A Cool Chart and a Tempest or Two

Simcha Fisher blogs about science.

She includes a way-cool chart:

There’s much to be said about this. The comments section is amazing – we have a couple threads going, involving several people of strong opinions. One uses the term ‘believe’ in regards to science; another disputes #4 above. My 2 cents:

Good stuff. Love the chart. Two things:

“Believe” is just so much the wrong word when talking about the claims of science. If some zealous pollster were to ask me if I “believe” in evolutions, I’d be sorely tempted to say no. Because what I conclude through thoughtful examination of the evidence and arguments is that the only explanation for the origin of species that stands up to critical scientific examination is natural selection. “I believe in evolution” is not shorthand for that, but is nearly the opposite.

Lies, damn lies and statistics. While everybody uses statistical analysis, and it is in fact an indispensable tool for science, it is important to note that statistics, especially regression analysis, do not prove anything in the real world. What statistical analysis can do is point at or point away from certain approaches to the question. By the time you include all the necessary caveats – that the analysis applies to these data, under these assumptions, gathered in such and such a manner – it should be clear that the *theory* under which the analysis was conducted (and there’s always a theory!) determines to a large extent what the analysis discovers. So, statistical analysis should be one leg that supports the theory, but not the only or main one.

Obviously, these two points would need much more fleshing out, and I’m not sure I’m the right guy to do it.

The major issue is one dear to my amateur heart: what loyalty does a non-scientist owe to claims made in the name of science? Simcha attempts to address this question practically; I tend to look at it philosophically. What this means is that Simcha is largely trying to lay down guidelines on whom to trust, while I deal more with the characteristics of the claims themselves. Obviously, there’s a large area of overlap, very nearly two sides of the same coin. The differences is that I almost never look at the credentials or academic connections of the claimant – in fact, I often don’t even notice who the claimant is in this sense – while such things are fairly central to Simcha’s approach. She recognizes that, for most people most of the time, and all people some of the time, the question is who to trust. I try to focus on the nature of the claims, asking, first, could such a thing be known by science even in theory, and second, if so, how would you go about figuring it out? With those two questions alone, you can call Science! on almost everything even slightly controversial that gets published in the mainstream (using here ‘Google’s science news feed’ as surrogate for ‘mainstream’).



Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “A Cool Chart and a Tempest or Two”

  1. Very thought provoking. I like your philosophical approach better than the pragmatic, as well. I’ve seen too many expert opinions bought either monetarily or via being accepted by the Kool Kids. Don’t you have a post or two in the archives about the paucity of properly supported studies and conclusions in even the most respected of Science! journals? Furthermore, when these improper conclusions are used as the basis for later studies the distance from actuality continues to intensify. I can think of a couple examples from my field where certain findings were taken as a given and used to generate even more aberrant findings — and therefore, subsequent inadvertent actions! Yikes!

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