Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tackling Human Biases in Science

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea. Psychologists have shown that “most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,” he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our “explanation” of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do—or to believe—anyway. Science is of course meant to be more objective and skeptical than everyday thought—but how much is it, really? Whereas the falsification model of the scientific method championed by philosopher Karl Popper posits that the scientist looks for ways to test and falsify her theories—to ask “How am I wrong?”—Nosek says that scientists usually ask instead “How am I right?” (or equally, to ask “How are you wrong?”). When facts come up that suggest we might, in fact, not be right after all, we are inclined to dismiss them as irrelevant, if not indeed mistaken. The now infamous “cold fusion” episode in the late 1980s, instigated by the electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, was full of such ad hoc brush-offs. For example, when it was pointed out to Fleischmann and Pons that their energy spectrum of the gamma rays from their claimed fusion reaction had its spike at the wrong energy, they simply moved it, muttering something ambiguous about calibration. more

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