Rensis Likert: The Master of Cool

Just when you thought you had the bean counters, spreadsheet guys, and stat boys on the run comes Wired Magazine to remind us that measurement is downright cool. “Human beings measure things,” writes Lucas Graves (“Disparate Measures,” December 2006). “It makes us feel smart and helps us to understand our surroundings.” Graves’ evidence is some of the scales we use to parse, codify, and compartmentalize the world.

The most familiar among the “six of the coolest scales” cited by Graves is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. The five categories meteorologists talk about represent the probable damage to man-made structures caused by a hurricane based on wind speed and storm surge. There’s the Mohs Hardness Scale developed in 1812 by Friedrich Moh to gauge the strength of a mineral. His method rates hardness by staging a catfight between minerals. A rock that can scratch another rock ranks higher than the one it scratched. My favorite is the Glasgow Coma Score to measure level of consciousness. Comatose patients get a score for their responses to various stimuli along three axes -- eye opening, verbal response, and motor response. To give us some context, Graves notes that carrots score a 3.

Granted, the scales we use in the courts may not excite the imagination as much as those we might use to judge the hardness of our sapphires while we’re in a coma during a hurricane, but we do all right. The surveys of the CourTools measures of Access and Fairness or Employee Opinion use a five-point scale developed in 1932 by the American educator and organizational psychologist Rensis Likert. The surveys measures the strength of a respondent’s agreement with a clear statement like “Court personnel treated me with courtesy and respect” along a five-point scale: 1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=not sure, 4=agree, and 5=strongly agree. The results, obtained by calculating averages and disparities, make us feel smarter and help us to understand the world we live in.

How cool is that?

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