Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Science is (Sometimes) Subjective!

Imagine eavesdropping on students in a science class, working on a problem set: “Do you know what the right answer is?” “Am I doing this right?” “How do I know if this is working?”

One of the main misconceptions about science is the existence of some mythical “right answer.” In fact, science is very similar to the issues you find in your day-to-day life. Two different groups reach the opposite conclusion with the same information (for examples, see everything the Republican or Democrat parties have ever said). 

 This is how people picture science working.                     What it’s actually like: confusion at every turn.
 All conclusions are categorically “right” or “wrong”.

People who practice science know that there is almost never a right answer. There are many ways to be wrong, and it’s almost impossible 100% prove that you're right.

Most results are open to interpretation; two people with the exact same set of data can reach the opposite conclusion. The most famous example of this is the glass half-empty or half-full problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is_the_glass_half_empty_or_half_full%3F). Most people will agree that those are both correct interpretations of the situation*.

 The first picture I found when searching for glass half-empty or half-full.

Science is like that glass problem, except even worse: you’re not really sure how much water is in the glass or even the true volume of the glass.

For example, we take one of these nebulous glasses, and our measurements find that there amount of liquid is somewhere between 0.95 and 1.05. 

My theory is that the glass has a volume of 2.1 cups so I proclaim: “This cup is probably half-empty!” Your theory suggests that the glass has a volume of 1.9 cups so the measurements tell you that the glass is half-full.

We end up in a screaming fight about who is correct (such shouting matches do actually occur in science).

This simple example illustrates  how basically all of science works. There are very few occasions where everyone unequivocally agrees on what the data implies**. Usually, you need multiple measurements and experiments before consensus is reached.

So does this mean that you shouldn't trust scientific results? Absolutely not! My point is that you should look at the data and reach your own conclusions; treat every piece of evidence with a healthy bit of skepticism. Since you are loyal readers of this blog, you are becoming more and more equipped to do this!

And if you're just feeling too lazy, ask your favorite scientist to do your thinking for you. 

*This is not a philosophy blog so no nattering on about whether optimism or pessimism is the correct choice. 

**I have never understand why people commonly mix up "imply" and "infer". If someone can explain this to me, leave a comment.

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