Friday, September 22, 2006

The residual problem ....

Anyone who has come up hard and fast against reality understands that there is neither a theory or a model that explains everything. There are always residuals, unexplained anomolies and people on the fringes who will hold onto those for dear life, weaving webs of conspiracy theories that focus only on what remains unexplained. This throws the baby out with the bathwater: the fringe theories might explain the residuals, but they can't deal with the basic facts of the situation.

The best theories and models deal with the largest extent of the evidence available using intellectually valid and understandable ideas with predictive power. Those with no tolerence for ambiguity are doomed to a life of carping. The study of elephant droppings is not as interesting as the study of elephants.

However, if the elephant dropping salesman, is loud and insistant he can attract an audience, and if someone is paying him a lot of money to attract elephant dropping customers, why, as Barnum said, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

(Motivated by comments of Michael Sherman, editor of Skeptic Magazine on CSPAN)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand your focus is on the conspiracy theorist and the denialist and I agree that these all too often ignore the elephant.

Nonethless, studying the droppings can tell you things about the elephant that you can not learn by simply looking at the beast -- like what it ate yesterday (or in the case of a woolly mammoth, what it ate 10,000 years ago, which can tells you about past vegetation, climate, etc).

And sometimes the key to coming up with a new and better theory lies in paying close attention to the residuals (as with the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, which could not be completely accounted for under Newton's theory of gravity).