Monday, July 16, 2007

In our ivory towers

You know, one common attack I hear about us scientists (yes, I am one, albeit a computer scientist) live in Ivory Towers. We are told how we look down on others from above, about how arrogant we are, and of course how wrong we are about so many other things that everybody else just "knows" is true, such as belief in god. This is exactly why we choose to live high above.

How many of you reading this have a specialized job, such as in electronics, auto mechanics, something of that nature. Have you ever had to argue something with someone who is not in your field about something you've done 1,000 times before? For instance, do you think I want to sit and debate the impact of quantum computing with someone who's a short order cook? I study quantum computing, so any opinion put forth on the technical merits of such a field by someone outside of the field has no value to me; what does the cook know about quantum computing that I don't?

This is also true for critical thinking; some of us can think critically. We take skeptical approaches, we study, we observe, we gather data and analyze results. If we find that the claim has merit, we can begin to explore further, since this whole process adds knowledge to what we already know (knowledge creation, look it up). We question everything because WE WANT THE TRUTH! Belief systems have no place in science; as I've said before, you can believe all you want, doesn't make it so. It is also why even after we do all of that work, we still submit our findings for peer review (look that up too). Something which is not peer reviewed, such as the creationists new "academic journal" (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!), has no value.

How many of you read in high school about the study with flatworms and "eating knowledge". A study was conducted whereby flatworms were exposed to light and an electric shock at the same time; what happened was Pavlovian in that the worms would associate light with an electric shock and would respond as such, even when no shock was administered.

The worms were then ground up and fed to other flatworms; the results? These worms associated the light with a shock much more quickly...or so the researcher said...

What really happened? Researcher bias. The researcher was so convinced that this would work, that he actually believed it did. In reality, the worms likely responded the same way over the same period of time, which was evident after this was reproduced by other researchers in a proper manner. We often talk about double blind tests; in this scenario, we control for the placebo effect and researcher bias. A simple single blind test would have been sufficient I believe (and likely the only logical one possible); in this scenario, there would be two sets of worms, one fed the ground up set of worms and the other not fed them. The researcher would not know which group was fed the ground up worms and would be expected to record the amount of time it took for each group to learn to associate light with the shock. Of course one experiment isn't enough, you need hundreds if not thousands to even begin to find causality.

So what am I getting at? At the level of education researcher have, we know quite a bit about how to think, analyze, and draw conclusions. It is hard to deal with people who have little if any education who want to argue with us about things which we know are simply flawed in their logic. Religion is ripe with flawed logic, inconsistencies, and of course die hard supporters of nonsense. This is why we live in ivory towers; to avoid the peons.

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