The Observer Effect

I enjoyed reading Ken Wilson’s chapter “Thinking about the ethics of fieldwork” in “Fieldwork in Developing Countries.” I want to focus on one sentence found on page 186 that says, “…people who are aware of being observed, tend to report or behave in a biased fashion, either willfully or subconsciously…if a researcher attempts to observe a work routine, for example, people will almost certainly alter it…” (p.186)

Forgive me while I nerd out on this for a minute. This happens to me sometimes and I can’t help it.

This “observer effect” has been the subject of speculation and debate in the field of theoretical and quantum physics for the last 80 years or so. But I think it has implications that go far beyond the theoretical realms and into the world of practical applications. The idea that the act of observation fundamentally changes the phenomenon that is being observed has dramatic and real world implications.

In some fields of study it is more obvious. In electronics the observer effect needs to be factored in when using ammeters and voltmeters to measure a current or voltage. By being connected to a system these meters can present an additional load that can in effect change the current and voltage. In thermodynamics for example, a thermometer must absorb some amount of thermal energy in order to measure temperature. By absorbing this energy they are in effect lowering the temperature of the body they are measuring. wheelereye

In quantum physics the observer effect is less intuitive because it is carried out in the dimension of the quantum universe (very very tiny). In order to measure the location or direction and momentum of an electron for example, that electron must be bombarded with a photon or another electron. The result of this collision is an observation and a quantified measurement which places that electron in time and space. But this bombardment fundamentally changes the nature of the electron which was moments before existing in a state of indeterminate potentialities and probability matrices(NERD!). Meaning that it didn’t really have a location in 3 dimensional space, but rather it had a probability of existing somewhere within our event horizon (all possibilities) until only through the act of observation does it find a real home in the space time continuum (the collapse of the wave function).

I know this stuff starts to sound outlandish and irrelevant pretty quickly, and it probably is. But hey this is MY blog and I am owning it! (How did I get myself into this verbal cul-de-sac anyway?)


In my opinion this lends credence to the “relativist” perspective that our individual realities, or the world as we see it and as we define in, are more a reflection of our frame of reference, or our methods of observation, and less a reflection of an underlying truth or fundamental characteristic of nature. John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008), probably the preeminent thinker on this subject, articulated his view of with a graphic depicting the universe as a U-shape with the eye of the observer peering back at himself. Think about that for a second.

As my friend Adam Schumaker would say, Booya!!!

Although this all sounds really abstract, this phenomenon is fundamental in sculpting our understanding of the universe and therefore must be considered as a fundamental component when we design our data collection methodologies. Understanding (or at the very least carefully considering) the observer effect is crucial, whether our subject is a cauldron of super heated ammonia, a computer circuit board, or household energy budgets in Guatemalan highlands (my work this summer).

I propose a caveat: the burden of reporting unbiased and truthful representations of reality may be somewhat lessened when our goal is not purely finding a scientific or academic truth, but rather is to elicit a behavioral change or otherwise bring about some specific project objective such as the uptake of an improved cooking technology or the installation of a water pump. E.g. the burden of truth is lessened when we are doing a project rather than academic research. Because if if we state our projects objectives and intentions clearly from the beginning then the frame of reference from which we are operating is clearly defined and the results are tangible and can be evaluated in their proper context.

I’m rounding third base now, headin’ home…

The observer effect may be one of the most difficult biases that are brought into a fieldwork operation by the researcher. However it certainly is not the only one. Wilson goes on to discuss several other common pitfall that project designers can fall into. In fact, the whole scientific process from start to finish is full of ethical land mines to the extent that being inadvertently unethical may be inevitable and I expect that at some point every researcher will make an ethical mistake. The extent to which this mistake can be forgiven depends not only on the gravity of the resultant consequences, but also on the depths to which the researcher attempted to hold themselves to high moral and ethical standards.

Phew… that felt good…

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