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The Bottom Line

The bottom line on all this is that although various forms of validity can be demonstrated, Truth, with a capital T, is never final. We are never dead sure of anything in science. We try to get closer and closer to the truth by better and better measurement. All of science relies on concepts whose existence must ultimately be demonstrated by their effects. You can ram a car against a cement wall at 50 miles an hour and account for the amount of crumpling done to the radiator by referring to a concept called ‘‘force.’’ You can’t see force, but you can sure see its effects. The greater the force, the more crumpled the radiator. You demonstrate the existence of intelligence by showing how it predicts school achievement or monetary success (Further Reading: validity).

The Problem with Validity

If you suspect that there is something deeply, desperately wrong with all this, you’re right. The whole argument for the validity (indeed, the very existence) of something like intelligence is, frankly, circular: How do you know that intelligence exists? Because you see its effects in achievement. And how do you account for achievement? By saying that someone has achieved highly because they’re intelligent. How do you know machismo exists? Because men dominate women in some societies. And how do you account for dominance behavior, like wife beating? By saying that wife beaters are acting out their machismo.

In the hierarchy of construct reality, then, force ranks way up there (after all, it’s got several hundred years of theory and experimentation behind it), and things like intelligence and machismo are pretty weak by comparison. And yet, as I made clear in chapter 1, the social and behavioral sciences are roaring successes, on a par with the physical sciences in terms of the effects they have on our lives every day. This is possible because social scientists have refined and tested many useful concepts and measurements for those concepts.

Ultimately, the validity of any concept—force in physics, the self in psychology, modernization in sociology and political science, acculturation in anthropology—depends on two things: (1) the utility of the device that measures it; and (2) the collective judgment of the scientific community that a concept and its measure are valid. In the end, we are left to deal with the effects of our judgments, which is just as it should be. Valid measurement makes valid data, but validity itself depends on the collective opinion of researchers.

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