How do you measure that?

We are constantly measuring everything around us and drawing conclusions from those measurements. To navigate our everyday lives, we must analyze data, but we don’t normally think of it that way. In fact, it comes so naturally to us that we don’t normally think of it at all.

Actually, every concept you can have in your head, comes complete with some understanding of how that concept should get measured. You feel like you know a beautiful photograph when you see one. When you see a bus, there is usually very little mistake that it is a bus. You feel like you would know a funny joke when you heard one. ‘Beauty’, ‘bus’, and ‘funny’ are just concepts in your head. The understanding you have of the role those concepts play in the real world is related to making measurements.

Some people think that some concepts can’t be measured. As with love, or pornography, you just have to know it when you see it. But, even if you feel this way, there is still some kind of measurement going on in your mind. You have just chosen to outsource that measurement to your subconscious and not carefully consider what parameters are involved.

When you hear a joke, you actually measure its funniness without even thinking. If it made you laugh, that’s funnier than if it just made you chuckle. If it made you spray milk out of your nose, that’s funnier than just a laugh. How does the funniness of that joke compare to the funniest thing you can remember? Even though you probably never assign any numbers to the funniness of a joke, you definitely have a sense of how funny it is. You are making funniness measurements!

If I measure funniness by how much a joke makes me laugh, and you measure funniness by how much a joke makes you laugh, we will probably disagree on whether some jokes are funny or not: when we use different measurements of a thing, we are really using different definitions of that concept.

We are very used to the idea that not everyone measures things the same way. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to another. What’s beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another. We are used to these things being subjective so we don’t find it unusual when we disagree with people over subjective ideas.

This really hinders our conversations with people though. If we don’t agree on the definition of funny, does the word really have any meaning? There is only meaning in a word if my conception of it is close enough to how the person I’m speaking to conceptualizes it. So, there is a lot of value in thinking carefully about how things are being measured. Are they being measured the same way you would measure it?

For example, if someone tells you that apples healthy for you, what does that mean? How have they measured the ‘healthiness for you’ of apples? Did they measure healthiness by looking at the colour of an apple? Did they try an apple and measure its healthiness by how they felt? Did they give an apple to a bunch of their friends and ask how they felt? Did they analyze the chemicals of an apple and investigate how those chemicals interact with the human body? Perhaps they compared the health benefits of apples to the health benefits of sugar water. Maybe they did the comparison while making sure that no one knew which group they were in.

All of these different kinds of measurements give different meanings to the idea that ‘apples are healthy for you’. The way you measure something actually affects the meaning you assign to it. There are always ways to make a measurement better, more precise, and more meaningful if you are careful and creative about it.

Some things, like the length of a pencil, are straightforward to measure. But, we are constantly being asked to measure complicated concepts like healthiness, danger, or funniness in our every day lives. We don’t have a ruler for those measurements, so we just have to improvise. The ways we choose to improvise those measurements actually impact on the decisions we make everyday. Whenever you want to be sure you’re not making a mistake, it’s a good idea to stop and ask yourself how can you make your measurements a little more thoughtfully? Also, how can you help other people make better measurements?

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