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Thu, 25 Nov 2004

Knowledge


If you ever take part in a discussion that has to do with human discoveries, is good to start off by getting all parties to agree on some of the basic principles of knowledge. This is a vast subject, but I'm going to try to deal with one important aspect here.

First of all, let us agree that science is a tool. Science is conducted through systematic observation, and ultimately lets us predict what will happen as a result of something else happening. But even this is not necessarily straight forward. Anyone conducting an experiment might affect the result in some subtle, yet significant, way. Therefore, one very important aspect of science is the practice of replication and verification. People are imperfect and are rarely able to be completely objective, so something must be done to make up for people's imperfections.

For the sake of argument, let us consider an imaginary scientist, Dr. F. The good Dr. F believes he has found that shaving off all bodily hair reduces the chance of contracting cancer. He has worked for 3 years on his hypothesis, and has published an article in Nature describing exactly how he verified his hypothesis, and nobody can see anything wrong. So, has Dr. F made a discovery that will save lives?

Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. First of all, Dr. F has a vested interest in the result. If the results are correct, Dr. F stands to earn a lot of fame, and perhaps even a substantial fortune. There are also psychological factors at play. Dr. F has spent several years of his life working on his hypothesis, and that's not something anyone can give up easily.

Before the results can be accepted, they must be replicated and verified by someone else. So now that Dr. F has published his article, one or more teams will start working to verify Dr. F's hypothesis, following the method he described. If they get the same results, things are beginning to look good for a lot of people, and Dr. F will probably be very happy and very proud. If they don't, Dr. F needs to go back to the drawing board.

When in this process can we actually agree to have gained knowledge about something? Most people will agree that we haven't really learned anything before Dr. F's work has been replicated by one or more other teams without vested interests. In the real world it is perhaps not that simple. What if Dr. F is really convincing? What if Dr. F starts selling a product, claiming it is based on a theory published in Nature? How many consumers are willing to display disagreement with Dr. F, who has outstanding credentials and has even had an article published in Nature?

Do you agree or disagree with the above? If you disagree, I'd very much like to hear your reasoning and arguments. Alternatively I'd be very interested if you direct me to information explaining another view. Please contact me on ketil@froyn.name. (Note: I have an autoresponder to avoid spam, just send a blank reply to the automatic response you get.)

-ketil



posted at: 04:33 | path: | permanent link to this entry