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IBS Speaker Series: “Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Measurement in the Human Sciences: Credos and Controversies”

November 1, 2021 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

A recording of the talk can be found here:

Zoom link: – email for password.

Speaker: Derek Briggs

Abstract: “Whatever exists at all exists in some amount. To know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality.”  This was the credo articulated by Edward Thorndike in 1918 to make the case for the importance of measurement for scientific advance in the education of children.  Although measurement and quantification have always been closely linked in the physical sciences, it is only more recently that the same linkages have been made in the human sciences. In the human sciences, many of the attributes we care the most about are non-physical: they consist of abilities, personalities, dispositions, attitudes, and values. To what extent is it reasonable to claim to measure these attributes in the same sense that we measure the temperature in our homes with a thermostat? Does measurement help us to understand these attributes more thoroughly by assessing their magnitudes? What should measurement in the human sciences entail? And what are the dangers of invoking the implied epistemic authority of physical measurement when interpreting the results of standardized test scores?

I take up these questions and more in my new book Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Measurement in the Human Sciences: Credos and Controversies (Routledge), set for public release on November 16.  In this talk, I will focus on three of the themes that cut across the chapters of my book: discovery, uncertainty and humility. At its best, the value proposition for measurement is rooted in discovery: through a combination of invention and experimentation, instrumentation is designed to be sensitive to differences in some targeted attribute. We measure in the hope of reducing our uncertainty about the magnitude of an attribute. Unfortunately, when it comes to the mental attributes of human beings, uncertainty in even the best of cases remains large, not only because of many sources of error and bias that are difficult to control but because the very definition of the attribute is socially constructed and hence subject to dispute. The challenges of measurement in the human sciences are not insurmountable, but they require humility in the aspirations of the measurer. The historical period that is the focus of my book, 1860-1960 was marked by creativity and conceptual innovations that are still at the foundation of measurement in the human sciences today. But also like today, hubris often took the place of humility, and when this happens it can undermine public trust in measurement.

Derek Briggs

Bio: Derek Briggs is Professor of Education in the Research and Evaluation Methodology program at the University of Colorado Boulder, the 2021-22 president of the National Council on Measurement in Education, and a former editor of the journal Educational Measurement: Issues & Practice. His daily agenda is to challenge conventional wisdom and methodological chicanery as they manifest themselves in educational research, policy, and practice.


November 1, 2021
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm


Institute of Behavioral Science