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Posts Tagged ‘the scientific method’

I recently saw this comic from Twisted Doodles, which I think poses quite a conundrum for our usual simple picture of how science is studied and brought forth into the public:

From http://www.twisteddoodles.com/post/86414780702/working-in-science – used in this post with permission

From Twisted Doodles. Used in this post with permission.

If you are a non-scientist reading this blog, your idea of what science is for, and what it’s good for, is probably something like the left column – and in fact, I hope it is! But as someone who works day-to-day on understanding LHC data, I have a lot of sympathy with the right column. So how can they be reconciled?

Science takes hard work from a lot of people, and it’s an open process. Its ultimate goal is to produce a big picture understanding of a wide range of phenomena, which is what you’re reading about when you think all the good thoughts in the left-hand column. But that big picture is made of lots of individual pieces of work. For example, my colleagues and I worked for months and months on searching for the Higgs boson decaying to bottom quarks. We saw more bottom quarks than you would expect if the Higgs boson weren’t there, but not enough that we could be sure that we had seen any extra. So if you asked me, as an analyzer of detector data, if the Higgs boson existed, all I could say would be, “Well, we have a modest excess in this decay channel.” I might also have said, while I was working on it, “Wow, I’m tired, and I have lots of bugs in my code that still need to be fixed!” That’s the right-hand column.

The gap is bridged by something that’s sometimes called the scientific consensus, in which we put together all the analyses and conclude something like, “Yes, we found a Higgs boson!” There isn’t a single paper that proves it. Whatever our results, the fact that we’re sure we found something comes from the fact that ATLAS and CMS have independently produced the same discovery. The many bits of hard work come together to build a composite picture that we all agree on; the exhausted trees step back to take a broader perspective and see the happy forest.

So which is right? Both are, but not in the same way. The very specific results of individual papers don’t change unless there’s a mistake in them. But the way they’re interpreted can change over time; where once physicists were excited and puzzled by the discovery of new mesons, now we know they’re “just” different ways of putting quarks together.

So we expect the scientific consensus to change, it’s definitely not infallible, and any part of it can be challenged by new discoveries. But you might find that scientists like me are a bit impatient with casual, uninformed challenges to that consensus — it’s based, after all, on a lot of experts thinking and talking about all the evidence available. At the same time, scientific consensus can sometimes be muddled, and newspapers often present the latest tree as a whole new forest. Whether you are a scientist, or just read about science, keep in mind the difference between the forest and the trees. Try to understand which you’re reading about. And remember, ultimately, that the process of doing science is all the things in that comic, all at once.

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It’s sort of a recurring theme for me, but a recent Washington Post article on the BICEP2 result, among others, has me wanting to repeat the idea, and keep it short and sweet:

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 8.15.54 PM

The issue at hand is whether BICEP2 has really observed the remnants of cosmic inflation, or if in fact they have misinterpreted their results or made a mistake in the corrections to their measurement. It’s frustrating that the normal process of the scientific method – that is, other experts reviewing a result, trying to reproduce it, and looking for holes – is being dramatized as “backlash.” But let’s not worry today about whether we can ever stop the “science news cycle” from being over-sensationalized, because we probably can’t. You and I can still remember a few simple things about science:

1. If scientists think they’ve found something, they should publish it. They should say what they think it means, even if they might be wrong.
2. Other researchers try to replicate the result, or find flaws with it. If flaws are found or it can’t be reproduced, the original scientists have to go back and figure out what’s going on. If other researchers find the same thing, it’s probably right. If lots of other researchers find the same thing, we can agree it’s almost certainly right and move on to the next level of questions.
3. Science makes progress when you say what you know and the certainty with which you know it. If everything you say is always right, you might be being too timid and delaying the process of other researchers building on your results!

But I think Big Bird says it best of all:

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The Scientific Method (Poster)

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Here are a couple of posters that summarize my ideas on the scientific method. Please feel free to download them and put on your wall. As the first poster shows, the scientific method is indeed simple.

scientific method poster

PDF for the first poster available here.

SMB

PDF for the second poster available here.

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