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Warts from Touching a Toad

By       (Page 1 of 3 pages)   1 comment, In Series: Ephektikoi
Message Mike Zimmer

Random musings on science

Cross-posted from click here


Science provides systematic methods of investigation which often have produced a useful and secure understanding of some aspects of the world. But, it is frayed around the edges and maybe a little moth eaten. (See John P. Iaonnidis at Also see for instance:

Science is also quite incomplete, probably massively incomplete (although John Horgan disagrees: ).

Each discipline and sub-discipline has a body of knowledge consisting of the findings of the researches and the methods used in research.

All of these findings should be held tentatively, as a useful approximation, and subject to revision as understanding deepens. Scientific understanding may change incrementally, or change in large ways called a paradigm shift by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (see It does not necessarily follow that the change is for the better, and there are some examples of scientific regress.

For a further analysis of other factors affecting scientific progress, see my post Trusting the experts

Science is often described as being self-correcting in the long run. Maybe it is, overall, but in my view, it seems to make progress by lurching, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. It is not always easy to see the self-correcting aspects, although I will allow that they may be there.

Fun for Uber-geeks? Maybe we can look at a frivolous example of how we might approach a topic with scientific analysis:

  1. Can you catch warts from touching a toad? Maybe, or maybe not!
  2. How would you find out?
  3. Why would you want to?
  4. What if there was a researcher with unlimited time who wished to win the Ig Noble Prize? (see
  5. Maybe that person might be interested in running a program of studies.
  6. What would such a program look like?
  7. How would it be funded?
  8. Why don't you set up your own research designs for this program of study?
  9. Some of the considerations are outlined below.
Scientific Culture

The culture and infrastructure around science determine what gets studied, what gets funded, what gets published, and what notice is taken of research. For a discussion of these issues, see my post Trusting the experts


In research, we attempt to understand the world, in a systematic and useful fashion. We look for explanations, either to explain what has gone on in the past (postdiction) or to explain the course of future events (prediction). We look for regularities, consistent and useful patterns of explanation, and try to refine them and document them. We attempt to grasp them qualitatively and quantitatively.

Evidence is typically ambiguous. We have to interpret it, and each person may arrive at a different interpretation of any piece of evidence. We can only interpret things in terms of our prior beliefs about the world, and we are always subject to incentive, bias, and self-deception. Our understanding of events may be thoroughly confounded, confused, perplexed and baffled.

In order to remove some possible causes of misunderstanding, we attempt to use research designs that reduce confounding factors. We call these methods experimental controls. There is a whole literature on research control procedures, and interested readers can start by looking at a discussion at Wikipedia (see here: The "gold standard" for research would be studies that try to reduce bias with full randomization, control groups, and double blind participants. However, not all areas can be explored using these techniques. In some research areas, experimental controlled studies can only play a very minor role.


Causality is a deep topic, the subject of numerous discussions by philosophers, but yet part of everyday experience. In simplest terms, some event or events happen, and as a consequence, another event happens. Causes can be chained together and always will be in a thorough analysis.

Variability is the notion that things are subject to change (and these changes often seem random). Don't underestimate how important this aspect of the universe is to human understanding.

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Father and husband, free thinker, with a libertarian socialist bent, published writer, essayist, retired information systems consultant, former experimental psychology graduate student, martial arts teacher, writer of tunes, guitar teacher, (more...)

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