Last night, at a Vietnamese restaurant, I had an avocado shake for dessert. On the way home I stopped at a Chinese bakery and got garlic pork cookies. Had science, like cooking, been invented more than once, what would other scientific traditions — other ways of doing science — look like? My guess is they would not include:
1. Treating results with p = 0.04 quite differently than results with p = 0.06. Use of an arbitrary dividing line (p = 0.05) makes little sense.
2. Departments of Statistics. Departments of Scientific Tools, yes; but to put all one’s resources into figuring out how to analyze data and none into figuring out how to collect it is unwise. The misallocation is even worse because most of the effort in a statistics department goes into figuring out how to test ideas; little goes into figuring out how to generate ideas. In other words, almost all the resources go toward solving one-quarter of the problem.
3. Passive acceptance of a negative bias. The average scientist thinks it is better to be negative (”skeptical”) than positive when reacting to other people’s work. What is the positive equivalent of skeptical — a word that means appreciative in a “good” way? (Just as skeptical means disbelieving in a “good” way.) There isn’t one. However, there’s gullible, further showing the bias. Is there a word that means too skeptical, just as gullible means too accepting? Nope. The overall negative bias is (male) human nature, I believe; it’s the absence of attempts to overcome the bias that is cultural. I used to subscribe to the newsletter of the Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). I stopped after I read an article about selenium that had been prompted by a new study showing that selenium supplements reduced the rate of some cancer (skin cancer?). In the newsletter article, someone at CSPI pointed out some flaws in the study. Other data supported the idea that selenium reduces cancer (and showed that the supposed flaws didn’t matter), but that was never mentioned; the new study was discussed as if it were the only one. Apparently the CSPI expert didn’t know about the other data and couldn’t be bothered to find out. And the CSPI writer saw nothing wrong with that. Yet that’s the essence of figuring out what’s good about a study: Figuring out what it adds to previous work.
My earlier post about another bit of scientific culture: the claim that “correlation does not equal causation.”