Ivory TowerScienceSpiegeloog 403: Global

Ivory Tower: Global science

By April 6, 2020 No Comments

Some time ago, when I was visiting the University of Oslo, I was introduced to a Norwegian psychometrician whom I will designate as professor X. The person who introduced me was impressed with professor X, who was clearly considered famous, and assumed that I knew who he was. Although I had never heard of him, in the spur of the moment I shook his hand and missed a precious bit of time in which I could have said ‘sorry, but I don’t think I recall your name.’ As a result, for the next ten minutes I found myself sweating over the possibility that my discussion partner would suddenly ask me what I thought of X’s work.

When I got back to my hotel and was finally sipping a beer (Norwegians have this wicked custom of exclusively serving drinks without alcohol), I googled professor X. I found that X had indeed done psychometric work, and from my understanding of the lingua franca of mathematics, it seemed quite good. However, all of it had been published in Norwegian. Because professor X was ‘world famous’ in Norway, my conversation partner had assumed that his fame extended across the borders, much like Dutch people think that scientists appearing in Dutch talk shows must be internationally acclaimed – a classic halo effect.

Psychometrics in Norwegian is a relic of the past. The same holds for psychometrics in German, French, and Dutch. In one way that’s a loss. For example, one of the very best books ever written on psychometrics, Psychometrie in de praktijk, was exclusively available in Dutch, and so generations of students had an edge over American psychometricians who, not being able to read this secret tomb of knowledge, missed out on crucial bits of information. Also, there are some very subtle psychometric expressions that can only be pronounced in Dutch, like the word ‘item’ (correctly pronounced ‘eat-em’).

On the whole, however, the demise of these national ‘miniature sciences’ is a win. Shaking them off has allowed scientists to break linguistic barriers, leading to a phenomenal acceleration of knowledge sharing and an equally impressive internationalization of universities. When I studied psychology, all but one or two of the academics were Dutch, and I didn’t know anyone who had studied abroad. Today, our department is bristling with a melting pot of academics from all over the world, students routinely visit universities in other countries, and everyone publishes in international scientific journals. In the past two years, it has been especially interesting to see the development of the student population, which is now more diverse than before. 

Breaking down these linguistic barriers conforms to the spirit of science, which is not bound by national borders, and I don’t regret the loss of Dutch psychology. If anything, the process of internationalization hasn’t gone far enough: that Dutch psychometrics book has been out of print for a long time and, if it isn’t translated, future historians of science will never know what gave the young Dutch psychometricians of the 1990s the edge over their American counterparts. So if you ask me, all these works should be translated into English, so that the body of scientific knowledge becomes the whole that it should be. That way, I could finally appreciate the work of professor X.

Some time ago, when I was visiting the University of Oslo, I was introduced to a Norwegian psychometrician whom I will designate as professor X. The person who introduced me was impressed with professor X, who was clearly considered famous, and assumed that I knew who he was. Although I had never heard of him, in the spur of the moment I shook his hand and missed a precious bit of time in which I could have said ‘sorry, but I don’t think I recall your name.’ As a result, for the next ten minutes I found myself sweating over the possibility that my discussion partner would suddenly ask me what I thought of X’s work.

When I got back to my hotel and was finally sipping a beer (Norwegians have this wicked custom of exclusively serving drinks without alcohol), I googled professor X. I found that X had indeed done psychometric work, and from my understanding of the lingua franca of mathematics, it seemed quite good. However, all of it had been published in Norwegian. Because professor X was ‘world famous’ in Norway, my conversation partner had assumed that his fame extended across the borders, much like Dutch people think that scientists appearing in Dutch talk shows must be internationally acclaimed – a classic halo effect.

Psychometrics in Norwegian is a relic of the past. The same holds for psychometrics in German, French, and Dutch. In one way that’s a loss. For example, one of the very best books ever written on psychometrics, Psychometrie in de praktijk, was exclusively available in Dutch, and so generations of students had an edge over American psychometricians who, not being able to read this secret tomb of knowledge, missed out on crucial bits of information. Also, there are some very subtle psychometric expressions that can only be pronounced in Dutch, like the word ‘item’ (correctly pronounced ‘eat-em’).

On the whole, however, the demise of these national ‘miniature sciences’ is a win. Shaking them off has allowed scientists to break linguistic barriers, leading to a phenomenal acceleration of knowledge sharing and an equally impressive internationalization of universities. When I studied psychology, all but one or two of the academics were Dutch, and I didn’t know anyone who had studied abroad. Today, our department is bristling with a melting pot of academics from all over the world, students routinely visit universities in other countries, and everyone publishes in international scientific journals. In the past two years, it has been especially interesting to see the development of the student population, which is now more diverse than before. 

Breaking down these linguistic barriers conforms to the spirit of science, which is not bound by national borders, and I don’t regret the loss of Dutch psychology. If anything, the process of internationalization hasn’t gone far enough: that Dutch psychometrics book has been out of print for a long time and, if it isn’t translated, future historians of science will never know what gave the young Dutch psychometricians of the 1990s the edge over their American counterparts. So if you ask me, all these works should be translated into English, so that the body of scientific knowledge becomes the whole that it should be. That way, I could finally appreciate the work of professor X.

Denny Borsboom

Author Denny Borsboom

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