The reach of science #4

Posted on January 21, 2011

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“Blue sheep, red apples, lotsa trees… I live here. Lucky eh?” Peter Wheelbarrow.

Professor Wiggly: ” I said earlier that science works best under two conditions: first when working with stable components – for instance when working with objects like rocks and iron filings rather than people. And second when mapping small space-time frames, that is mapping small territories over a brief period, for instance mapping one person’s behavior between 9 am and 10 pm, rather than over a year, or mapping 10,000 people’s behavior for a year. I neglected to mention a third condition, which is a spinoff of the second. Science usually provides more reliable maps when the objects of study fit into a laboratory – objects like rocks, iron filings and white rats. Most scientists like laboratories because they can control things – no wind, no dirt, no distractions to mess up their measurements. Living organisms don’t ‘fit’ into labs as well as objects and dead stuff. Living organisms keep changing form moment to moment – the don’t sit still long enough to be measured, or they’re nervous, or don’t follow instructions because they’re thinking about a date or worrying about their rent. White rats are sort of OK, at least they’re not worrying about their rent, and researches can make them sit still by locking their heads in metal frames while they stick electrodes in their brains. Most people make a fuss if you try to do that to them.”

Jenny: ” So lab studies are great for studying small samples of dead stuff or dumb stuff, but not as good for measuring human behavior, cause people won’t ‘sit still – don’t act ‘normal’ surrounded by white coats, fancy instruments, and strange instructions. So the maps scientists draw from measuring human behavior in lab settings may not tell you much about their behavior outside the lab.”

Peter: “Yeah when I was going to university researchers were always asking us to fill out questionnaires about all kinds of stuff, about religion and politics and  sexual experience – I lied a lot. What people say on surveys and questionnaires doesn’t necessarily provide reliable maps of their actual behavior. People can talk the talk without walking the walk!”

Professor Wiggly: “The main point is this: samples of information (observations, interviews, questionnaires, polls) don’t necessarily provide a reliable map of human behavior. Generally, the larger the sample, the more samples, and the more recent the samples the more reliable map the researcher can draw.”

Jenny: ” So the reach of science is limited by its access to recent, large, representative samples of the behavior they want to measure and map. It’s a bit like my parents bugging me about my boyfriend: don’t get serious until you really get to know him – like I should get a lot a samples of his behavior in different situations before I can draw a reliable map of who he is.”

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Posted in: Sciencing