The importance of standards

by Neil Rickert

A long time ago, as a teenager, I spent time reading about science. One of the things that I noticed, was that the Newtonians put some effort into giving as a unified system of weights and measures. That is to say, they established standards for the measurements that scientists make, and the attempted to unify standards internationally.

That always seemed important to me. I took it to be part of how science works, especially so when we notice that measurement is very important to scientists.

When I look at books in the philosophy of science, I do not recall ever seeing the authors mention this standardization of measurement systems. Perhaps the philosophers of science do not see it as important.

Artificial intelligence

One of the things that AI researchers have been concerned about, is learning. And one of their theories of learning has been based on the physical symbol system hypothesis. The idea seems to be that the world is full of naturally occurring physical symbols, and an AI system can pick them up and compute with them. I don’t think there are any naturally occurring physical symbols. It seems to me that symbols are human constructs, and we depend on our own standards on how to use those symbols. So there’s that word “standards” again.

The idea, for that AI hypothesis, was that the symbols constitute information and an information processing system can use them as the basis for artificial intelligence. But I say “no information without standards.”

The problem

Imagine a young child who has learned the word “doggy”. As he walks away, a gust of wind rustles his hair. Oh, another doggy? If the child has no standard as to what constitutes a doggy, then he cannot tell that the gust of wind isn’t a doggy. In order to make sense of the world, we need to make distinctions. And we apply some kind of criteria when making those distinctions. How we apply our criteria are, in effect, our standards for perceiving the world.

As previously, it is: no standards, then no distinctions and no information about the world.

Types of standard

I started this post by mentioning the standard setting from the Newtonian scientists. They were concerned with international standards. They established standards for length, mass, time, and many other measurements.

In addition to international standards, there can be local standards and regional standards. Where I live, we use central time (or Chicago time). And we vary that between Central Daylight Time in the summer and Central Standard Time in the winter. Those are examples of regional standards. With my example of the child learning the word “doggy”, that child would need a personal standard. Nobody tried to teach him the official definition of “dog”. He had to work it out for himself and come up with ways of deciding what can be called a “doggy”.

As a rough distinction, I will distinguish between person standards (the standards of one person), and community standards. So international standards and regional standards could both be considered to be community standards, but based on different ideas as to what constitutes the community.

We can have very precise standards. The international standards of time are precise to a fraction of a second. Or we can have rather crude standards. The child who just learned the word “doggy” has probably come up with a rather crude standard, and he will probably adjust that standard over time and based on further experience of using that word.


To be an autonomous agent, we need personal standards. If we depend on community standards for all of our judgements, then we are not autonomous. We are, in effect, allowing the community to make our judgements. Of course, we value this with science, where we want it to be the scientific community that is making the judgements. But there is also a place for individual or personal judgements. Those are the autonomous judgements, and they require that we have personal standards.

The importance of standards

If that child has a personal standard for “doggy”, then what he calls a “doggy” today should be the same as what he will call a “doggy” tomorrow. Having standards is part of what allows us to compare our experiences over time. Of course, if we change our standards, that can interfere with this ability.

If I use a standard ruler to measure the width of my windows, then I am using a community standard. That’s a standard that I share with others in my community. It allows me to write down the measurement, and then visit the hardware store to order a window shade. This depends on the hardware store sharing the same standard.

Generally speaking, when we use personal standards to measure or to categorize, those allow us to carry forward our memories. It is the common use of the same personal standards that connects those memories. When we use community standards to measure or to categorize, that allows us to communicate our experience to others in our community. Much of our way of life depends on this shared use of community standards.

Where do standards come from?

As best I can tell, we make up personal standards as we need them. Some standards work better than others. So we are using a trial and error methodology to decide what standards to use. This is pragmatism at work for us.

For community standards, there are generally discussion or conferences or conventions to establish these standards. And, once again, this is pragmatism at work. The suggested standards probably originated as personal standards. And we examine those suggestion to decide what will work best for the community.


This all suggests that the main task of the learner is to develop suitable standards. It is often assumed that learning amounts to acquiring facts. But there cannot be facts until there are standards for what counts as a fact. So acquiring a repertoire of useful standards is perhaps the most important aspect of learning.

2 Responses to “The importance of standards”

  1. About scientific standards: have you read Hasok Chang’s _Inventing Temperature_? His discussion of how thermometry developed, and the establishment of fixed points and temperature scales may come close to what you’re thinking of.

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