"Most scientists look for the truth but some believe in human caused climate change just for the funds"
It has been a long time since I read the above statement here at Newsvine. I restrained myself from the instinctive counter attack - but what's left is a straw man because I forgot the source and even the original quote. I resigned in the face of overwhelming ignorance. But since it's a disturbingly typical statement of the blogosphere it does serve for kicking off my second Let's get smarter here article (first one being Let's get smarter here: Reason not faith, please).
Why is the statement so offensive then? First, scientists don't really "look for truth". They observe for significance. And links significant observations with plausible explanations. Second, they don't really believe in theories. They trust theories to some extent; i.e. expressed as levels of confidence.
In fact, does truth even exist? Isn't it just a fantasy!? But enough about my "war on climate change denial". Won't touch Creationism either. I promise I will criticize myself only in this philosophy of science rant. And journalism/blogging in general. Obviously, news reporting in whatever form is less demanding than science. But to some extent it has the same issues with truth science does. Especially when reporting about scientific events.
What is truth?
I discussed truth in my first article. In order to not contradict myself too blatantly (and to help you move along without reading too much extra stuff) here is the quick version: truth is one of the philosophical requirements for something to be regarded as knowledge. Agreed upon criteria for validating a theory with empirical observation. Also, in our concept of science lies truth besides objectivity and applicability. But none of these are ultimate goals - more like stellar navigation points.
To sum it all up, how about a fancy quote...
...meaning "truth is the agreement between the thing and the intellect". Ironically it was said by medieval monk Thomas Aquinas
[Wikipedia]. Fortunately, we don't need to get more fancy than that. Philosophical discussions on the precise meaning of "truth" are out there for you if you want them.
In traditional news event reporting truth nearly exist. Example: Bush went to Iraq and had a shoe thrown at him. That's probably true since we've all seen the taped evidence. But as soon as it gets more complicated than that it starts getting difficult. The Iraq war on Fox isn't the same war they report from on CNN. The news events are wrapped up in little stories that makes sense to the respective audiences.
Climate change is happening right now to most people, media and scientists. But still articles and documentaries appear every now and then that says it isn't happening. Typically the journalist busts his brain trying to understand some research project, then blow this information out of proportion by reporting about it with little regard to all the other research being conducted in the field let alone the decades of research already having been undertaken in it. Or in the spirit of always presenting "both sides of the story" whatever nutcase ready for ridicule gets plenty of space.
And it's gonna stay out there.
What is significance?
Interestingly, philosophers don't like talking about significance too much. To statisticians it's a kind of tool. In short it means "an observation worth noting".
One exercise from my statistics class is particularly clear to me for some reason: Plunder of Great Crested Grebe nests. The Great Crested Grebe (lat: Podiceps cristatus, [Wikipedia]) is a water bird whose nests are raided for eggs by crows and others. A research project takes a look at many nests measuring a) how dense the vegetation (Juncus [Wikipedia]) surrounding the nest is and b) if the nest has had an unwelcome visit or not.
Each type of observation varies in its own way. The variation in vegetation density is easy to imagine. Some places there are many straws, other places there are few. Some nests are looted, others are not. The hypothesis of the researcher is that Great Crested Grebes seek out dense vegetation to protect their nests by obfuscation.
The null hypothesis is there is no correlation. Each variable unfolds itself according to its probability distribution - a mathematical formula describing extremities and averages of values, which in the case of Juncus density is approximately 10 to 100, averaging 65, straws per square meter.
At straw densities above 90 per square meter the ratio of raided nests drops quite obviously (from about 4 in 5 to about half). That's not a "truth", however. First the statisticians have to test if the observation in question is likely to happen given the probability distributions of the underlying variables. If it turns out to be likely, well then there probably is nothing to see there, move along.
These tests also includes a look at the number of measurements - small sample unreliability is handled by formulas. The probability of only about half of the nests having been raided is only about 2.5% (1 in 40) in this case and the scientist decides he's on to something. Some rule of thumb says if the observation has a probability of less than 5% then it's significant. What glorious rule. Luckily a lot of research deals with observations much, much more rare than that.
Significance + reason = truth?
That was Aquinas' thing. So let's add reason. Reason is the hypothesis; that Great Crested Grebes seek out dense vegetation to hide their nests from crows. Isn't that a stretch? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to say something like "hidden nests are harder to find"?
It would. But there is another widely accepted (to say the least) theory which has to do with habits of animals, selection pressure etc. Add that to the recipe and see what you get. Remember theories have to integrate neatly with existing related knowledge.
The more science you read, the more probability distributions you will see. Precise facts just keeps disappearing. For years I'd been reading about how atom [Wikipedia] nuclei are circled by electrons each in a certain distance measured in Ångström. But that is a simplification; from the Wikipedia article:
This behavior is defined by an atomic orbital, a mathematical function that characterises the probability that an electron will appear to be at a particular location when its position is measured.
Nuclear physicists don't know where the electrons are. They just have a pretty good idea. They know the fraction of electrons in extreme positions, they have pretty good ideas about what atoms with electrons in extreme positions could do, if that process would be immediately reversible etc. They can predict with extreme precision how many grams of chemical Z is produced by adding x grams of chemical X to y grams of chemical Y.
Self-bashing: Ecowar truth levels
As I said earlier "news events are wrapped up in little stories that makes sense to the respective audiences". Journalists have to do this in order to get any readership. In blogging even more so. A lot of bloggers appear to be doing a project of confirming their own ideas. (A grotesque example forced me to output this article that has actually existed inside my head in raw form for quite a while.)
But am I any better myself? At one time I was accused of "just trying to prove the world is going to blow up because of America" or something very similar by another Newsviner. Am I?
My November 23 "All wars are fought over natural resources" summed up on my past 1½ years of blogging about the correlation between the presence of natural resources and the risk of violence. But have I just been googling for news to confirm my hypothesis?
How about all the wars that are never going to show up when googling "war AND ecology"? One little war was fought over a football game - that's certainly not in agreement with the sweeping statement that "all wars are fought over natural resources". And what about those news stories that go directly against the theory?
Well, one story comes to mind immediately: July 2007 Good news: Barn Owls Unite Israelis, Jordanians. The automatic searches I set up (and my semi-conscious attitude in what I look for) caught this one. Stories that go against the proposed correlation is caught too because search terms describing the axises are direction neutral. So far so good. Besides, if you'd read my stuff you'd know "my theory" isn't as simple as just "all wars are fought over natural resources". It's more like "natural resources are an important factor in conflict". Actually, in face of a resource conflict, there is always the choice of cooperation. I could try and construct a good search expression catching more examples of that.
In the comments to "All wars are fought over natural resources" other mechanisms are proposed - i.e. politics and military strategy was thrown into the mix by Rella. I should probably consider some search engine bots that include other known causes for war besides my existing Ecowar ones. To at least get some additional perspective. But one of my points is also that natural resources as the cause for war is a taboo. "OIL" - Operation Iraqi Liberation aka the UN resolution violating invasion of Iraq - is a great example as so many lame excuses were brought up to excuse it. Similarly water is a great taboo in the Palestine-Israel conflict. So, any exposure of "ecowars" are interesting, significant amounts or not.
- No, you don't have the truth. The truth is out there.
- Actively look out for information to challenge your ideas.
Example: Your entire Newsvine column is based on a weekly Google News Alert searching for "evil brewing in Iran" you probably should stay updated on Iran and evil in general plus add a couple counter-directional searches. Like "happy Iranians" or something like that. Just a suggestion.