Thursday, December 30, 2004


Truth and the New Year

The best part of the scientific endeavor is that we get to spend our time trying to understand the world as it is, not as we want it to be or hope that it is. The most useful tool in pursuing this understanding is hypothesis-driven experimentation: make a guess about the way the world is, design an experiment to test the guess, and see what it tells you. The results of the experiment credit or discredit your guess, so you refine your hypothesis and design further experiments to expand your understanding and help you build a model you can use to gain insight into some feature of the natural world. If that feature is truly interesting, the model will always be under development and will never be complete.

I write this is not to fetishize experimentation, or to validate all forms of it, but as a realization of the limits of experimentation, which implies that true understanding is hard to come by in most endeavors. This applies to biological phenomenae, like evolution or animal behavior, where experimentation is difficult if not impossible and guesswork often prevails over true understanding. It also applies to social phenomenae like politics, economics, and human relations, where experimentation can unduly influence the phenomenon under study, or is ethically suspect.

From time to time, circumstances provide us with naturally controlled experiments that help us examine complex phenomenae, like identical twins separated at birth, speciation on remote islands or US foreign policy toward the Kurds in Turkey (a NATO ally) and Iraq (an official enemy) during the 1990s.

But enough of that. If I bite the dust in the coming year, someone please read this and put the following on my tombstone:

I loved the world, so I tried to understand it.

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