Friends say they can’t believe they are reading this:
One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.
None of this gets through to the news pages. When pitching a science story to a news editor, a science correspondent soon learns that the answer that gets airtime is either “yes”, or “no”. Either the Voyager space probe has left the solar system, or it hasn’t. To say that it might have done and attach statistical caveats is a guaranteed turn-off. Nobody ever got column inches by saying that Elvis has a 95% probability of having left the building.
Why do we (it’s the royal we this time, do please try to keep up at the back) demand such definitive truths of science, but are happy to have all other spheres of human activity wallow in mess and muddle?
I think it goes back to the mid-20th century, especially just after the second world war, when scientists – they were called “boffins” – gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. …
from a senior editor at Nature. Some early commenters don’t sound as though they even understand, but what would you expect?