A simple question

December 1, 2008

One of the…conceits? tropes? myths? facts? benefits? poorly realized aspirations? of the scientist has been perplexing me today whilst skirmishing elsewhere. In theory, science is all about the unknown outcome and empiricism. We start an experiment, test or inquiry as a blank slate. Sure, we advance hypotheses but we are not supposed to attach undue valence to them with respect to the null hypothesis or any other hypothesis.
It should make no difference to our psyche if we are right or if we are wrong about our predictions.
Are you able to do this? There are many areas in which I interact with people who express absolute certainty that they are right and simply will not exhibit any evidence that they maintain doubt. Any fractional representation for the alternate hypothesis. Politics for sure. Other stupid or minor issues. Economics, LOL!
It is usually my conceit that scientists are better because they are able to think in probabilities. To maintain a slight tendril of thought that they might be WRONG and that would be perfectly OK. In theory this makes us dispassionate evaluators of the evidence, does it not? A necessary Good for the advance of science. Obsessive certainty, and especially the refusal to entertain alternate hypotheses sets off alarm bells for me. Especially when expressed by otherwise rational people.
I suppose it is why I am so unimpressed by authoritah! Even in those areas where I am supposed to be expert, I can be wrong about some prediction or other just about every day of the week in the lab or reading the literature. I’m okay with that. Are you okay with putting the empirical outcome above your hypothesis? Really?
When it comes to opposing interpretations of the data, where is the line to be drawn? When are interpretations to be aired, rebutted or debated and when are they so…..bad….as to require shunning? Prevention of the idea from reaching public view?
Where in the probability space of potential truths do we bring down the jackboot?

Field studies of primates in their natural and semi-natural habitats have resulted in fantastic public communication about the lives and behavior of charismatic species most people will only ever experience briefly in zoos. If that. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Frans de Waal….these are familiar names to many with even a passing interest in the fauna of the natural world.
Today I would like to encourage you to read Behind the Stick which is a new blog by a penetrating observer of the habits of one of the more charismatic primates.

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