In “Does trusting your gut make you unscientific?” (New Scientist, 13 April 2012), astrophysics postdoc Andrew Pontzen reflects,
I’ve been popping up at a few science festivals recently, discussing the evidence for dark matter with particle physicist Tom Whyntie. After a session at Cambridge Science Festival, UK, a man in a duffle coat approached me to explain that Einstein was wrong – that the universe is not, in fact, expanding. (Actually, a static universe would have pleased Einstein greatly, but that’s beside the point.) As evidence, he tried to give me his book on reinterpreting the redshift of galaxies. When I politely refused, he accused me of being “unscientific”.
The implication is that being “scientific” means completely digesting and testing every idea before deciding whether it’s right or wrong. But sometimes we have to make fast decisions based on prejudice, or we’ll never get anything done. Is that OK, or does it fundamentally undermine what we’re trying to achieve?
He offers some thoughts on Bayesianism as it relates to the faster-than-light neutrinos (which weren’t).
Most scientists are wise to trust their gut at least some of the time. Here’s another example, one that should happen more often. The scientist reads a journal article claiming findings that are just exactly what popular opinion might expect. (Or, on some subjects perhaps, just exactly what elite opinion might expect.) And it keeps happening again and again. No challenges, no surprises. No pesky bits of contrarian data.
Yes, that’s right, I am thinking of Diedrik Stapel, the disgraced Dutch researcher whose social psychology research confirmed a good many prejudices within his discipline. Other researchers at first accepted what he had made up for precisely that reason. And he wasn’t alone.
I don’t know if Bayesianism can help here; sometimes what is needed is intuition, the kind that comes with experience: If data is picture perfect, maybe that’s what it is, a picture. And a frame.
Curiously, there’s an application for this approach in the arts as well. Recently, a number of autobiographies on the market have turned out to be fictional. A red flag is that they are not only fictional but stereotypical. Full of characters you would meet in a sociologist’s textbook or an activist’s bid for media coverage. Or in soap operas. Or anywhere but on the street.
Sensitive critics began to get suspicious, in many cases. That’s intuition at work. The moment one finds oneself asking, “Could this really be true?” is not usually the moment one has the evidence that it isn’t. It’s the moment when one should feel free to articulate one’s doubts, at least to oneself. Work with the doubts until they can be expressed in a logical and rational manner.
Doubts that can be clearly framed can be researched. That’s where the orthodox methods of science (or investigation in general) are essential. But many doubts must begin as intuitions that something is wrong; there isn’t really any other way to go about it.
If that feels too subjective for some people, they had best prepare themselves to be hoaxed a lot.
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