Posted tagged ‘trust’

Is that right? How do we know?

September 24, 2011

Yesterday a story suggesting that “Einstein may be wrong” hit the headlines. Apparently scientists at CERN have done some experiments whose results can only be explained by relativity theory being incorrect. Or by their experiments/interpretation/understanding of results being incorrect/flawed. But they’ve repeated the experiments many times and now they don’t know what to make of it all.

Presumably, being world-class scientists employed at a reputable institution, they’ve tried to find every other possible explanation apart from the one now hitting the headlines, and this is why they’ve opened their results up for debate by the wider community. Saying that one of the kings of physics may have been wrong is one thing, but contradicting a theory that explains almost all that we “understand” of physics is another. Apart from anything else, how embarrassing if they are wrong!

Some people have suggested that of course the CERN scientists must be wrong. But this is hardly a scientific viewpoint, rather, to me, it smacks of the kind of inviolable faith that we see normally in religion; belief despite the evidence or lack of it. I’m not going to talk about science and religion today except to say that when discussing science we should look at it in a scientific way, not a faith-based one.

I certainly don’t know if the experiments concerned are flawed or not, and I never really understood relativity theory anyway. But part of me hopes that their findings cannot be explained by using current theories, and that this is not due to any flaws. After all, this is how theories are improved and science is advanced.

When I was in school, I learned that scientific method consists of first observing, and recording accurately what you observe. You must then try to make inferences about what is occuring based on your observations and then form a hypothesis which can be tested. If your hypothesis stands up to experiment then your theory can be considered adequate, until a new set of observations which do not fit with the theory. Therefore, I’d argue that the only ways in which you can be wrong in science is to incorrectly record something or to hold blindly to a theory which does not fit the observed results.

This discussion is also pertinent to a group of Italian vulcanologists currently being sued for negligence because they failed to correctly predict a catastrophic event in which people died. If you think about it, they are being sued because their theory was incorrect. But if it was based on the best available evidence at the time, then how is this fair? They were surely only negligent if they failed to take into account information that could have been relevant and even then, it would have to have been evident to a third-party expert that the information was relevant as it’s often necessary to exclude outliers and noise in order to formulate an initial theory effectively.

It seems that people expect science to provide black and white answers, whereas in fact all we can ever do is give our best current opinion based on the available evidence. It may be that this fact is not adequately conveyed to the public, in schools, etc. Learning science is not like history, where you learn a set of known events and dates, nor like a language, in which lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules can be learned, along with the exceptions to those rules. Rather it is a way of thinking and understanding things.

Who do you trust? And why?

March 21, 2011

“In God we trust”, or so they say. Nice, if you truly believe that there is some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful being out there who has your best interests at heart, and who can send you signs telling you what is going on. If you don’t believe any of this (and I don’t), then who can you trust? And where can you go to get information that you know is accurate?

Not this blog, that’s for sure.

Not that I would intentionally lie to you, I want to make that clear. But this blog gives my opinion, and those of others who comment on it. Some of this will be backed up by fact. But if you want real, true, hard facts, a blog is the wrong place to go looking for them.

Ok, so you don’t go to a blog. But maybe you look for the answer on the internet? Use a famous search engine or ask a question in a forum. Maybe you look up the answer in a book, or ask a friend. You could ask a teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a scientist or other expert, depending on what your question is about. You could watch a TV programme about it. Or stop someone on the street and ask them.

What I am trying to get at is that obviously there are very many places you could go to get answers to your question. Some of these are probably more trustworthy that others – would you take the answer given to you by a passer-by over that of a teacher? Probably not. But most people would tend to believe their friend over a random stranger. Even if, unbeknownst to them, the random stranger might actually be a top expert in that very subject, whereas their drinking pal is not. It’s probably human nature, we spend time with people we like, we trust them more. We surround ourselves with people who we like and who have similar backgrounds, training, and beliefs to ourselves. And we trust these people over strangers. Which in the end means we trust our own judgement over that of others.

I’ve had countless conversations about various “non-scientific” groups such as climate change deniers and religious groups. Some members of these groups claim that belief is more important than what you can tell from the evidence. This is an inherently unscientific claim as all good scientists know that your hypothesis must be testable and you arrive at it by making educated guesses (inferences) based on your observations. If there is no evidence there is no  inference and no hypothesis to test. But it is not necessarily wrong – there may be things happening in the world for which we (currently) have no reliable evidence. Personally though, I would tend to regard ideas for which there is evidence as being more likely to be correct than beliefs for which there is no evidence.  

Another important side of this is whether you can or should believe someone when they tell you something. Governments tell their people something and expect them to believe and obey – like the Japanese government right now telling the people it is all safe and not to panic. Advertisers tell you that their product is best. Scientists tell you not to believe in ghosts. Your doctor tells you to cut down on fat. Your friend tells you it’s all a big consipracy and not to believe any of them. So who do you believe, and why?

Some people or agencies have earned our respect previously, by doing good work or by making pronouncements that have subsequently been proven to be truthful (particular charities). Some have a more mixed history (governments). Some we just want to believe because the alternative is too awful (climate change deniers).

As a scientist I want to engender trust in science and other scientists. I believe that, in general, what is peer-reviewed and published represents the best of our knowledge about a subject. (I say in general because, as many of us know, peer review and publication do not guarantee trustworthiness – think cold fusion, etc). I put my trust in the community-based checking mechanisms that ensure that only the truth is put out there. If I see a news story about science, I ask “where has this come from, where are the papers published?” and until I know the answer, I reserve judgement. Well mainly, anyway. As a human, if I see a story I want to believe, and think is likely, I will probably believe it anyway, especially if it comes from a source I trust. Except the BBC on April Fool’s Day.