“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar…”

“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow”

Whenever people end a Facebook post – or a tweet – with “do your own research,” there’s a chance that they’ve done no such thing themselves. Or to be more specific, they’re unlikely to have gone through a set of procedures that are what folks who actually do research for a living would go through. There are hundreds of books out there that explain, in excruciating detail, what “research” is but I’d bet money on the probability that the number of folks who have read ONE book on the research process is significantly lower than the number of people who believe the world is secretly governed by lizard people [1], that aliens regularly visit the earth [2], and that if there is no evidence for X, that in itself is proof that X exists [3].

Research is essentially a tool used by scientists to test the veracity of hypotheses. Or in words of one syllable, a way to find out if what you think is true is, in fact, true. But let’s go down the rabbit hole a little more here and try to avoid the words “true” and “truth” because like “commonsense,” so many people claim to know what it is but often turn out to be as subjective in their thinking as everyone else. For many people, “truth” is simply what they believe to be true and may have zero bearing on any actual, observable, demonstrable, measurable quality. The majority of people reading this will believe in some supernatural deity (or deities) with absolute conviction that this is “true,” yet given the opportunity to provide any supporting evidence that is objective and replicable, they will fail stunningly. Faith is not Truth, and Truth is not Belief. Anyone can have faith in something or someone, and anyone can believe in any ridiculous things they like. As I’ve said for years, the First Amendment of the US constitution pretty much guarantees your right to be a complete idiot, and it’s a testament to its power that so many people are making the most of it.

Deciding that something is “true” turns out to be a devilishly difficult and intellectually irritating thing. Even when Little Orphan Annie sings, “The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun,” the scientist in you should be thinking, “Oh yeah, how do you know that’s true?” Annie is definitely on my list of “irritating imps” from literature, with the number one spot reserved for Dickens’ Tiny Tim, but she can’t be blamed for at least attempting to make a statement that has all the appearance of being unassailably truthful.

To be more accurate, we’d first have to make sure we all shared the same definitions of the hypotheses she’s espousing; that “The sun will come out tomorrow.” In relation to “the sun,” it would be churlish to suggest that someone might interpret what she’s referring to as Canis Major or Corona Borealis but if we want to be as accurate as we can, we’d make explicit that “the sun” is the star closest to Earth some 93 million miles away. Then, by “come out,” we mean that it will take a position in the sky above the horizon, regardless of whether it is obscured by clouds, smoke, overhanging branches, or a roof. That way is someone tries argue that, “I was in my cellar and didn’t see the sun so it didn’t ‘come out'” you can happily sneer and smack them on the head with a large dead cod and remind them of the definition. This also infers that we must have some way of measuring the act of “coming out” that is objective, which means it doesn’t really on belief, opinions, points-of-view, or any other internal mental phenomena), and repeatable by others, which means anyone else could do the same measurement. Finally, “tomorrow” also needs to be defined as being a point 24 hours after an initial point. If it’s 48 hours before it appears again, then that’s not tomorrow but “every two days.”

But it doesn’t stop here, does it? The location in which I take the measure may also affect the truth of the statement. It may work for Annie who’s in New York city but what about Pippi Longstocking on her visit to grandma’s house in Svalbard, Norway. Being inside the Arctic circle means she’s singing, “The sun’ll come out, in April, betcha bottom Krone that in April, they’ll be sun.” Clearly there is still a sense that “the sun will come up” at some point but it’s not as clean cut as it appears in the Tomorrow song.

Now, given that we’re happy with defining our terms and restrict our experiments to places closer to the equator, what happens when we find that we see the sun rise on Jan 1 at 7:20 AM, then again on Jan 2 at 7:21 AM. Can we say, “Yes, it’s true, the sun’ll come out tomorrow?” You could try and maybe many people would believe you. But the problem is that this is based on ONE sample and it’s a very poor piece of research that takes one sample and concludes it’s the truth. That’s like watching one video on YouTube of someone checking ballot papers and then concluding that the entire election was a scam (unless it was a vote for your candidate, in which case it was true!) No, you’d want to take another sample 24 hours later on Jan 3. Then Jan 4. Then Jan 5. And keep doing that until… well, when?

This is another feature of research that people can misunderstand; that there is an “end” to research [4]. Their understanding is that “research” and “scientific analysis” provide truth and “an answer” when, in reality, that’s not quite right! Back with the rising sun, if you were to say it’s true that the sun will come up tomorrow, what you’re really saying is “given that we’ve observed a sunrise since records began, and that the laws of physics which apply to the universe and how planets revolve around suns have not changed, there is probability close to one that the sun will come up tomorrow.” Is there a chance that the sun may NOT come up? Could there be an unforeseen cosmic accident (black hole hitting the sun) that may wipe out sun and the Earth during the night? Well, maybe. And that is where all research ends up.

