Is it Heisenberg's Uncertainty... Or is it Just the Observer Effect?

I struggle with data.  I do. Not in the understanding of what is meant by it, or the ways in which experiments are designed to collect data, but I struggle with our dependency upon it in education.  I am suspicious of it. Uncertain of it. I distrust it and its effects upon what we do and how we decide that what we’re doing is the right thing to do. We have been taught well by politics that we must be able to quantify everything we do, so that we can assign blame, or lavish praise--mostly the former rather than the latter.

I am the guy who questions the results.  I’m the guy who wonders if we’re comparing like and like, or if we’re comparing like and wrenches.  I want to understand, because the data points we work with in education represent children and their futures.  I take it very seriously.

One thing I use as a basis for my questions when I’m faced with a table of numbers, is whether we’re looking at something akin to the uncertainty principle, or if we’re witnessing the observer effect.  Both concepts have been appropriated by other fields (they are originally from the study of quantum mechanics) in a general sense.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle deals with what is measured in the sense that you can only really measure one aspect accurately.  His concern was position of the particle v. its momentum. If you want to know where it is, you cannot measure its speed accurately, and vice versa.  The measurements for one also become less precise the more you scrutinize the other. This is often conflated with another quantum phenomenon--the Observer Effect.  While the two are related, they are not the same, and some folks will outright align some data complication to “the Uncertainty Principle” which is highly unlikely.

Instead, what we probably run into the most in education is the Observer Effect, which means that if you are observing a concept, the way/method in which you are observing is going to affect your results.  So for example, you are measuring buttermilk for pancakes. You pour the buttermilk to the 1½ cup mark. Because of the viscosity of the buttermilk, you actually lose some of it on the sides of the measuring cup, which means there is a lesser amount going into the batter.  Had you poured it directly from the carton, it would be exact (provided you were able to measure as you poured). This is actually the primary effect that occurs with assessments in education. We want to test for history knowledge, but can only pose 70 questions on the standardized test, even though they were taught much more material than is covered by the standardized test.  A student who may understand the linkages between eras and historical incidents may not make as great a showing if their knowledge is conceptual, rather than explicitly fact-based (as the tests tend to be). This is the Observer Effect.

The Uncertainty Principle would be at play when we look toward fluency v. comprehension.  If we’re measuring fluency with a tool, that same tool is inadequate for measuring comprehension.  And if you’re measuring comprehension, vice versa.

These concepts both are things that are worth considering when collecting and studying data, just as causation v. correlation are.  It bears noting though, that both The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which sounds very impressive) and the Observer Effect (not so impressive sounding) are appropriated concepts from a different field.  So, just know that if someone busts out one of these, especially Heisenberg, they work as metaphors and/or similes at best, rather than direct one-to-one matches. So, the concepts are convenient, but perhaps not applicable as they are in their original fields; however, figurative language is sometimes the best way to get at the root of a concept.

To wit, it is worth knowing that data and certainty are always squishy when it comes to student performance. But, that being said, good data that makes sense, even if it’s not precise, can make a difference in making visible the need for a change—which, in a world of squishy data, is something.