Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Science and the Decline Effect

A couple of interesting pieces from Jonah Lehrer, a neuro-scientist who writes very frequently (books and articles) about the intersection between science and the humanities. I'll mostly let the articles stand on their own, as I'm still trying to figure out how to think about them. But I found them thought-provoking enough to share. They basically concern an interesting phenomenon that I hadn't heard about in science yet but that he seems to talk about as if they are well known in the scientific community: Contrary to expectations, the more rigorously you attempt to replicate results, the less you actually achieve those results.

My favorite quote from it, call it my hippy BS outlook that I will admit is almost entirely Dean and David bait to get them to see if I'm trying to slip in a God somewhere. ;) More seriously, I see it as something that Dean, David, and I have all agreed on at various points this semester: Whatever the facts of the universe are, the responsibility for creating meaningful human lives rests only with us.

"The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe."




  1. A few quick thoughts. There are experiments, and then there are experiments. Dealing with random, quirky, self-reporting, biased, "free-willed" people in some kind of experiment is very different than other kinds of rigidly controlled experiments.

    When running an experiment to test for chemical reactivity between two elements, you can run the experiment a 1000 times and expect to get exactly the same result. There is no decline effect when discussing experiments of this sort, nor any "deciding what to believe". That should suggest that there are variables-known and unknown-that are being introduced into experiments dealing with statistical uncertainty and error margins. People are simply greater than the sum of their parts, with respect to experimentation. Carbon does not have good days and bad days, people do.

    That may or may not make sense, but I'm tired.

  2. Very interesting articles, though. I plan to read the first one again when I have a little more time.