Monday, August 31, 2009

Doggerel #192: "Go Look at [Woo]'s Research Yourself!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Smart people can do dumb things, and dumb people can do smart things. It's natural that a person's intellectual output have both highlights and folly. Just because a scientist backed the wrong horse or accidentally misinterpreted his data once is no reason to diminish his successes. Thus, it's perfectly understandable for a fan of someone's work to ask us not to judge an individual or a field of study by one paper.

That is, however, the starting point for this doggerel. I haven't, for example, read all of the research done on parapsychology. I've read a fair sample of poorly done studies on the matter, and have yet to see one that wasn't worthy of a thorough fisking. But I will openly admit it's possible that there are some good parapsychology papers out there with positive results.

Of course, I find that highly improbable because I would expect these hypothetical good studies to be well advertised by my online adversaries. With deep science fields like biology, we could do the same, though we might get hung up on which of the thousands of studies to point to for a bit. Since, however, many "woo" fields of science are chronically described as being in their infancy, I would think experiments demonstrating fundamental observations would be easy to sift for. If we're talking about a particular "luminary" in such a field, it should be that much easier to locate just one such good study.

I seldom see any such response. As I think about it, in most cases, I suspect it's innocent doggerel: The advocate doesn't know the nitty gritty of science and thus doesn't know what will satisfy us, so they leave a broad response, asking us to sift through a large bulk. Of course, this means we'd have to spend more time going over someone's career or looking for needles in what our pattern recognition tells us is merely a haystack. If you're one of these people who has been directed here, I would encourage you to talk to skeptics about the philosophy of science, in hopes that you learn why we require certain rigorous standards. Once you have a good idea of what we mean by skepticism and science, you'll be better equipped to understand our point of view on the subject, and know what it will take to get us to change our minds.

More cynically, there are many trolls out there who adopt this as a stalling tactic: No matter how many studies we can form legitimate criticism for, they can always say we're just attacking the low-hanging fruit, while providing us with no good examples of high-hanging fruit to expedite the process. My skeptical friends and I would love to be proven wrong. If any of the various forces claimed by psychics, alternative medicine advocates, amateur physicists, etcetera, were true, that would make the universe that much more fascinating to learn about, as well as providing us with more means of helping others enjoy their lives. The frustration I felt from this stalling was one of the things that made me sympathize with the skeptics and eventually join them as I learned more about science and its underlying philosophy.

So, if you know of any good-looking research, bring it up right away. We've grown tired and impatient with so many unnecessary delays. We want to be proven wrong, but we don't simply allow our hopes to run wild. Like everything in science, you have to work hard to earn the ability to say, "I was right."

1 comment:

Yakaru said...

What always gets me is how they often link to a study which shows the complete opposite of what they claim it says. I don't know why they do that.