12 September 2008

Shared Knowledge and Sources

Since I provided a demonstration myself of source fallibility in my last post (gas compression technology), time for a bit more on sources, knowledge, and whom to trust how much about what. On the least interesting level, it was just a matter of an unsupported statement by someone speaking out of his field of expertise. That's the least reliable sort of statement you can have. The more important or interesting the topic is to you, the less confidence you want to put in the statement. That's true whether it's me talking about old technologies (you have no reason as yet to think that I know much about that area), or engineers regarding climate change, or ....

As I've encouraged, the first comment/correction included a source. More or less reasonable source (vs. quoting some other blog by some other nonspecialist in the topic) beats an unsourced comment. Next step would be for me to provide the even better source I'd read for my original comment.

Here we get a little more interesting for doing science. I don't remember that source. For me the source I read beats a Wikipedia article. I read the source and could see how good it was, by an author of what expertise, etc.. But where does that leave you? Some might be tempted to figure that I'm a good guy (of course I am! :-) so I must be more trustworthy than a Wikipedia article. As a social matter, that works. But the science-minded here know what you're left with, for thinking about science, is that Wikipedia article. Science is not only about knowledge, but about shared and sharable knowledge.

If someone can't share the source or support for their knowledge, it isn't science for you. They might be right. But without that sharability, it isn't science. The more interesting, surprising, or important the point is, the more important you be able to follow up someone's first comment with a source.

Even when I'm within my professional areas, therefore, requests for sources where you can learn more are welcome. I won't always be providing them in the original note as it can make for awfully slow reading for you. Still, when you're surprised by something (say, because it contradicts something you thought was true), do ask for a source. In my serious areas, I can provide you with them, and usually several. Of course I'll ask you to be even-handed about it -- while questioning where my source is, please go back to where you learned the point I'm disagreeing with and check out the sources on that, too.

Old comment: "It isn't what you don't know that's the problem. It's what you know that isn't so."


Philip H. said...

And the corollary to your comment "The greatest difficulty in the world is not for people to accept new ideas, but to make them forget about old ideas." John Maynard Keynes

Hank Roberts said...

Another very good reason to give a source -- it makes me look up what I'm sure I remember, and check citing publications to see what's newer. And with Usenet (excuse me, the Web) there is almost always something newer -- often a better source, maybe new information.

Anonymous said...

I find it very frustrating that in many discussions I have on climate change, I spend at least half of it going over what exactly a good source is (e.g., the peer-reviewed literature vs. a random article from Dr. so and so whose expertise is in medicine or engineering, etc). Of course, there is some bad peer-reviewed work out there as well, and also some very sloppy stuff from "specialists in the field" (usually coming from the likes of Roy Spencer or Richard Lindzen), and it becomes difficult to convince people "just who to trust," especially on issues which carry political baggage to them.

On the other hand, there are some very reliable sources on the web which are not journal articles such as RealClimate (but again, the stuff there is written by specialists).

The peer-reviewed literature is always a safe bet for a good starting place, but generally the intended audiences are scientists and not "average joes who are looking for a good source." But as for the people who only read these wingnut sources, it's not easy to convince them that they are well off course for a good considerations of the issues, and when these people think that such sources are more credible than, say, reports from the National Acadmeies or IPCC, there is a big problem. But often it does take a specialsit to be able to go to any sources, and judge the validity of the claims.

Robert Grumbine said...

Often what's really at hand is nothing to do with the science and what is a reliable source or not. Instead, one of the people has reached a conclusion (or started with one) and no amount of information from no matter how impeccable a source will change that person's mind.

A small scale example involved my sea level change FAQ (I have a story or three about that, one including more on doing science). That is, there were two people going at it about sea level change, one on the extreme that sea level can't change, the other on the extreme that sea level will change and kill us all real soon now (unless ...). Both were citing my faq as their authority. The interesting part, to me, was that when their authority (me) stepped in and said they were both wrong, they finally agreed -- to ignore me and continue arguing. Though they were citing a scientific source, they didn't care about what the science had to say. It was just window dressing.

If you look for it, the science as window dressing people are usually easy to identify. If you still have some question, ask what evidence would be needed for them to change their conclusion. The window dressing folks usually require something either impossible (the names of every person ever killed by climate change, and how) or absurdly irrelevant (that they be given climate observations at annual resolution for the last 4 billion years showing that the earth has never been warmer).

Or, not infrequently, they'll agree that they don't care what evidence you present.

Robert Grumbine said...

battyhugh: An unsourced comment by a nonprofessional was what prompted this note. We don't need more. Even more, we don't need racist ignorance.