Validity and Coordination in the Biomedical and Human Sciences: Historical and Epistemological Perspectives

Topic Description:

Validity is considered a key methodological notion for evaluating the quality of measurement and assessment tools across a variety of scientific disciplines and clinical practices in the biological, biomedical, and human sciences. Broadly speaking, the term denotes the extent to which an assessment of an item is informative about the attribute of interest: a “valid” intelligence test is thus informative about intelligence, a “valid” Mantoux test is informative about a tuberculosis infection, and so on. Although validity as a technical term in this sense was first explicitly introduced in the context of attempts to standardize intelligence testing in the 1920s, it was progressively adopted as a methodological notion in domains beyond the assessment of quantitative tools in psychology and education, including evidence-based medicine, psychiatric classification, laboratory diagnostics, and many more. These developments led to the proliferation of validity concepts and taxonomies, including, among the many, the distinction between convergent and discriminant validity (e.g., Campbell & Fiske 1959), the distinction between internal and external validity (e.g., Campbell 1957), and the distinction between content, criterion, and construct validity (e.g., Cronbach & Meehl 1955, Messick 1995).  

While methodological debates concerning the appropriate meaning and application of validity for different evaluative purposes are still very much alive, a pivotal distinction has been drawn between validity, understood as a property of a measurement or assessment tool, and validation as the process of establishing validity (Borsboom et al. 2004). Behind debates on the validation of measurement tools – and on validity as their resulting property – often lies a crucial concern: the threat of circular measurement. This threat arises when there is insufficient or inadequate justification for claiming that two measurement procedures are measuring the same attribute, or for claiming that a certain procedure is indeed measuring the attribute of interest. This central methodological issue has recently been discussed also by several epistemologists and historians of measurement (Chang 2004; van Fraassen 2008; Tal 2013; McClimans 2022).

The problem of circular measurement is related also to another epistemological notion, viz. coordination. The notion of coordination was introduced in philosophical debates on the relationship between the exact sciences and reality that accompanied the radical developments in physics occurring at the turn of the twentieth century (e.g. Reichenbach 1920; cf. Padovani 2011). In those debates, coordination indicated a one-to-one mapping relationship between abstract representations, such as the mathematical variables of our physical laws, and the concrete states or phenomena that these variables represent. The problem of circularity here concerns the fact that there are no independent standards for testing whether a concept is coordinated with the world. In addition to that, coordination can be conceived both statically, as a mapping relationship holding between an abstract representation and some concrete phenomenon, or dynamically, as a cognitive process through which such a mapping is established via a series of steps involving several epistemic activities. Recently, philosophers and methodologists have started appreciating the relevance of coordination for conceptualizing the dynamic relationship between measurement, experimentation, and theory in the context of the emergence of quantitative concepts and the relative threat of measurement circularity in domains beyond the physical sciences: these include evidence-based medicine (McClimans 2013, 2017, 2022), physical anthropology (Luchetti 2022), the physiology of perception (Barwich & Chang 2015), neuroscience (Michel 2019), and psychometrics (McClimans et al. 2017, Kellen et al. 2021).

Although both validity and coordination are concerned with the problem of epistemic circularity in the absence of independent assessment standards, and both can be subject to a static and a dynamic interpretation, the literature on validity and on coordination have had little if no interaction at all. This is plausibly due to the different disciplinary origins of the two terms and to their focus on different paradigmatic target attributes. This special issue has the goal of overcoming the lack of interaction among these different strands of research, with a particular focus on the notion of coordination and its increasingly recognized relevance for conceptualizing measurement in the biological, biomedical, and human sciences. By looking at the historical, conceptual, and methodological relationships between the notions of coordination, validity, and validation it will be possible to outline a multi-disciplinary perspective on the problem of circular measurement and the strategies to tackle it in the life sciences and the human sciences.

Expected contributions to the topical collection will address, among others, the following questions:

  • What are the historical and conceptual relationships between the notions of coordination and validity?
  • What are the possibilities and limitations of applying these notions to the life and health sciences?
  • How can coordination be fruitfully framed in the context of measurement in biomedicine and the human sciences?
  • What is the role and impact of epistemic and non-epistemic values in different strategies that tackle the threat of measurement circularity?
  • To what extent are value judgments involved in the process of achieving coordination or validity in the biomedical and human sciences?
  • Are socio-epistemic aspects particularly evident or of particular relevance when coordination is applied to scientific knowledge about human kinds?

Confirmed invited contributors:

  • Uljana Feest (Leibniz Universität Hannover)
  • Leah McClimans (University of South Carolina)
  • Flavia Padovani (Drexel University)

Guest editor: Michele Luchetti, Practices of Validation in the Biomedical Sciences, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Deadline for abstract submission: November 15, 2023

Deadline for final paper submission: March 31, 2024


Submission details:

Please, submit an 800-word abstract to the following email address by November 15, 2023mluchetti@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de. The authors of selected abstracts will be notified shortly after and invited to submit the full paper by the March 31 deadline. Full papers are expected to be up to 8,000 words long.