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Sources Of Error

Measurement error can be generated by many sources. In the bathtub example, error could be introduced by poor procedure such as not completely filling the bucket or measuring it on a tilted surface. Error could also be introduced by environmental factors such as evaporation of the water during the measurement process. The most common and most critical source of error lies within the measurement tool itself, however. Errors would be introduced if the bucket were not manufactured to hold a full gallon, if the lines indicating quarter gallons were incorrectly scribed, or if the bucket incurred a dent that decreased the amount of water it could hold to less than a gallon.

In electronic measurement equipment, various electromagnetic interactions can create electronic interference, or noise. Any measurement with a value below that of the electronic noise is invalid, because it is not possible to determine how much of the measured quantity is real, and how much is generated by instrument noise. The noise level determines the uncertainty of the measurement. Engineers will thus speak of the noise floor of an instrument, and will talk about measurements as being below the noise floor, or "in the noise."

Measurement and measurement error are so important that considerable effort is devoted to ensure the accuracy of instruments by a process known as calibration. Instruments are checked against a known, precision standard, and adjusted to be as accurate as possible. Even gas pumps and supermarket scales are checked periodically to ensure that they measure to within a predetermined error.

Nearly every country has established a government agency responsible for maintaining accurate measurement standards. In the United States, that agency is known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST provides measurement standards, calibration standards, and calibration services for a wide array of needs such as time, distance, volume, temperature, luminance, speed, etc. Instruments are referred to as "NIST traceable" if their accuracy, and measurement error, can be confirmed by one of the precision instruments at NIST.

Kristin Lewotsky


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—A procedure for adjusting the performance of measuring equipment to ensure a precise, predetermined level of accuracy.

Electronic noise

—Spurious signals generated in electrical measurement equipment that interfere with readings.


—The degree to which a measurement is unknown.

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