When discrepancies are discovered between the outcomes of different measurement procedures, two sorts of explanation are open to scientists. Either (i) some of the outcomes are inaccurate or (ii) the procedures are not measuring the same quantity. I argue that, due to the possibility of systematic error, the choice between (i) and (ii) is underdetermined in principle by any possible evidence. Consequently, foundationalist criteria of quantity individuation are either empty or circular. I propose a coherentist, model-based account of measurement that avoids the underdetermination problem, and use this account to explain how scientists individuate quantities in practice.
KeywordsMeasurement Systematic error Quantity Models Idealization Underdetermination
The author would like to thank Margaret Morrison, Ian Hacking, Anjan Chakravartty, Mary Morgan, Jacob Stegenga, Allan Franklin and Aaron Zimmerman for helpful comments on drafts of this article. I am thankful to Richard Healy for inviting me to speak at the 2018 meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association and for nominating my paper for publication. I am also grateful for the feedback I received from audiences at the University of Hannover, Bielefeld University, University of South Carolina, University of Cambridge, and the conference “Error in the Sciences” held in Leiden in 2011. This work was supported by a Research Grant for New Academics from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec-Société et Culture (FRQSC) (Grant No. 2018-NP-205463).
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