The Corpus Callosum

The tagline on my old blog was “Observation are gold; hypotheses,
silver; and conclusions, bronze.”  This reflects my
philosophy, that observation is the fundamental source of all
knowledge.  The father you go from your raw observations, the
more likely you are to make a mistake.

To illustrate: When I was about 14, one day my sister came to me and
asked me if I could take some links out of her bicycle chain.  

For some perverse reason, I had this habit of trying to make a lesson
out of everything for my little sisters.  


I knew that it was possible to remove links, but I also knew that it
required a special tool, which I did not have.  So I was not
eager to
do it.  ”Why do you want me to do that?”

“The chain is too long.”

I knew that the bike worked fine yesterday, and the chain did not
suddenly get any longer.  Probably, the rear wheel had gotten
loose in its mount.  The mount was shaped like a slit, so that
it was possible to move it forward or back a bit.  

 ”What makes you say that the chain is too long?”

“It just is.  The chain is too long.”

“No, what I mean is, what do you see, what is it that happens, that
makes you say the chain is too long?”  

My father, less Socratic that I, but also better at phrasing pointed
questions, chimed in: “What happened just now with the bike?”

“The chain keeps falling off the gears.”

Back to me: “So, what you see is that the chain is falling off the
gears.  What you concluded is that the chain is too long.
 But it could be that the rear wheel needs to be adjusted
instead.”

“Just fix it, will you!”

“Sure.”

And sure enough, I just had to loosen the nut holding the rear wheel,
slide it back a fraction of an inch, and tightening up really tight.
 Problem solved.

It’s easy to say that a person should not make assumptions about what
they observe, but that misses the point.  In fact, you have to
make all kinds of assumptions all the time, just to get anything done.
 The point is to be careful about the assumptions you make; it
helps to be mindful of the fact that there is an extra step in between
the observation ad the conclusion.  

That extra step is so easy to make, it becomes automatic; it’s often
transparent.  

A lot of the conclusions we draw are based upon a process of
elimination.  If you only see one possible explanation for
your observation, the process of elimination seems unnecessary.
 

Comments

  1. #1 s. zeilenga
    September 19, 2006

    Hmmm… good point. Very interesting.

    Thanx,

    z.

  2. #2 boojieboy
    September 19, 2006

    I think this is the foundational idea for science. I teach it from day 1 in my empirical research methods class. It’s nice to know that there’s someone out there whose framed it in pretty much the same way I have.

  3. #3 boojieboy
    September 19, 2006

    BTW, After spending the first half hour on this lesson, I then show The Big Lebowsky because it does such a good job of demonstrating the gap between observation and inference, and how making wrong assumptions can lead to wrong conclusions.

  4. #4 gary
    September 19, 2006

    I love it!

    I always plead with people to question what they are told and balnace that with the reason of what they observe in real time.

    Alas, Americans seem to lazy to engage their brains for more than a decision of one lump or two in your morning coffee.

  5. #5 Greg P
    September 19, 2006

    But then there are observations and there are observations.
    Unfortunately, many times observation is tainted by misperception, and once a misperception has taken hold it can taint future observations.

  6. #6 mark a
    September 21, 2006

    While I tend to agree that observation is a useful tool and I can say that observation and history has been the key to many a confusing diagnosis. many times, especially in science and medicine, observation alone is not enough and often leads to misconception as mentioned by several other commentors.

    Hippocrates and Socrates taught that all medicine can be learned by observation the problem that lead to, however, was years of misconception of how the body functioned and treatments which consisted of bloodletting to release ‘evil humors’.

    In life, many times observation and good common sense is enough. In science, observation needs to be supported by hypotheses, experiments, data, and then conclusions.

    BTW enjoy your blog, keep up the great work

  7. #7 Barry Leiba
    September 22, 2006

    Hm, trackbacks don’t seem to work here. I tried to set a trackback to this post: Observation

    Excerpt:

    Over in Corpus Callosum, Joseph tells a story of repairing his sister’s bicycle when he was a child, and relates that to the importance of observation, and, particularly, of looking at a problem from different angles to ensure that you’re analyzing it correctly. I’ve a similar story I’d like to relate:

  8. #8 PhysioProf
    September 22, 2006

    I go through this Socratic process several times a day with the trainees in my lab, when they come to me to discuss the results of experiments. They almost always start out with a conclusion, and I have to lead them back to a description of what they actually observed.

    This is also a typical novice mistake in reading scientific papers. Beginning grad students tend to focus on the conclusions of the paper, and read the introduction and discussion sections avidly. Once they learn how to read a paper, they realize that those sections are only worth about 5% of the time and effort reading the paper, and the figures and figure legends 80%.