Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The scientific method: from intuition to data and back

This is an article in the Globe and Mail that struck a cord with me, "Ten years that shook, rattled, rolled and helped repair the world" by Doug Saunders. If you do not have the time to read the full article, you can click on this shortened version with most of the salient points summarized in a concept map structure (make sure to click on it to see the bigger version so that you can actually read the text ;-):

This article provides a very nice example of the 10th Cottenie Commandment: Thou Shalt Listen to thy Intuition, but Follow the Data. Intuition is a very powerful (human?) tool. We all know this (all my better ideas arrive to me magically on my bike ride home), and research actually shows this (see the articles references by;Ap Dijksterhuis, e.g, his 2006 Science article). We seem to be hardwired to find solutions to problems, even (and sometimes especially) without thinking about them. However, we should always check whether our intuition is correct, with new data, in whatever form it comes: observations, models, experiments, etc. The scientific method is nothing else than a formalization of this process: the hypothesis and prediction are a formal representation of your intuition on what causes a certain problem or question, and all the tests are formal ways to obtain new data. I think this explains partly the power of the scientific method as a way of explaining phenomena: it is actually a very natural way to approach a problem.

The article by Doug Saunders implicitly uses this method, by starting the article and each subsection with the intuitive notion of the common consensus on how the world would progress, and it follows this by the actual data 10 years later. The very short version of his analysis: if you look at socio-economical benchmarks, the world improved substantially in the last 10 years. Surprisingly, I also think that the main point that D. Saunders failed to cover, and it is a huge one, is the deteriorating environment in the last 10 years. I think that all the indicators would show a decline in the environment (anybody has any references for this statement?).

So the main question for the next 10 years is whether these socio-political improvements are going to be sustainable. Very hard to predict. What is your intuition?

1 comment:

  1. Since it seems ok to have some public celebration through self-enhancement while at the same time avoiding shameless bragging (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/06/st_essay_tweet/), this seems to be a very thin line. Therefore, not an entire blog post, but just a note in the comment. Doug Saunders himself (I assume alerted through a google alert) blogged about my post about his article: http://dougsaunders.net/2010/07/decade-missed-special-data-map-edition/
    Instead of pointing out the shameless bragging quote in his text, I extract the public celebration quote: " the map itself offers what might be a much clearer method to explain my point" (see also the 7th commandment).
    While I, again, agree with most of his points on the difference between scientific and journalistic writing, I think that by not including the environmental impact, he might have chiseled away the base of the reclining seal statue.