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 September 2007

On the Subject of Bias

Someone should point out that James A. Thomas’ rant on perceived bias by the European Commission (Plain Talk for a New Generation, June SN) was equally or worse bias in the opposite direction. It is not only bias, but arrogance to say that a U.S.-developed standard is superior in technology, quality and relevance to its field. Some probably are but others are not.

That paragraph is in fact a contradiction — U.S.-developed standards in the opening line become international at the end. No one denies that ASTM standards are widely used but it is nonsense to say they are internationally developed. Most ASTM committees are dominated by American members with only minor input from other countries. This is why they are not international in the same way that International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ones are.

Roger Brown
Rapra Technology Ltd.
Shrewsbury, England
Member, ASTM Committees D11 on Rubber, D20 on Plastics and G03 on Weathering and Durability

Author’s Response
Thank you, Roger, for your feedback. A standard is put to the test for its internationality when it is applied in the ultimate arena: the market. At that point, it must meet three conditions set by the World Trade Organization: 1) it must be developed according to principles of the WTO Technical Barrier to Trade Agreement; 2) it is used by WTO members as the basis for regulations; and 3) it must not act as a barrier to trade. Thousands of ASTM standards meet all three conditions. In spite of the differences between the two basic schools of thought on what constitutes an international standard, ASTM International looks to the WTO/TBT Agreement and its principles for developing international standards as the ultimate authority. As for the quality and relevance of ASTM standards, their widespread use speaks for itself.

James A. Thomas


For the scientist, “bias” is the displacement of the results of his measurements from the true or most probable value. It never causes irritation or dispute; there are rational methods to cope with such bias.

It is quite different in the political environment, where “bias” frequently originates from ideological preoccupation, prejudice or even ignorance.

The latter, obviously, applies to the statement in past reports from the European Commission that standards developed through ASTM international are non-international for the sole reason they have not passed through International Organization for Standardization (ISO) procedures.

First, let me try the same approach to European standards (CEN): not passed through ISO, they are obstacles to trade according to rules set by the World Trade Organization’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement!

Second, the procedures of ISO are clearly political and on a diplomatic level. ISO accepts as members only the national standards organizations, and these national experts can only work on any ISO standard by agreement and explicit permission of this organization. Such decisions, naturally, are not founded exclusively on the quality of a considered expert, but on a number of other — political, economic, work-load — considerations.

Quite the contrary, ASTM International is open to any expert worldwide, even if not a fully paid member of ASTM. The consensus principle of ASTM guarantees that all arguments are heard and considered.

Note: in my field of expertise, dosimetry of ionizing radiation, I was excluded from the relevant ISO work for the reason that the German standards organization (DIN) decided not to cooperate on this subject. However, through my membership in ASTM International, I was always involved.

Consequently, wouldn’t it be time to expand this model approach to further fields of standardization? And wouldn’t it be time to arrive at memoranda of understanding with the European Community and the national standards organizations of its members?

Dieter Ehlermann
Linkenheim-Hochstett, Germany
Member, ASTM Committee E10 on Nuclear Technology
and Applications