Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You spin me right round

Ben Goldacre always has interesting things to say about the science behind health care and the pharmaceutical industry. In one of his recent posts he writes about a research project that examined 72 trials with negative results, i.e. an investigated drug or treatment did not cause a desired effect. Out of all of these trials, he quotes that only 9 gave any figures in the trials' abstracts and that 28 gave no numerical results at all.

What was in the reports was "spin," or the authors' attempts to project the results in a positive light. In order to prevent this, he says, trials are supposed to be registered before they are performed so that their intended purpose can not be changed. Additionally, there are guidelines that dictate what must be included in a report. These rules, however, are more akin to suggestions since there is no enforcement of them.

Can such a system be implemented in the physical sciences? I don't think so. Often, we're actually learning about the topic as we proceed through the research. No amount of preparation can allow us to establish a hypothesis sufficient for inclusion in a detailed report before we undertake the experiment. Hypotheses, I feel, are best constructed concurrent with an experiment. And as for report guidelines? Well, anyone who has had to deal with reviewers' critiques of their papers will tell you that there is rarely any consensus about what makes a good report.

I suppose that one could argue that a grant proposal tries to satisfy this purpose, but I can't say that I'm experienced enough to comment one way or another on it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On science and faith

Here is an interesting article from Talking Philosophy Magazine. The author discusses the similarity and difference between religions faith and scientific faith. I believe it is often taken for granted that much of what we know about the natural world does not exist in the strict sense; all that we truly know is the outcome of an experiment. Theoretical models, such as the concept of protons and electrons or the theory of gravity, create entities or concepts that don't actually exist in the same way that a ball or dog exists. They are simply mental constructs that are used to explain repeated experimental outcomes and predict future behavior.

Of course, one can always argue that these constructs are "true" in the sense that they are predictive and can be tested as opposed to religious concepts. But I'm not so certain that their predictive powers and testability prove that they exist. "Truth" and "existence" seem to be two separate ideas here. So, in some sense, all of us, whether religious or not, believe in things that don't exist.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fun with thermodynamics

Admittedly, the thought experiment I'm about to tell you about is simply explained by thermodynamics. Despite this, I puzzled over it for a while since it is very counter-intuitive, at least to me.

Suspend a weight from an elastic band so it is stretched (only slightly) beyond its equilibrium point. Now, heat the band with a hair dryer. Does the weight move up or down?

Give up? It moves upward. Do you know why?

I plan to verify this experimentally at some point.