An excellent comment I heard recently suggested how we are primed to look for the data that supports what we are already believe rather than challenge our own visions of the world by asking what arguably is the most important question you can ask about your own beliefs: “What Would Prove Me WRONG?”. We see this all the time in politics where advocates present only information that supports their position and only review comments from the opposition that make them look bad. Where objective people look at “all the facts”, advocates only look in one direction.
As a science person the importance of the “What Would Prove Me Wrong” approach is pretty obvious – though I sometimes fail my own test and forget to ask this question rather than the more common and misguided “what data will prove my idea correct?”.
At first glance you might say “hey, it’s important and justifiable to look mostly for the data that will prove my idea right!”. But you’d be … WRONG.. to think that. More importantly you’d be *irrational* if you think that approach will get you closer to the truth. It will simply reinforce your existing perception. You may be right or wrong, but since it’s easy to find support for even completely faulty ideas by “cherry picking”, truth demands you look at *all* the data or when that is not possible work hard to sample the data you do review in unbiased ways.
In science this inappropriate focus is often called “Cherry Picking” and it’s the practice of focusing too narrowly on supporting data in such a way that it creates a biased observation. An extreme example would be for somebody to suggest that an unusually hot summer “proves” global warming, or that an unusually cold winter “disproves” it. Contrary to what you’d think if you get your science from common journalistic misinterpretations, few of the events cited in the news tell you much of anything about how to evaluate the complex climate models and observations that frame the complex global warming issues such as the role of human factors vs natural variation, the costs of mitigation, and the significance of the warming trends themselves in terms of our global future well-being.
Science relies heavily on a wonderful principle called skepticism. Unfortunately that wondeful notion of “skepticism” has been seriously damaged during the massive global warming debates where “skeptics” of the “anthropogenic global warming hypothesis”, also called “AGW” are disparaged as “deniers” who have no interest in science or truth. While it is true that many “global warming skeptics” are simply parroting nonsense talking points and never asking themselves “What Would Prove me WRONG?”, many defective forms of rational inquiry are now commonplace in the scientific community as well. This is unfortunate and more importantly has created within science a new “advocacy model” where many scientists no longer see their primary role as that of unbiased, objective researcher – they also want to become spokespeople for policy changes they feel are the logical extension of their research. This scientist/ advocate model has combined with our natural human egos in very undesireable ways.
An excellent example is the defense by no less than several NASA climate scientists of the misleading and scientifically unjustified claims in the film “An Inconvenient Truth”. Debating the merits of that film at the RealClimate.org blog quickly taught me that my old school ideas about science and scientists as “profoundly skeptical seekers of truth” have been replaced by the new idea that scientists are not only entitled to be advocates, they are pretty much obligated to be advocates. I’d argue that this single factor is the most alarming trend in science right now because advocates don’t see or think nearly as clearly as researchers (formerly proudly called skeptics). If there is one thing we need moving forward it is clear thinking and skepticism rather than an almost blind adherence to complex models attempting to describe the world.