are relevant to current work. In practice the volume of check against the Research Index is small: for instance, it is not consulted in vetting checks.”

Defy them all

“These internal tyrants, whether they be in the form of public opinion or what will mother say, or brother, father, aunt, or relative of any sort; what will Mrs. Grundy, Mr. Comstock, the employer, the Board of Education say? All these busybodies, moral detectives, jailers of the human spirit, what will they say? Until woman has learned to defy them all, to stand firmly on her own ground and to insist upon her own unrestricted freedom, to listen to the voice of her nature, whether it call for life’s greatest treasure, love for a man, or her most glorious privilege, the right to give birth to a child, she cannot call herself emancipated. How many emancipated women are brave enough to acknowledge that the voice of love is calling, wildly beating against their breasts, demanding to be heard, to be satisfied.”

—Emma Goldman (1911), The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation

How monogamous are you in your variables?

“If you are an endocrinologist you are allowed to study a vast array of problems — sexuality, personality, growth, disease processes, etc. — in addition to the internal functioning of the endocrine system, so long as you explore the relationship between the endocrine system and those explananda. Endocrinology is monogamous in its explanatory variable — the hormone system — but promiscuous in its dependent variables. […] Oncology, in contrast, is a dependent variable discipline. As an oncologist you can study any conceivable cause of cancer — toxins, genetics, viruses, even psychological states. Oncology is monogamous in its dependent variable but promiscuous in its independent variables.”

—Erik Olin Wright, Class Counts