Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Positive Asymmetry and the Subjective Side
of Scientific Measurement

In chapter 3, we focused on the ways in which cultural practices promote and sustain positive asymmetry. But surely, in arenas where quality assessment is well developed and standardized, such practices lose their power. When measures are specifically designed to provide fair and balanced assessment, to capture the full gamut of quality, surely one finds specific safeguards and strategies that preclude positive asymmetry—or perhaps not.

In his recent book Damned Lies and Statistics, sociologist Joel Best reminds us that statistics and measurements are not objective tools. Rather, they are the products of subjective judgments:

We sometimes talk about statistics as though they are facts that simply
exist, like rocks, completely independent of people, and that people gather
statistics much as rock collectors pick up stones. This is wrong. All sta-
tistics are created through people’s actions: people have to decide what to
count and how to count it, people have to do the counting and the other
calculations, and people have to interpret the resulting statistics, to
decide what the numbers mean. All statistics are social products, the re-
sults of people’s efforts.1

In the spirit of Best’s comments, this chapter explores a vast array of scientific gauges—measures designed to capture the broad range of quality. We will visit a variety of arenas from academic grading to consumer ratings, from psychological assessments to the scoring of athletic performances, and more. In so doing, I direct readers to one consistent finding. Positive asymmetry is so deeply entrenched in most groups and communities that it affects a variety of carefully crafted quality-assessment tools—scientific tools that we commonly assume to be objective and accurate measures. This influence

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