Research is about creating hypotheses – ideas that may or may not be true – and then dreaming up ways to test them. You determine in advance what measurements you consider will support the hypotheses and after testing, see if those measures were achieved. If they were, then you can say, “yeah, the objective measure support my hypothesis and it’s therefore worth considering as ‘useful’ or ‘important.'” The more measures you take and the more support you find, then the more meaningful the results. Better still, if lots of other people do the same measures and get the same results, then your hypothesis becomes tougher, stronger, and develops a bit of a cocky swagger.

But although thousands upon thousands of repeated experiments can support a hypothesis, it only takes ONE discrepancy to shatter it into tiny pieces. This notion is sometimes called the “Black Swan” approach. If you set up the theory that “All swans are white” you can spend years out in the world looking at swans and see that every swan you comes across is white. You can then have hundreds of other bird watchers report back that every swan they’ve seen is white. But as soon as ONE person person provides evidence that they’ve found a black swan, the “All swans are white” is now wrong; it’s downgraded at best to “Not all swans are white” or “Most swan are white” or “All swans in the world, except for in the village of Little Turdington that are black, are white.”

Of course, this also introduces the issue of determining what constitutes valid data. The ornithologist from Little Turdington may have taken a photo of a white swan but, armed with a copy of PaintShop Pro 2021, changed the color to black in an attempt to discredit the original hypothesis. Real researchers wouldn’t take that one photo and accept it as proof but more likely send out lots of other researchers to LIttle Turdington to see if they, too, can observe and measure black swans. As more evidence of black swans appears, then the truth, or veracity, of the original claim is diminished.

Science progresses step by step by step. One hypothesis leads to another and depends on what has gone before. In the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, one of the claims by vaccine-skeptics is that it was developed too quickly and not tested enough, which completely ignores that fact that work on similar vaccines has been going on for years, and that all the work that has gone before always sets the scene for what comes next. Sir Isaac Newton, whose “Theory of Gravity” is still a theory [5], is credited with saying that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” and that’s pretty much what research is all about.

And if you don’t believe me, do your own research 🙂

Notes

[1] According to Wikipedia, the increasingly deranged ex-sports commentator, David Icke in the UK, believes that “tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.” He is, sadly, not alone. Proof, should you need it, includes videos of famous people (the Queen, Hillary Clinton, the Pope) all blinking like lizards, so it must be true.

[2] Given that (a) reports of aliens from outer space visiting earth have been around for as long as folks have been writing and (b) not one has yet gone through the “take me to your leader” process, it makes me wonder just how “alien” their thinking must be. Imagine investing unimaginable amounts of time, money, and energy into building interstellar spaceships that can carry you anywhere in the universe, traveling millions and millions of miles -perhaps over immense periods of time – and then landing in some backwoods to pick up a random person so you can stick an anal probe up their arse before flying back home. Now that IS some alien psychology!

[3] The best conspiracy theories are the ones that evolve in such a way that they become completely impervious to any evidence against them, and where all and any statements are “proof” of the theory. Any “proof” of election fraud in the US 2020 election is seen by conspiracy theorists as “clear evidence” for the stolen election; any absence of evidence of fraud is “proof” that the fraud was effective and therefore also evidence for the stolen election! According to one of my favorite philosophers of science, Karl Popper, this type of thinking is referred to a “metaphysical” because it is incapable – by design – of being tested by any objective measurement and is, ergo, non-scientific. Popper was no fan of Psychoanalysis and always deemed it a metaphysical philosophy rather than a science. Religion, as a phenomenon, is also metaphysical in nature in that there are no measurements we can do to test for the existence of a supernatural entity, or entities (it seems unfair to throw Odin, Thor, and Loki into the “myth basket” while allowing Jehovah and Allah special status as “real”).

[4] All research article end with “much more research is needed,” which is (a) probably true and (b) setting the scene for the next grant application. If anyone can cite a paper that concludes with “and, ergo, there is no need to look at this topic anymore because we now have all the answers” I’d love a copy.

[5] Just because something is labeled a “theory” doesn’t imply that is is somehow wrong. Both “gravity” and “evolution” are spoken of as “theories” but if you chose to believe gravity isn’t “real,” I suggest throwing yourself off a high building and seeing how well your disbelief stops you from hitting the ground at 150 miles per hour and leaving you intact enough to stand up and say, “See, I told you it was just a theory.” In this case, you’d be well advised to treat the “theory of gravity” as a practical reality.

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