Sensory Measurements: Coordination and Standardization

Abstract

Do sensory measurements deserve the label of “measurement”? We argue that they do. They fit with an epistemological view of measurement held in current philosophy of science, and they face the same kinds of epistemological challenges as physical measurements do: the problem of coordination and the problem of standardization. These problems are addressed through the process of “epistemic iteration,” for all measurements. We also argue for distinguishing the problem of standardization from the problem of coordination. To exemplify our claims, we draw on olfactory performance tests, especially studies linking olfactory decline to neurodegenerative disorders.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Exceptions prove the rule. In 1942 a landmark study showed that retinal receptors detect single photons but require a higher threshold to be recognized as having a conscious effect (Hecht et al. 1942). The results of this early psychophysical test were only confirmed physiologically almost 40 years later (Baylor et al. 1979).

  2. 2.

    Michell (1999) is a salient exception. A recent debate between Hatfield, Feest, and Chirimuuta concerns psychophysical studies of visual perception. Nonetheless, their focus remains on conceptual categories that relate to the problem of introspection and consciousness, rather than epistemological issues of sensory measurement. We will therefore not refer to their discussion in this paper.

  3. 3.

    Psychometrics studies psychological categories such as personality traits, skills, abilities, etc. It also concerns the methods employed in psychological measurement and questions regarding their (limited) objectivity. Psychophysics is about the relation between physical stimuli and their perceptions. The two fields are related: “The psychometric function, relating the subject’s response to the physical stimulus, is fundamental to psychophysics” (Klein 2001, p. 1421).

  4. 4.

    Consumer behavior does not seem to care about such academic dismissal, as the fragrance industry thrives “with sales of scented products constituting an annual market of over $25 billion dollars in the United States alone” (Keller and Vosshall 2004, p. R875).

  5. 5.

    “Preclinical” means the stage prior to the manifestation of specified symptoms that facilitate the diagnosis of a disease or disorder.

  6. 6.

    The design of test kits for olfactory function, especially in medical applications, has to factor in the cultural background when measuring smell perception, for instance regarding the subjects’ familiarity with an odor. Cross-cultural comparisons showed similar odor responses (e.g., familiar odors are considered more pleasant). Such comparisons also showed that subject groups from different cultures performed differently in threshold and discrimination tasks based on their familiarity with an odor (Doty et al. 1985; Sorowska et al. 2014).

  7. 7.

    Axel’s quote refers to the classic paper, “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain” (Lettvin et al. 1959).

  8. 8.

    Glomerulus (plural: glomeruli) is a term for a spherical neural structure formed by the concurrence of olfactory sensory nerves that are expressing the same receptor gene. Mitral cells are neurons in the olfactory bulb. Microcircuits are characterized as functional modules of cell collections in the brain that carry out specific actions.

  9. 9.

    The assignment of functional stages to specific constituents of the olfactory system is not clear-cut and remains in dispute. Yet, the concentrated distribution of different processing stages in specific structural components of the olfactory system allows for a rough functional compartmentalization (Barkai and Wilson 2014).

  10. 10.

    Anosmia is the inability to smell. Partial anosmia characterizes the inability to detect specific odors. Hyposmia is the reduced ability to smell. (Erratum to Barwich 2014, where anosmia and hyposmia have been accidentally placed in reverse order on p. 266.).

  11. 11.

    This can also be problematic for testing children and people with cognitive decline.

  12. 12.

    Gamble was adequately vague about what she meant by weak and strong stimuli. She mainly refers to stimulus concentration.

  13. 13.

    “The estimated intensity of the smell of the mixture of two odorants is frequently perceived as being non-additive. This phenomenon is called counteracting. There are three types of counteracting: partial addition, in which the mixture smells more intense than the stronger component; compromise, in which the smell intensity of the mixture is in between the intensities of the components; and compensation, in which the mixture smells less intense than the weaker component” (Keller and Vosshall 2004, p. R877).

  14. 14.

    Besides a few attempts (Spehr et al. 2004), however, work on the relation between antagonism behavior at the receptor level and counteracting responses in odor perception has come to a halt in the past ten years. (We thank Andreas Keller for making us aware of this.)

  15. 15.

    See Bechtel (1986) for a thorough discussion of the epistemological and sociological aspects in similar cases of interdisciplinarity and scientific integration.

  16. 16.

    Sociological factors such as the physical location of the research group (e.g., well-connected versus isolated institutes) and the availability of human test subjects (such as grad students) also play a role, of course.

  17. 17.

    We thank Stuart Firestein for pointing that out to us.

  18. 18.

    On an interval scale, the placement of the zero point is conventional but the same size of interval has the same meaning everywhere (e.g., the difference between 10° and 15°, and the difference between 85° and 90°). On a ratio scale, the value zero means the real absence of the quantity, and it is meaningful to apply the arithmetic operation of multiplication to a magnitude. The familiar temperature scales (centigrade, Fahrenheit, etc.) are interval scales, and Kelvin’s absolute temperature scale is a ratio scale. It may be said that the temperature concept has evolved through all four of Stevens’ scale types.

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Acknowledgments

This paper has benefitted greatly from comments on previous versions by Olivier Morin, Ingvar Johansson, John Dupré, Stuart Firestein, and two reviewers for the journal. Andreas Keller kindly answered our questions about recent developments in olfactory psychophysics. The work was made possible by funding from the KLI Institute. Special gratitude belongs to Werner Callebaut (†), a dearly missed cartographer of knowledge.

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Correspondence to Ann-Sophie Barwich.

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Barwich, A., Chang, H. Sensory Measurements: Coordination and Standardization. Biol Theory 10, 200–211 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-015-0222-2

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Keywords

  • Circularity
  • Coordination
  • Epistemic iteration
  • Measurement
  • Olfaction
  • Psychophysics
  • Reliability
  • Sensory perception
  • Standardization