The measurement problem

In a worth-reading piece today in the New York Times, Robert Crease uses this example to illustrate the disconnect between our ability to measure things and our ability to effectively use our ability to measure things:

Is the ability to measure tiny levels of toxins making us safer, or leading us to spend enormous sums of money unnecessarily to eliminate toxins just to make us feel safer?




  1. Do you think he’s using it to illustrate the disconnect or more to ask, purely philosophically, that we consider there might sometimes be a disconnect? I read it as a much more open question than you seem to be implying here. I had quite a different impression of what the article would be about from your pulled quote than when I went and read the whole thing (framing alert!). The use of the word “unnecessarily” in the quoted sentence makes me wonder if my interpretation is too generous, though.

    If the question is showing a disconnect or, stronger, misuse (“unnecessarily”?), it’s poorly expressed. The consequences of the alternative have to play a big part: in this example, if we don’t eliminate certain toxins because we cannot accurately measure them, are the consequence going to be terrible (tiny probability of something happening multiplied by enormous effect, or cost, of that something happening)? That way leads to things like climate change denial, and even gravity denial.

  2. On reflection, I think Malcolm makes a reasonable point – that I framed the blog post to use the quote in service of my own agenda, in a way that’s somewhat different from its service in the original piece.

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