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Friday, 10 December 2010
Freeman Dyson on the relative value of error and vagueness

" is better to be wrong than to be vague."

- Freeman Dyson, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, 1999

On the surface, this seems to contradict the blog entry below, quoting Richard Feynman on the value of doubt. 

There's a great point here, though.  Without a firm, logical stance from which to proceed with reason and research, there's no real way to do science.  Even if your starting point is wrong and you know it to be wrong, you can still observe the world around you, reason logically, and get to the truth.

But if your starting point is vaguely defined, you don't know where you're starting from.   No matter how valid your observations are, you don't know what you're comparing them to, exactly.

Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman are closer than they appear to be.  Feynman was openly critical many times of the social sciences because to him, they abused the language of science to describe processes which have not been investigated with the necessary rigor - to Feynman, they were irretrievably vague.  He would have been happier if the social scientists had proceeded as the physical scientists had - with a rigor and with easily reproducible experiments. 

Feynman cites the example of a behaviorist named Young who was studying the behavior of rats in mazes - the rats would always head for a certain door in a maze where food had once been, regardless of whether the food they were seeking was moved around.   The doors of the maze were uniform in size and appearance; he changed the lighting, the odor of the food the rats were seeking, made the texture of each door identical - the rats always went for the same door.  Eventually he found the rats could tell by the sound their paws made on the floor what door they were near.  He put the maze on sand and was finally able to train the rats to go to the door he wanted them to go to.  

Feynman noted that this experiment isn't referred to in later studies; it was more about sources of experimental error than about rats, and subsequent researchers kept on running rats through corridors and mazes without studying this experiment.  This, Feynman said, was characteristic of what he called "cargo cult science," science which wasn't careful to rule out all potential sources of error.

Young was doing real science and no one else in his field was interested.  He started off wrong, but not vague, and actually found out where he was wrong and succeeded in real scientific terms. 

It is better to be wrong than vague. 

Posted by V.P. Frickey at 3:26 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 13 December 2010 3:34 PM EST
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