In blog discussions recently I’ve heard it said that most things can’t be measured. Most interesting things, anyway. Things like beauty and love and morality. This is slightly puzzling. I think it is probably a failure of imagination. I’d like to explore measurement a little.
Measuring things sounds, to a certain audience, like a horrible thing to even want to do. If I measure the beauty of a piece of art, then I have a number, rather than the piece of art.
This, frankly, is a silly point of view.
Measurements are another form of description. If I could say that a piece of art had a beauty score of 9.4, then this would no more summarise that piece of art than me saying it was 20 inches wide, or an oil painting, or worth $15m. Any kind of measurement is a particular feature, one of many. The original piece of art is still the original piece of art, no simple summary or list of predicates is going to replace it.
But measurements are useful for understanding things, because they produce quantities, and quantitative reasoning is more powerful than qualitative reasoning. We have far more tools to do that work.
So I think we have to ignore the straw man that says things like “you can’t reduce Proust to a number”. Of course not, any more than you can ‘reduce’ any phenomenon to its description. You can, however, measure Proust in various ways. And those measurements can tell you something new and interesting about his writing.
How to Measure
To measure something, you need to be able to say what you mean. Let’s take beauty, for example. Well there is a whole philosophy of art, but you don’t need to resolve any of those questions to proceed: you just need to choose some understanding of what beauty is.
So, for example, you might say that beauty is a subjective response to a piece of art, made by people who understand the work. You might go on to say that such understanding takes some degree of expertise. So you’d pay more attention to the response of someone who speaks english when considering the beauty of a Shakespeare sonnet. And even more weight to someone who reads a lot of poetry.
Well subjective response can be measured, in very many ways. We do this as a society all the time, at all levels. Elections reduce the subjective response of a population to a number of votes, surveys, customer research, focus groups, AB split testing: we have very honed tools for doing this.
How about understanding or experience? Well we measure this all the time too. It isn’t hard.
There is nothing difficult that I can see in measuring the subjective response of individuals with understanding towards a piece of art. There is nothing difficult, therefore, in measuring its beauty, under that understanding of beauty.
If you have a different understanding of beauty, follow it through the same way. If you can’t decide between ten different concepts of beauty, well combine the ten different measurements (there are tried and tested tools for doing that combination too). If you think beauty is actually a combination of several different underlying criteria, well measure each criteria and give a multi-dimensional result. Or do a PCA and find what the underlying variables in beauty are.
You may not want or need to do this measurement – but that doesn’t mean it is not possible.
I struggle to see why so many people reject empirical knowledge out of hand. Its as if it has become so associated with geeks in lab-coats that it creates an irrational fear of looking stupid. Which in turn (as all such fears do) engenders hostility.