Things I wish President Obama Knew part 3
Know your Limits
Judy walked right up to the edge. And then it hit her. “Wow, that’s a long way to fall.” She began fidgeting nervously and inched her way back from the precipice. Right then two boys came running down the trail. The older of the two slipped on the rain-soaked wood and slid off, just grasping the fencepost as his feet dangled over infinity. No one but Judy saw the boys and, as soon as the elder boy pulled himself back onto the trail, they ran off laughing. “Don’t they know how close they came to a tragedy?” she thought. “He would have been killed. Their parents should be ashamed of themselves for letting these boys run alone in such a dangerous place.” Instincts she didn’t even know she had began kicking in. “I am going to get to the bottom of this. This kind of thing should never happen again.” Her own confrontation with fear and death now seemed very distant. She had work to do.
When scientists study an issue, they use two measures to determine how well they are doing. The first is: “How close am I to the right answer?” They call this the accuracy of the measurement. The second is to ask: “How likely am I to get the same answer again?” This they call the precision of the measurement. If you try to measure the boiling point of water using modern equipment, it is likely to be very accurate and very precise.
If you ask 100 people, “What is the meaning of life?” the responses are likely to be very imprecise and inaccurate. When it comes to this question, it is very easy to determine the precision, but what is the correct answer? Measuring accuracy is sometimes very difficult.
Science is all about measuring things. We have clocks, speedometers, barometers, well, pretty much anything with the word meter in it is a measuring tool of some sort. The more precision we can obtain—like the fine mechanisms in a Swiss watch—the better. Getting the right answer is an added bonus. When you live in a country farm setting, a rooster makes a pretty good timepiece. If you are trying to solo circumnavigate the globe, a rooster is only useful if you run out of other food! What you need is insane precision like that behind our satellite GPS navigation systems.
Socrates is often quoted as having said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To me, that sounds like he needed to work on his dating life. There are plenty of people out there who will examine your life for you, for free even. Sometimes people you don’t even know will offer their opinions. But, I digress.
I suspect Socrates had something deeper in mind than a bunch of people shouting, “You suck!” as you walk down the street, but on the other hand, his friends served him a hemlock chaser after dinner, so his life (and death) wasn’t perfect either.
Scientists go one step further than Socrates. They examine their own lives, those of their friends, and pretty much any person or thing that they come into contact with. They don’t just leave it as an opinion; they start developing tools and taking measurements and try to show everyone they come in contact with that they are correct. They are not satisfied with local celebrity; they are on a hunt for universal truths. But, since science can only disprove things, they have to take a backwards approach. They have to come up with a model for what they think is happening and then try as hard as they can to tear that model down.
When a model survives this onslaught, they then have to describe it in their own peculiar phraseology. Using the passive voice, they say, “The model is consistent with the known data.” This drives editors nuts. They all want to change it to the active voice: “This experiment proves the model is correct.” a statement that will never be uttered by any self-respecting scientist.
The process of refining a model by purification with fire is similar to that used to choose a presidential candidate. Someone is suggested as the next president and then the media, when working properly, try to tear that candidate down. They investigate every detail of the candidate’s life, even his birth certificate, if they can find it. The candidate left standing after the onslaught is likely to be the best candidate for office.
The drive to understand the universe is overwhelming for a scientist to the point that they would build a nuclear reactor underneath the stands at the University of Chicago Football stadium and start the first man-made sustained nuclear reaction, even though there was a finite chance that they were going to extinguish mankind that day. Similar issues arose during the Trinity Site test of the first nuclear bomb, but they still set it off. Knowledge trumped existence. If only Judy had been there, she could have put a stop to this nonsense!
John Hall PhD.