Essays on Science and SocietyBEYOND THE IVORY TOWER

"A Vast Machine": Standards as Social Technology

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Science  07 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5672, pp. 827-828
DOI: 10.1126/science.1099290

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Universal standards for measuring, recording, and transmitting data are crucial components of the global meteorological observing system, allowing data collected at one place and time to be compared meaningfully with data collected elsewhere and/or at other times. Without these standards, we would be unable to detect global climate change. In his essay, Edwards charts the evolution of global weather data standards since the 1850s. Many standards have gradually been embodied in automatic instruments and computer programs, but enforcing standards nevertheless requires substantial discipline on the part of humans and institutions. Since the 1980s, climate politics have provoked much controversy over data quality, sometimes resurrecting debates that these standards were intended to settle.