Page 24 - Volume 8, Issue 1 Winter 2013
P. 24

                                         TOWER OF BABEL, OR WHY BOTHER ABOUT
Östen Axelsson
Stockholm University
Department of Psychology, Stockholm University SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
 “Whereas the question in the USA is how to bring American standards to the international level, the process in Sweden is most often the reverse.”
When Paul Schomer and Susan I write in Swedish?
Blaeser invited me to present a
paper in the special session
Demystifying Standards at the 162nd
Meeting of the Acoustical Society of
America in San Diego, November 2011,
I decided to take the title of the session
rather literally. I asked myself, “What
exactly is the mystery of standards?”
Paul and Susan asked me to take a non-
U.S. point of view on this question. As I
started to draft the abstract of my paper,
a number of thoughts ran through my mind. This article presents those fragmented thoughts and tries to tie them together.
Standardization helps to solve common problems
A first thought that occurred to me was that, to my knowledge, there are no voluntary consensus standards in my own field of research—psychology. That is, there are no standardized methods that a group of psychologists have developed together, and with which they agreed to comply. The closest thing to a standard in psychology is psychological tests, like the inkblot (Rorschach) test, which are used and interpreted by a standardized proce- dure. However, these psychological tests are typically developed by an individual inventor with a vision, who acquires a number of followers who share the inventor’s view.
Another example is personality tests. In this field, researchers, individually, have reached a common under- standing on what the fundamental dimensions of a person- ality are, but all have developed their own method of meas- uring these dimensions.
It seems that tradition provides that academic psychol- ogists are supposed to compete for top positions—who is the cleverest amongst us all?—and never collaborate to solve common problems (God forbid that someone steals my clever ideas.) On the other hand, solving common prob- lems presupposes that we are able to agree on what they are. Perhaps there is some truth in the claim that “engineers like to solve problems, whereas psychologists only like to dis- cuss them.”
Standardization is like speaking a common language
As I was writing the abstract of my paper, I realized that I was writing it in English. Well, this makes sense, because I was writing an abstract to an American conference. Nevertheless, I am Swedish. Would it not make more sense if
To illustrate my point, I presented the audience in the conference with a photograph of a chair (from IKEA), and asked the audience to name the object. Hardly surprising, the audience agreed that the photograph depicted a chair. I then asked the audience if I would be wrong if I decided to call the object “Tuoli,” “Sedia,” “Chaise,” “Silla,” or “Stol.” Again the audience agreed (this time) that I would be allowed to use any
of these words to name the object, because they are all the different names of the object in different languages.
Language serves as an excellent illustration of what standardization is all about. This leads me to the title of my paper: Tower of Babel. According to the legend of the tower of Babel in the first book of Genesis in the Bible, man decid- ed to build a tower high enough to reach heaven. God found this to be a bad idea, and punished mankind by giving us different languages, so we would not be able to communi- cate and collaborate. This strikes me as the opposite of stan- dardization.
The legend of the Tower of Babel teaches us that standard- ization provides us a common point of reference and means for communication. Standards facilitate the development of com- mon objectives, common methods and a common understand- ing. To overcome the problem of speaking different languages, throughout history, people have decided on a common lan- guage for international exchange. For us, this is English, which provides me the opportunity to write this paper, and to convey my thoughts, to an international audience.
Standardization promotes (international) collaboration
I live in Sweden, a small country located in northern Europe. Despite the relatively large surface—approximately 1.8 times the size of the United Kingdom—Sweden has a population of only 9.4 million citizens (compared to 62 mil- lion in the UK). Such a small population is unable to sustain itself without international exchange.
Sweden has been involved in international trade since long before the days of the Vikings. The vast amount of Roman silver coins hidden in the Swedish soil speaks a clear message to the archeologists. The name Viking is synony- mous with international trade, and basically means “to explore.” The Scandinavian Vikings traveled all over the world as they knew it—from Turkey (by the Mediterranean Sea), and across the Atlantic Ocean to North America—long before Columbus.
International Standards 23

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