Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Explaining Science

Scientists look at the world around them as a puzzle they would like to solve. Some start with one small piece and insist on building out from it. Others concentrate on putting the border into place, the big picture. But like that 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle your cousin gave you for your birthday, just because you haven't yet figured out where that one annoying piece is (maybe your cat made off with it) or your kid forced a single piece into the wrong place, that doesn't make the other 890 pieces you have got right so far all wrong and that certainly doesn't mean that the picture of the world that is emerging on your coffee table and in our understanding of the climate isn't usefully clear.


a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

A nice illustration of what I keep telling the denialati:

What we do not know does not invalidate what we do know.

Science is about making the patterns clearer. If you read a paper/post/story and all it doesn't make a lot of things clearer, it ain't good science. If it's goal is increasing uncertainty, it's antiscience. Science may tear down one theory, but only to erect a better one in its place.

David B. Benson said...

I like the analogy.

Anonymous said...

And the denialists say: there is no puzzle. It's all a hoax. Nobody kows nothing about anything. So there!!

The climate scientists don't claim that they know everything, but they know enough.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Puzzles are fun. Not dorky.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as one who likes 2000 or 3000 piece puzzles (and edgeless, pictureless or double-sided when we can get them) there's more than just missing pieces.

For an analogy with science it's very useful. When you're working on a very large puzzle with random shaped pieces, you're always aware that there are portions you might have to rework. Does every single one of those blue pieces you've put into the sky background really belong there?

Or will you have to shift a couple into the lake foreground. And then shift and shunt all the surrounding pieces to suit the new configuration.

For the we-know-nothing brigade in science, this means that we can't work out that blue pieces belong in sky or water and not on red cars or yellow flowers. Maybe that we don't even know whether there is any sky or water.

Very often, science does work along such lines. We have evidence of various kinds. But it's only when we've done more work that we discover that the evidence fits with a better explanation more than it did with the previous one.

And this is especially true for complex topics like climate and epidemiology and astronomy. We do know the structures and outlines, but we're not at all surprised when new alignments of evidence give a better picture.


Russell said...

The most bizarre thing about Monckton is that he can actually design puzzles rather well.

Does that globe's tolerances allow it to be assembled inside out.

Antiquated Tory said...

I recently posted this in the open thread on Real Climate, but it's apropos for here, too.
There is indeed a kind of brutish and ignorant scepticism... which gives the vulgar a general prejudice against what they do not easily understand, and makes them reject every principle which requires elaborate reasoning to prove and establish it. This species of scepticism is fatal to knowledge, not to religion; since we find, that those who make greatest profession of it, give often their assent, not only to the great truths of Theism and natural theology, but even to the most absurd tenets which
a traditional superstition has recommended to them. They firmly believe in witches, though they will not believe nor attend to the most simple proposition of Euclid.

David Hume, in the voice of "Cleanthes," in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Antiquated Tory said...

Speak of the Devil, there's a new Jack Chick tract on global warming.

Anonymous said...

@Antiquated Tory: I see what you did there.

Also, another good way of explaining how science progresses and handles unknowns and new knowledge is in the classic Asimov essay The Relativity of Wrong.


ginckgo said...

This improves on the puzzle vs house-of-cards analogy of science.

Like the puzzle, we may not have the final picture on the box to guide us, but we know that it has to be flat, and pictures on adjacent pieces have to match.

Magnus Westerstrand said...

Well for some reason it took a few years but it is beond doubt now that A BIG PART OF CLIMATE DENILE IS DUE TO MEDIAs REPORTING!

and refs there in....

Anonymous said...

Did Rolfe-Redding and Maibach consult with any of their GMU colleagues, such as statistics professors, in the writing of their paper do you know?

[No impugning of anyone's reputation is meant or should be inferred arising from that question.]

Cymraeg llygoden

Anonymous said...

...we may not have the final picture on the box to guide us, but we know that it has to be flat...

The Earth is flat!?

Cymraeg llygoden

ligne said...

...and hollow too, by the look of it.

Anna Haynes said...

> we know that it has to be flat, and pictures on adjacent pieces have to match

See Tobis on Coherence.

I have a "we need a metaphor" question: what would the jigsaw puzzle being assembled at a global warming one-sided skeptics conference look like?

Also, BTW, since you can order custom-image jigsaw puzzles online, it might be good to have a Dickens-Christmas-Carol-themed one made, with four earths -- past, present, two futures. Or should it be the SkepticalScience "How we know we're causing global warming" image?

Anonymous said...

Skeptical Science - those trusty explainers of science and of where the Denialati fail in emulating science - has been hacked.

Time to log on and change your details, everyone.

Bernard J. Hyphen-not-so-anonymous XVII, Esq.

ginckgo said...

The Earth is flat!?

Quote mining, even in an analogy...

Anonymous said...

Quote mining, even in an analogy...

Er... No, gincko. Not quote mining.

It's an allusion. Indeed, in a way it is an extension of the original metaphor (with the contortions flat earthers go through).

Puzzles do not have to be flat, and the Earth (globe puzzle, pictured) is not flat.

Ergo, "The Earth is flat!?"

Or if you prefer:

"Like the puzzle, we may not have the final picture on the box to guide us, but we know that it [the puzzle] has to be flat,..."

No, gincko. Puzzles do not have to be flat. For an example, see Eli's accompanying figure, which exhibits one of the many non-flat puzzles that now exist: the Earth globe.

Cymraeg llygoden