The Standing Invitation

We Are Bad At Science

with 2 comments

One of the problems scientists face in the lab is that human beings are really, really bad at science. There are fundamental mechanisms in the way we think that help us enormously in our everyday lives, but are the exact opposite of what a scientist needs to understand the world.

Let’s play a game.

I have a rule in my head that generates numbers, three at a time. What I’ll do is give you the first three numbers. You have to guess what the next three numbers generated by the rule will be. You will ask me “Are the next three numbers x, y, and z?” and I will say yes or no. And we can repeat this process as many times as you like until you feel you know what the rule is. The game ends when you tell me what you think the rule is, and I tell you if you’re right or wrong.

All set? Okay, let’s go.

The first three numbers are 2, 4, 6.

Which numbers do you think come next? Unfortunately we can’t play this live, but you might try it with a friend afterwards; in the meantime, I’ll provide a transcript of the time I played this game with my old friend Clint.

The SI: “The first three numbers are 2, 4, 6.”

Clint: “Are the next three numbers 8, 10, 12?”

The SI: “Yes.”

Clint: “Are the next three numbers 14, 16, 18?”

The SI: “Yes.”

Clint: “Then 20, 22, 24, 26, 28…”

The SI: “Yes, to all.”

Clint: “Okay, then I know what the rule is. The rule is, generate the  next number by adding 2 to the last one. That’s it, right?”

Actually, it doesn’t matter. Clint might well be right: his theory does account for all the observed data, and has successfully predicted future results. But he has approached the problem in completely the wrong way. Yes, the n+2 rule is a viable one. But so is “the numbers always go up”. If that had been the rule, then if Clint had gone on to ask “29, 30, 31”, he would have been correct; but Clint didn’t ask that. Most people don’t.

What Clint did ­– what most people do – is come up with a theory and seek confirmation. This is a good rule of thumb that works most of the time, but it is fragile and dangerous because it can lead you in the wrong direction. You might go a considerable distance, wasting time and precious resources, before realising you’ve had it wrong all along.

The correct way to approach the problem, indeed all problems in science, is to seek disconfirmation. You have an idea: how do you prove it wrong? What are the minimum standards of scrutiny to which your theory must be subjected? What wringer can you put it through to see if it comes out unharmed?

This is how science is done, but it is not a natural way of thinking: our brains just aren’t wired up to work in this way. We try our best, but often get fooled; and if you take it out of the context of a lab and present it as just a game about numbers, it’s amazing to see how badly we fare.


Taleb, The Black Swan


Written by The S I

September 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I remember you doing that one on me. Bad S I!

    The Futility Monster

    September 16, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    • Actually I’m hoping there are any people at all reading this to whom I’ve not already done it…

      The S I

      September 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm

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