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SIX Measurement and the Observer Effect We will next do two things. First, in this chapter, we will survey a list of examples of the so-called observer effect in various sciences, mainly to illustrate the interactive character of measurement and observation in the sciences—a feature of evidence that Carnap largely ignored. Secondly, in the following chapter, with these examples on the table, we will argue that ordinary perception is interactive in very much the same way. Perhaps the term ‘argue’ is too strong. We will rather survey an approach to the study of perception that promotes an “interactivist ” view of it. This will be convincing at least to the extent that one is willing to acknowledge the consistency, scope, and explanatory fecundity of such a view. The following discussion is supposed to help concretize the notion that animal perception is interactive (not just passively receptive) in fundamentally important ways. The point is that an operationalist reading of the pragmatic maxim is getting at something that is deeply rooted in our animal nature, not just promoting an operationalist methodology in professional science. Between these two poles lies much if not all of human cognitive activity. The obviously interactive nature of observation and measurement in the sciences should not be surprising if such activities are only extensions and refinements of ordinary perceptual capabilities. At the same time, the fact that ordinary perception is interactive may not be so apparent , given that sensory systems are traditionally conceived as passive channels for intake of information from the environment—or, to use a familiar analogy, as being like keyboards responsive to finger taps. (Even Peirce seems to have succumbed to this kind of view at times. Note, for example, his arguments against the existence of a Kantian faculty of intuition in 1868a, 14–17, claiming eventually that perception requires the application of supplementary conceptions.) A survey of various so-called enactivist conceptions of perception will support a view that perception is interactive—or, to use another familiar analogy, that it is more like the sweeping and tapping of a “white cane” as a tactile activity yielding information about the navigability of surrounding terrain. An operationalist reading of the pragmatic maxim will not seem inappropriate in scientific disciplines where it is obvious that observed outcomes require interactive observational processes—wherever, more specifically, it is unreasonable on the surface to regard the observer merely as a passive and detached spectator. The 73 74 / WHAT PRAGMATISM WAS theme of this chapter is that it is almost never appropriate to regard measurement and observation as passive and detached. Even when we can get away with doing that, it is because we can safely ignore the interactive nature of measurement and observation without incurring serious defects in the results. A spectator conception of observation was of course built implicitly into modern Newtonian science—given, for example, that merely looking at moving billiard balls or planets clearly does not influence their motion. This conception of the detached observer fused nicely with respectively simplistic normative conceptions of objectivity and impartiality. Subsequent acknowledgment of the observer effect—acknowledgment that the act of observing can introduce changes to what is being observed—was initially hardly more than an acknowledgment of an unusual annoyance that complicated certain kinds of science relative to norms set by contemporary theoretical physics. To further complicate matters, the observer effect has too easily been regarded simply as a kind of observation bias, as if it were the kind of annoyance that with proper care may be corrected for if not eliminated. On the contrary, the pragmatic maxim suggests that the observer effect is an “annoyance” only if we have failed to appreciate the interactive character of observation in the first place. Regarding ourselves as passively detached spectators is a rough approximation that is feasible within a relatively small range of our experience . It is a mistake, so the claim goes, to regard it as normal. Our conceptions of objectivity and impartiality will likewise have to be richer and more refined than what is suggested by a passively-detached-spectator conception of observation. The following illustrations of the observer effect are well known (Wikipedia 2009). Each example may illustrate different facets of the observer-effect phenomenon , though no single example is necessarily more informative than any other. What is interesting here is the variety and ubiquity of examples. The fact that so many examples are so common supports the contention that a detachedspectator conception of observation is not normal...


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