James Card

COGS2300 Cognitive Simulations

Spring 1998


Operational Definitions

Operational definitions provide the criteria by which a determination can be made in an experimental setting whether a particular condition is true or not. Thus the operational definition of "foo" would describe the properties of foo and specify which of them must be present and to what degree in order for something to properly be called foo.



This is a mythical theoretical construction which is supposed to be a basic electrically-charged particle which is a part of all atoms of all known physical elements. It is claimed be "an elementary particle consisting of a charge of negative electricity equal to about 1.602 x 10-19 coulomb and having a mass when at rest of about 9.109534 x 10-28 gram".

I have no idea how I would go about identifying one if ever I did happen to encounter it. Perhaps I could take the police officer's approach and command it to stop and identify itself. If it then says "I am an electron", and that statement is supported by examinations under sodium pentathol, hypnosis, and a polygraph exam we would have a valid self-identification and be able to say confidently that this entity believes itself to be an electron. If that were also supported by the non-conflicting corroborating testimony of three unbiased expert witnesses who are trained observers and certified as capable of identifying electrons we might then say that there is sufficient evidence to say (with a 95% confidence level) that this is an electron. And if we also measure the little critter while he or she is stopped and find that his or her mass is about 9.109534 x 10-28 gram and he or she has a negative electic charge of about 1.602 x 10-19 coulomb then we can declare with absolute certainty that this is probably an electron.

Actually, this is so far out of my field of experience that I could not begin to write a real operational definition. I would suppose that measures of electric charge and mass would be the primary criteria, but I have no idea how to make those measurements.

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