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Does Measurement Measure Up?

How Numbers Reveal and Conceal the Truth

John M. Henshaw

Publication Year: 2006

There was once a time when we could not measure sound, color, blood pressure, or even time. We now find ourselves in the throes of a measurement revolution, from the laboratory to the sports arena, from the classroom to the courtroom, from a strand of DNA to the far reaches of outer space. Measurement controls our lives at work, at school, at home, and even at play. But does all this measurement really measure up? Here, John Henshaw examines the ways in which measurement makes sense or creates nonsense. Henshaw tells the controversial story of intelligence measurement from Plato to Binet to the early days of the SAT to today's super-quantified world of No Child Left Behind. He clears away the fog on issues of measurement in the environment, such as global warming, hurricanes, and tsunamis, and in the world of computers, from digital photos to MRI to the ballot systems used in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. From cycling and car racing to baseball, tennis, and track-and-field, he chronicles the ever-growing role of measurement in sports, raising important questions about performance and the folly of comparing today's athletes to yesterday's records. We can't quite measure everything, at least not yet. What could be more difficult to quantify than reasonable doubt? However, even our justice system is yielding to the measurement revolution with new forensic technologies such as DNA fingerprinting. As we evolve from unquantified ignorance to an imperfect but everpresent state of measured awareness, Henshaw gives us a critical perspective from which we can "measure up" the measurements that have come to affect our lives so greatly.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

The British comedian Eddie Izzard launches his stand-up comedy routine in Glorious (1997) by apologizing to the audience for the presence of a video crew, with their cameras and lights. To make up for this, Izzard promises, ‘‘I’m going to be extra-funny tonight—an extra 10% funny.’’ Then he adds, mockingly, ‘‘You can’t check, can you?’’ Of course not. It is absurd...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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CHAPTER 1: OF LOVE AND LUMINESCENCE: What, Why, and How Things Get Measured

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pp. 1-13

You awaken to the weather forecast on your clock radio. It will be 92°F today, with a heat index of 101. Another scorcher. Oh well, time to get moving. The morning paper says the Dow was up 2% yesterday—good news. ...

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CHAPTER 2: DOING THE MATH: Scales, Standards, and Some Beautiful Measurements

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pp. 15-35

Mathematics is not measurement per se. But the two are certainly related, and it is even possible that the birth of mathematics as a formal science grew out of a desire to make more precise measurements. In ancient Egypt, land surveyors may have begun the formal study of geometry in an attempt to improve the precision of their work. ...

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CHAPTER 3: THE RATINGS GAME: ‘‘Overall’’ Measurements and Rankings

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pp. 37-54

In the world of measurement, there is a special kind of number, one that attempts to combine all of the various attributes of something into a single number. These types of numbers become popular because of their convenience. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is a good example. It is a single...

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pp. 55-65

Quantification and measurement in the business world are such a part of daily life that they have become the source of countless jokes. Saint Ferdinand may be the patron saint of all engineers, but his secular equivalent would probably be the cartoon character Dilbert. One day, Dilbert complains to his company’s purchasing guy because his request for a new...

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CHAPTER 5: GAMES OF INCHES: Sports and Measurement

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pp. 67-85

During an interminable rain delay at the U.S. Open tennis tournament on September 1, 2003, the television producers were obviously getting desperate. Having replayed all of the highlights of the previous several days’ play again and again (not to mention a depressing sampling of the lowlights), they were finally forced to dig deep into their video archives and drag out...

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CHAPTER 6: MEASURING THE MIND: Intelligence, Biology, and Education

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pp. 87-113

In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6–3 decision that the mentally retarded may not receive the death penalty for any crime that they might commit, no matter how heinous. Mental retardation is defined differently by the various states and by the federal government, but among the most common criteria is a threshold IQ of 70. New Mexico, for example,...

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CHAPTER 7: MAN: The Measure of All Things

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pp. 115-134

When Richard Buckland confessed to the rape and murder of 15-year-old Dawn Ashford, the police in Leicestershire, England, thought the case was closed. In addition to his confession, Buckland knew details about this 1986 crime that had not been released to the public. But Buckland refused to...

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CHAPTER 8: IT’S NOT JUST THE HEAT, IT’S THE HUMIDITY: Global Warming and Environmental Measurement

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pp. 135-165

We can never know the true value of anything that we measure. If I weigh myself on 10 different bathroom scales, I’ll get 10 different results, none of which is my ‘‘true’’ weight. My true weight is forever unknowable (which is just as well, perhaps). There are, however, a variety of ways of estimating the error in any of those bathroom-scale measurements—or in any other mea-...

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CHAPTER 9: GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT: The Computer and Measurement

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pp. 167-182

When I type ‘‘measurement’’ and ‘‘computer’’ into the search line at google.com and hit the return key, I see displayed almost instantly on my screen the names of the first 10 web sites out of ‘‘about 5,110,000’’ that are, to varying (and measurable) degrees, relevant to my request. If I wanted to, I could peruse all 5,110,000 of those sites (or I could first refine my request—...

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CHAPTER 10: HOW FUNNY IS THAT?: Knowledge Without Measurement?

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pp. 183-202

The December 26, 2004, earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean was one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history. Over 150,000 people were killed and more than half a million were injured. In the aftermath of this calamity, there has been much discussion of tsunami warning systems. ...

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CHAPTER 11: FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE: The Future of Measurement—and of Knowledge

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pp. 203-216

There is something about measurement, at some level, that we don’t trust. Or maybe it isn’t so much that we don’t trust measurement. Perhaps we simply yearn for things in our lives that can’t be measured, now or ever. Spiritual gifts such as faith, hope, and love certainly qualify. But when I read Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I can’t help but wonder how Paul...


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pp. 217-222


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pp. 223-228

E-ISBN-13: 9780801889370
E-ISBN-10: 0801889375
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801883750
Print-ISBN-10: 080188375X

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 8 line drawings, 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2006