Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Doe, a deer, a female deer; Ray, a drop of golden sun; Me, a name I call myself; Far, a long, long way to run; Sew, a needle pulling thread; La, a note to follow so; Tea, I drink with jam and bread; that will bring us back to do, oh oh oh. Guido d’Arezzo was a Benedictine monk who figured that Gregorian chants could be more easily learned if he assigned a syllable to each note of the scale. The song Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music was written by Rogers and Hammerstein and used by Maria the governess to teach the musical scale to the children of the Von Trapp family. When the song was translated into German, it was rewritten as C wie Cellophanpapier. 

The scales of justice

Held aloft in one hand by Justitia, the Goddess of Justice, the scales symbolize the evidence as presented by the accuser and the accused and purports to determine the truth by weighing the evidence. The idea is that the side that is able to present the more complete, credible and convincing evidence will win because their evidence outweighs that of the losing side. Among the many versions of the goddess, the one we are most familiar with shows her blindfolded to represent her objectivity and impartiality. Today most of us think of the legal system as not so impartial, and the winners at trial as the ones with the best lawyers, not the best case.

Why do fish have scales?

These tough, bony, overlapping plates come in many shapes and sizes but all are made from keratin, the same material in human fingernails and hair. They are constantly growing and are shed from the fish’s body as they age. Scales provide the fish with protection from parasites and predators as well as helping them regulate their body temperature. Most people don’t know that fish scales are a key ingredient in lipstick along with the corpses of crushed beetles.

Temperature scales

The two most common are Fahrenheit (freezing is 32 degrees and boiling is 212) and Celsius (freezing is 0 and boiling is 100). Most of us know only one or the other and those of us that have lived in a country that uses the one we’re not familiar with have trouble converting back to the system we grew up with. The only temperatures at which the two scales agree are at -40 degrees.  

Bathroom scales

If you live in the USA, your bathroom scale measures your weight in pounds. British scales have an extra line to indicate a person’s weight in stones (14 pounds). This is a holdover from the days of weighing wool shorn from sheep. Some scales also measure kilos.

Survey scales

The simplest are the ones you get from Amazon.

Semantic differential scales

These are used with survey questionnaires that ask people to rate products and services within multi-point rating options. We’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t taken a survey, especially since we are bombarded with them every time we buy a product or use a service. Here are a few things to keep in mind next time you come across survey scales:

Odd or even?

Those in favor of using odd-numbered scales do so to allow survey takers to give a neutral response because odd-numbered scales have a midpoint. Not everyone feels strongly enough about every product or service to rate it any more than ho-hum, however.

Those who use even-numbered scales do so to force survey takers to take a positive or negative position because there is no neutral position offered. Critics say whatever results you get are biased by the scale’s design.

Likert scales

If you took a statistics class in school, you learned about Likert scales, designed to capture variance in survey questionnaires. Instead of asking if you like something or not (Yes/No), Likert scales try to measure intensity, as I may like something a little and you may like the same thing a lot. The most common Likert scales have 5 points: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree. 7-point Likert scales such as the one below add a “Somewhat” to either end in an effort to find greater distinctions. They’re highly popular, but as a graduate student, I learned that most people cannot reliably discriminate more than 5 or 6 levels of most anything, so I never approved their use and still don’t.

10-point scales

One school of thought says these scales came about because of the grading systems we use in schools. Another says we use them because of the prevalence of Top Ten lists on late-night talk shows. Either way, they are to be avoided because people are invariably unable to describe the difference between adjacent ratings such as 3 and 4 or 7 and 8. When you see zero as a choice, the survey taker has actually given you an 11-point scale.

100-point scales

The more points you put on a scale, the more variance you get, and statisticians love variance. 100-point scales are 10 times more useless than 10-point scales.


“The injuries we do to others and those we suffer ourselves are seldom weighed on the same scales.” – Aesop

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