Re: [SystemSafety] Fwd: Contextualizing & Confirmation Bias

From: Peter Bernard Ladkin < >
Date: Wed, 5 Feb 2014 18:18:44 +0100

> On 5 Feb 2014, at 15:53, Derek M Jones <derek_at_xxxxxx >
> Some of Physics' famous experiments, e.g., Millikan's oil drop
> experiment had a great deal of confirmation bias built into their
> original reporting:
> I did see a photograph of a page in Millikan's original notebook
> that showed exactly what he had done with his data, but cannot find
> the link.

It's worth being a little careful when discussing work which is both right and Nobel-prize-winning. Holton's article on the Millikan oil-drop experiments was one of the first in which it was pointed out that great scientists don't just dispassionately collect data, do some averaging and publish the mean as The Truth. I don't have the original article any more, but the lesson I seem to remember taking away from it (it was in the 1970's when I read it, I think) is this.

There are, in some experiments, a plethora of confounding factors and you you don't know what they are or how to control for them. But you are certain there is something there that you know about and are trying to measure. You can do some obvious things such as throw away outliers. But for others there is no algorithm. There are some people who have an intuition for when an experiment they have devised is going "right" (the unknown factors aren't overwhelming the run) and when it's going "wrong" (something else is dominating) - an intuition for how one can get things to work. I've met people with such magic skills, starting as a teenager in school science classes. That's how much of experimental physics had always been done - you couldn't get results otherwise. Just as some people knew how to hit a tennis ball better than others.

Millikan was one of these people. And he was in a hurry. He knew the phenomenon was there, and he was trying to get things to cluster. He did so, aggressively, from our modern point of view too aggresively. Holton couldn't find any reasons why he denigrated some runs. But he was after a result, knew it was there to be got, believed in his intuition with very good reason, and got it. He was probably also lucky, in the sense that almost anyone who won the Nobel,prize for their work has to have been in some respect of other lucky - you don't get it by just putting in your time.

He seems to be a supremely self-confident experimentalist working a century ago at a time when one did what one could to get the right result. To put a discussion of what he did up on a WWW page with "fraud" in the title seems out of bounds to me. The observation that he couldn't do that nowadays seems right - Holton's point was that you could barely do that even then.

But, if you have stayed with me this far, the point is this. It's not an example of confirmation bias. He got the right answer, for goodness sake, when there was a right answer to get. His intuition was spot on.

PBL Prof. Peter Bernard Ladkin, University of Bielefeld and Causalis Limited

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systemsafety_at_xxxxxx Received on Wed Feb 05 2014 - 18:18:53 CET

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