The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”

18 04 2012

Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes Trial. (Credit: US Library of Congress)

The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, but it makes an important point.  Just because many people believe, assert, or convey something does not immediately graduate whatever they report to become scientifically-reliable or even scientifically-useful.

This is actually symptomatic of a larger cultural issue here in the US.  Frankly, the dichotomy of what people choose to believe when it comes to personal testimony versus hard, scientific data in our society amazes me.  -And not in a good way.

There are numerous instances where hard-and-fast data hasn’t convinced a jury (or social group) of the reality the data demonstrates, and conversely, there are numerous examples of personal testimony that would easily have a jury condemn a suspect to death that would never stand up under scientific peer-review.

The simple reality is that people at-large simply seem to trust one-another more than (or in spite of the lack of) the presence of verifiable, hard data.  With, in many instances, grave consequences.

So, how have we arrived here?

Science as the most successful “reality tool” ever invented

How can this be?  How, in a world so clearly affected, governed, and reliant on the fact that scientific inquiry is the most reliable means to establish what is real and what is not, is there so much skepticism toward data, science, and scientists?

  • Don’t believe me about the success of science?  Look at everything, from the performance of the thousands of controlled explosions under the hood of your car to the molecular processing running the electronics of the iPhone in your pocket.  From landing probes on other worlds to controlling nuclear reactions with finesse to generate power.  From predicting the behavior of atoms in a lab to predicting the astronomical curvature of light halfway across the universe – the simple fact is that science is the best tool to understand reality – discriminate what is real from what is not – ever conceived by humankind.  If scientific data or the scientific process were inherently unreliable, then these achievements would be plainly impossible.  We would simply not be able to master reality in the way that we have using the scientific method if it didn’t always work.  (Left to ourselves and our naturally-unscientific methods of investigating the world, we can come to believe that dances influence the weather.  That earthquakes are a result of hedonism.  That illness is a result of possession by evil spirits.  You see the point.)

To many, it seems that “data” is a mysterious, possibly corruptible thing; that magician-scientists are able to distort it to “prove” anything.  That’s not the worst of it.  It also seems that scientists themselves are often placed in a different camp from the rest: Unconvinced by tearful assertions or compelling testimony, they are seen as aloof, cold… inhuman, even.

This conception of the scientist is something I’d like to explore, and I think it all begins with a single statement:  None of us likes to believe that we, as humans, are as fallible as we are.  So, what makes a scientist different?

Scientists recognize that we, humans, are terrible scientific instruments.

We are.  We’re awful.  Primarily, our data-recording mechanism (memory) is inherently flawed, governed by perception, emotion, expectation, bias, and it changes over time.  Further, there’s no way to do a direct download from memory to verify what a person is saying is an accurate description of their memories… or worse, if what they say is even true at all.  We also make connections that simply aren’t there, unable to discriminate coincidence from cause-and-effect.

This is why scientists rely on instruments that are not corrupted by feelings, fear, or excitement.  The colder and more calculating the instrument, the better the data it collects and records.  Even with these technically “unbiased” instruments, scientists subject to these flaws are still in the loop, which is why all ultimately-respectable data and analysis is brought before a group of other scientists to review (peer-review) to help ensure that the scientist has not unwittingly corrupted his own data.

All this because humans are terrible scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, despite these rather damning flaws, non-scientists seem to believe that they (and other people) are, in effect, excellent scientific instruments.  Human testimony is amongst the most effective tools to convince a jury of peers.  With all respect, putting a hand on a holy book and conveying a sense of sincerity (even if manufactured) has a way of graduating the “data” a human being reports to a plateau above actual data that can be scientifically verified, ignoring the fact that memories can be wrong(!).

Further, the validity of scientific data is often secondary to whether or not the scientist delivering the data “seems” credible, ignoring the fact that the data and data collection process can be assessed on its own merits.

Quite a disconnect.

What can we do to rectify the disconnect?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a while, and aside from training everyone in society to be a scientist, (which not everyone wants to become,) the only solution I see is to improve public relations.  Science is essentially failing a PR war, one waged both intentionally and unintentionally by those unsettled by a purely clinical view of the universe.

We need help to convince people that scientists are specialists in understanding how to collect good data and how to effectively wield data to construct a reliable, useful view of the universe.

  • NOTE: We can choose to believe any view of the universe we please, but choosing for instance to believe that offering a sacrifice to Zeus every spring will keep floods at bay is not a reliable view of the universe.  It will still flood no matter if I make an offering or not.  I may, in turn, assert that Zeus is fickle as an explanation, but then my view becomes neither a reliable nor particularly useful one.

We need more scientist heroes in our social dialogue.  Instead of having scientists always be the “dangerous ones who have gone too far” in our films and television shows, they should be portrayed as they are – venturing into the unknown that terrifies many of us in order to help us all better understand and (ultimately) prosper in our universe.

Having “mad” scientists all-too-frequently portrayed as antagonists – heedless, obsessive, or impious –  breeds a deep-seated distrust of science that is propagating through the entire social mind.

The truth is, I believe the sooner people understand that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” – that even if millions of people believe in or even attest to something, (whether it be a flat Earth, astrology, UFOs-as-aliens, miracles, or that vaccines cause autism,) their cumulative belief doesn’t make their claims scientifically true or even scientifically useful – the sooner scientists will find the support they need for doing all the things we want to do: Cure cancer, create clean, powerful sources of energy, travel between stars, etc.

Food for thought!


Actions

Information

One response

6 07 2012
The Science of Chasing UFOs: “Alien Cowboys” – Nat Geo TV Blogs

[…] so much of the “evidence” we’re given to explore comes in the form of human testimony, which as I have previously stated is amongst the poorest forms of data available, I think it is perfectly reasonable to include human […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: