The Epistemology of Measurement: A Model-based Account

Dissertation, University of Toronto (2012)
Authors
Eran Tal
McGill University
Abstract
This work develops an epistemology of measurement, that is, an account of the conditions under which measurement and standardization methods produce knowledge as well as the nature, scope, and limits of this knowledge. I focus on three questions: (i) how is it possible to tell whether an instrument measures the quantity it is intended to? (ii) what do claims to measurement accuracy amount to, and how might such claims be justified? (iii) when is disagreement among instruments a sign of error, and when does it imply that instruments measure different quantities? Based on a series of case studies conducted in collaboration with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), I argue for a model-based approach to the epistemology of physical measurement. To measure a physical quantity, I argue, is to estimate the value of a parameter in an idealized model of a physical process. Such estimation involves inference from the final state (‘indication’) of a process to the value range of a parameter (‘outcome’) in light of theoretical and statistical assumptions. Contrary to contemporary philosophical views, measurement outcomes cannot be obtained by mapping the structure of indications. Instead, measurement outcomes as well as claims to accuracy, error and quantity individuation can only be adjudicated relative to a choice of idealized modelling assumptions.
Keywords measurement  philosophy of science  models  accuracy  instruments  physical science  metrology  idealization
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