Friday, June 29, 2012

Fundamental Flaws of Science - Part 3

This is Part three. You should really read Part 1, and Part 2 First...

And now back to known data for a look at the Third Flaw - insufficient means to acquire, store, recall and analyze necessary data. 

We simply lack the data processing power and resources to capture enough information about what is going on. In even a relatively small event, say a thunderstorm, there are trillions of data points associated with it; variances in temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, particulate, etc… scattered over a wide, three dimensional area. 

There are millions of “events”  (storms, tornadoes, tremors, tidal waves, rain, snow, fog…) occurring on the earth at any given time. We collect only a very small sampling of the data associated with a relatively small number of these events. This means the picture we have is incomplete.

As an example, look at the chart below, let’s assume this is a plot of speed over time, would you assume from this that the object being observed is accelerating?

Now look at this chart. In this case, the object was accelerating, but is now slowing down.

Both charts use the exact same data. The difference is I left out the even values in the first chart. Two of the omitted values (8 and 10) drastically changed the observed result. Even the rate at which samples are taken can drastically impact the resulting conclusion.

But does this kind of stuff really impact real science?

For nearly one hundred years the scientific community embraced the idea of a mass-less substance called caloric, which was the means by which heat transfer occurred. This incorrect idea was the result of an incorrect theory, and resulting incorrect interpretation of data. It took nearly 50 years to change the community’s mind.

When I was in first or second grade, I remember hearing all kinds of talk about how human pollution was causing global cooling, and we were going to enter an ice age in the very near future unless things changed. Today, science has a better understanding of our environment, and now says human pollution is causing global warming, and we are in equally dire straits very soon unless things change…

In reality these three flaws are not failings of scientific method or scientific process. The method is sound, the process is practical. The failing is in the humans performing the science. We are very bad at establishing and maintaining a valid metric of the "truthiness" of a given statement or idea. We draw conclusions based on weak similarities between unrelated systems; we overstate the certainty of our conclusions… We lack the means to collect and sift through enough data to see the big picture. And who knows what we don’t even know we don’t know?

The problem comes when science forgets these imperfections, loses its humility. Well, the information gathering/sorting/storing problem is a technical problem.  It continues to improve over time. But the human factor in that is in remembering that the data is incomplete, and accounting for that in our truthiness measure.

Good science must be free of pride, free of 'high-priests', free of secrets, and free of special-interest. Good science is humble, inquisitive, open, accessible. It is passionate, but unemotional. It is not afraid of theory, but clearly labels it as such.

I have had this post muddling about in my brain for years now. I still haven't come up with a nice, prose-y conclusion. But rather than sit on it any longer, I will just close with "San Dimas Highschool football rules!".

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