Albert’s Fun Fact Science Corner: Operationalism

In 1946, Percy Williams Bridgeman won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with extremely high pressures. As Bridgeman studied high pressure systems, he reached pressures dramatically higher than anything that had been previously measured or produced in laboratory settings. As he climbed higher and higher in pressure, he kept breaking the existing pressure gauges and his work became more concerned with how to accurately measure previously unrecorded pressures. Bridgeman’s work became increasingly concerned with what it means to measure, or really know, about the systems scientists study.

During his studies of physics, Bridgeman was also grappling with the relatively new theories of Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Bridgeman grew skeptical about how well these models really portrayed reality and if they really went about doing so any better than classical Newtonian physics. Bridgeman became obsessed with the question of how to measure things.

Under Special Relativity, the length of an object is no longer independent from its velocity. This seems strange and counterintuitive; it disrupts and questions our understanding of how to measure length. Traditionally, length is conceived of as an intrinsic property of an object: the Suez Canal is 225m wide, the Ever Given is 400m long. Special Relativity questions that, as the length of an object can now change depending on whether it is moving relative to an observer. But if properties like length aren’t intrinsic to an object being studied, what are they?

Bridgeman and his concept of “Operationalism” tell us that the properties of objects live only in their interactions with other objects. By observing how one object affects another can we learn anything about it. Instead of talking about directly measuring a property, we should instead think about carrying out some operation between a specimen and some device for measurement and learning something from their interaction. Instead of speaking of length as a property an object has, we can imagine length to be a concept that tells us about how an object, under certain conditions, might interact with another object under its own set of conditions.

Operationalism, however, reveals something about our [in]ability to comprehend the world in a worrisome way: it tells us nothing about things in and of themselves. No one has ever observed an atom being, we have only observed atoms as they interact with other objects. The first “pictures” of DNA’s helical structure were extrapolated from how certain lab samples interacted with x-rays. These constructed ideas about chemicals and particles aren’t discoveries, but creations. Creations made to map onto the operations that we can perceive. Operationalism can tell us nothing about an atom’s being, only about its interaction.

We as subjectivities, as Heideggarian dassein, have a sense of being that we can feel, and we interact with our surroundings. In our experience when we interact, or carry out operations, we are a “thing that is” and we often assume that there is another “thing that is” on the other side of our operations, but this is an assumption. If we are to be truly epistemologically rigorous, we could imagine that operations are Humean events, immanent on the horizons of experience. We assume that there is something on the other side of them, but this is a sort of anthropomorphizing, a sort of “making consciousness” out of the world, of seeing actors where there are only movements.

Perhaps this is a dangerous sort of solipsism to tread towards, but it is a useful skepticism to have around. Why and when do we grant being to the phenomena that surround us? What separates illusions from clear representations, dreams from reality, hallucinations from lucidity? We currently have no rigorous method to differentiate between what is and what isn’t

These questions become increasingly important to consider when we study consciousness, emotion, and experience. Who’s narratives do we deem fit to grant being to? What kind of people are allowed to get away with what claims? In a 2012 study by Dr. Janice A. Sabin on racial disparities in prescription of pain medication, white doctors were less likely to believe the severity of Black patients’ pain than white patients’, and subsequently were less likely to prescribe medication to Black patients that would severely increase their quality of life. 

Science surrounding trans people and felt experiences of gender often look for some operational evidence for the being of a person’s gender, but gender’s being can only be located in the subjectivity of the person whose gender is in question. Science, an inherently Operational method of understanding, is not suited towards answering such questions like “what is gender?” or attempting to locate gender in the body.

In such poorly understood fields such as what causes the experience of pain or gender, we often default to biases and cultural narratives to tell us what is, rather than believing the direct experiences of those affected. We should always be skeptical when we choose to grant being to people’s experiences. They know far better than you do how real their pain is.

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2 years ago

you always do an amazing job of relating complex science to issues we are all thinking about right now! keep it up albert!

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