Almost Random

A colleague told me yesterday that students know little about scientific methods when they enroll in her sophomore class.

It’s not that they’re dumb: they lack a certain literacy about science. And they have little idea of what methods mean.

The word “random” has crept into their vernacular but most communication sophomores use it in a way that’s quite different from researchers, and refer to something that’s odd, unexplainable or stupid as random.

Researchers use random is a very specific way, which is hard to wrap your head around because our human tendency is to look for patterns: your child has autism, your child had a vaccine. They must therefore be related.

Science researchers place great stock in the randomness of life, and it serves an important base in trying to figure out when a pattern really exists and when it’s random.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer recently wrote about the scientific method in an article for The New Yorker titled, The Truth Wears Off: Is There Something Wrong with the Scientific Method? Lehrer interviewed several researchers and writes about how, after several repetitions of experiments using the same methods, scientists find diminishing effects.

What that means is that, in an initial study, a researcher might find significant effects but that, in subsequent studies, the effects seemed to diminish. Lehrer uses the example of studies on symmetry, when researchers found that woman prefer partners who appear to be symmetrical.

But when they repeated the study, scientists found smaller and smaller effects, meaning, symmetry lost some of its power to explain female preferences.

Lehrer calls it “the decline effect,” and scientists aren’t sure what it means.

For Lehrer, he wraps up the article with a poignant thought: “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.”


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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