November 13, 2007

A Rant about Cherries and Science.

There is a problem with science today. Actually, no. There is a problem with the people of today which makes them easily exploited by  detractors of science.

Science generates a lot of data. Most of that data is easily accessible. It is also  easily searchable. The consequence is that regardless of what you are trying to prove, you are  bound to find some data supporting you. This problem is compounded by the fact data is being continuously collect by ever more accurate instruments. As new data is integrated the context within which data is interpreted broadens. This sometimes renders previous interpretations. As a result, if you look back far enough, you are  likely to find data which supports you.

Similarly there are now more scientists than before, which is wonderful (or is it?  has the % of scientist risen?), but it also means you are bound to find a scientist in a field who lends you support. Often your supporting scientist isn't an expert in that field in which you are making your claims.

All of this means one can easily mislead a lazy and uncritical public (majority of the population) all you have to do is find studies which support your claims, and some sound byte from  a scientist who supports you, and viola! You now have a seemingly credible foundation for your claims! It is easy to pick rotten cherries when there are so many cherries to pick from.

Richard Feynman was once told America Army had great generals. When pressed for what is a  definition of a great general, he was told one who has won five battles consequatively. When asked how many great generals are in the American Army, he was told "a few". When he pressed, he was told a small percentage. He then asked what is the chance of a general winning a battle five times in a roll, if he had 50% chance of winning it. It came out to a few percent. He then asked if there were any generals who won ten battles in roll...