Skeptical Inquirer Jan/Feb 2017 vol 41 #1 p25
Notes on a Strange World: Ten Practical Tactics to Unravel the Uncanny
In this issue’s column Mr. Polidoro present 10 techniques one could use when conducting an investigation. His focus is on questions that arise as the result of a news report or a bit of information passed on through the Web, but from what I can see the advice can be applied to scientific investigations themselves.
- Make sure that the mystery actually exists.
Polidoro focuses for the most part on the matter of the situation actually happening and that it is indeed a mystery. I would add this following stipulation; that it can exist.
Let’s say that you see a story on people levitating on the Web. You would think the mystery would be, how do they do it? But the question really is, can they do it? What is the mechanism and is the mechanism possible? Based on what I know I’d have to say no.
Our reality really isn’t set up that way, this is just not how things work. If levitation were possible then why hasn’t it had an impact on our world. Even if small objects could only be levitated to a short height it would change cleaning up small trash. If the items were large and the heights great, then moving companies would have a much easier job. When people are included architecture would be profoundly affected. No need for escalators, elevators―lifts if you insist, ramps, or even stairs. Need to get to the 10th floor of a building? Just levitate there if you can, or be levitated by another if you can’t
<Picture the scene on 9÷11÷01 at the World Trade Center with thousands of people either floating gently to the ground, or rising into the sky to meet aircraft there to take them away.>
So let’s say that there is a real mystery here, and the question is one where you can find out what is going on. If that’s the case you’ve got some fruitful investigating to do.
- Check the Credibility of the Source.
That is important. We all make mistakes, we all assume. The expert may know a lot about a subject, but he doesn’t necessarily know everything.
Say you read a story at an on-line news site saying that great apes have been found in Washington State. In the story a noted primatologist states that there can be none because apes don’t live in North America. Indeed they don’t, as far as we know―my emphasis.
Apes as a group are descended from old world monkeys and they are found in the old world. To get to North America from Asia the apes would have to cross over where the Bering Strait is now. “Is now” is the important phrase, for things were not always what they are now.
So don’t necessarily take the word of an expert or authority without checking it out first, and remember that we all make mistakes.
- Conduct extensive research and go back to the original sources.
There’s a phrase for this, it’s called “hard work”. You can’t slack off in science, because sooner or later somebody is going to catch your sloth and give you grief for it.
Take Copernicus as an example. He insisted that the planetary orbits had to be perfect circles because he couldn’t see how God would allow anything else. No such luck.
In their observations other astronomers of the 16th century noticed a big problem. Copernicus’ hypothesis predicted certain things as to where and when an astronomer could expect to see a planet which were not borne out. There was something wrong, and a number of these early scientists interpreted this to mean that Nicolai Copernicus had to be wrong about his heliocentrism.
Then along came Johannes Kepler, who concluded that far from being perfect circles planetary orbits were more ellipses based on his observations and the observations of his mentor Tycho Brahe. Other astronomers of his time had a look at his work, repeated it, and found that his explanation worked better than Copernicus’
The moral of the story is, verify. No matter how trustworthy your authority is, verify.
- Do not make assumptions before you have all the facts.
Before Jane Goodall started her work with the chimpanzees of Gombe the assumption was that the chimpanzee was a gentle vegetarian. Then Jane revealed that in all truth her chimpanzees at the least were rowdy and violent, and ate meat. Not just ate meat, but actually hunted. Others confirmed her findings and our understanding of the great ape changed.
So make sure that you have the facts, and that they are facts not what you want them to be.
- Reproduce the original conditions.
In as far as that is possible, which is not always the case. Still, it makes your work easier, and the work of those following you easier.
As I recall an east coast university’s biology department ran an experiment to see how smarts cats can be. To make a long story short, they found their cats rubbing against things other than what the students wanted the animal to. They couldn’t figure out what was going on, so they gave up on the project.
A university on the west coast heard about this and decided to try the experiment themselves. They got the same results as the first school but then discovered that the animals engaged in the same behavior even when you took away what the cats were supposed to use to open the cage door, the cage door itself, and even the cage. The most likely conclusion they could come up with for what the cats were doing was, this is how a cat says “hello” to a person.
Reproducing the original conditions is important.
- Whenever you can check the facts for yourself.
To repeat, we make mistakes. We do miss things and make assumptions. According to the story somebody found a type of hyena living in the state of Montana. The specimen, or so I’ve heard, was a stuffed animal, which means all you really had to check out was the skin and fur. You can get DNA from the skin at least, but DNA has a nasty habit of deteriorating over time.
The DNA was tested, but as far as I know there was no follow up, and apparently the evidence was lost making it rather hard for others to check matters out for themselves. When doing science make sure to save all the clues, especially when the results you got the first time were not what you expected.
- Ask experts for advice.
Very often they will know what you don’t. But don’t take them at their word without first checking out what they told you. I hate to sound like a parent, but we can be mistaken. Experts can be a big help, but only so far as they actually do know what they’re talking about and can admit to error when they are in error.
- Learn to distinguish between facts and fantasies.
There are things we would like to be so or to have happen. A great ape in Australia other than Man for example, but the way things are―the Wallace Line anybody?―the possibility is none too great.
Somethings are just not possible. Others are possible but apparently haven’t happened yet. Then there are the times when an event was possible but isn’t anymore. Be willing to accept disappointment and just don’t keep insisting that you have to be right when the valid evidence says you are wrong.
- Take witnesses with a grain of salt and be polite.
In other words, verify what they have to say, don’t assume they have to be right, and remember your fucking courtesy, dammit. Learning and instructing is never a waste of time.
- Apply Occam’s razor.
At its simplest it comes out to be; the simplest answer is usually the best. But keep in mind that it needs to be an answer. An answer that is no answer is no answer. Or as civil engineering students learn their first day in class; keep it simple, stupid. Refrain from complicating your explanation as much as you can, for that makes it easier to stop up the plumping.
Over all I would say that Polidoro has some good advice and that it would do us all well to follow it. Especially those who insist that they know what you don’t, when in all actuality they haven’t any real clue as to what the situation is.