Subject to interpretation

World is full of mysteries. Science is the study of natural world through experiments and observations. Hence to solve mysteries we often rely on scientific method, logical processes, to explain the unexplainable. But what if I told you that large portion of science is also subjected to numerous interpretations?

Role of human nature

Modern science is a gradual progress of failures and accomplishments. It was not created over night nor does it have a perfect track record. Sometimes Scientists make mistakes out of limited knowledge, experience or simply due to their egos. For example, the AC-DC war (“War of Currents”) in the late 1880s both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse did not realized the potential for both AC and DC currents. Therefore they fought for a monopoly. Today we use both types of currents; AC for home electrical systems and DC for our electronics. Another example of limited knowledge would be how we used to handle radioactive materials without the concern for radiation. In the old days Scientists like Marie Curie did not know the effects of radiation on human body. Therefore she used the same tools used for uranium salts for cooking food. She was poisoning herself without being aware of it. Unlike what most people assume, the subject of science is not perfect and it is already muddier with a so many failures and assumptions.

Public expectations

The problem with the term “science” is that majority of the general public expect it to be prefect and logical. For example, if 1+1 is equal to 2, then it must be true for everyone under any given circumstances. Public expects the Scientists like us to search for explanation to problems and find solutions the same way that 1+1=2. This is where the relationships between the general public and the scientific community fall apart.

In 2012, Geologists who did not predict the earthquake in Italy were treated with jail time. The reason the judge gave was that the Geologists downplayed a series of minor earthquakes in L’Aquila, Italy in 2009 prior to the big one. The public want accountability for our actions. But most people do not understand that science is not a perfect tool. It is a series of tools that often far from perfect. Instead of jailing the Scientists, public should have encourage them to find better ways to interpret minor earthquakes so we can predict better in the future.

Interpretations

Yes, there are many different shades of black (or any other color). You can say the “sample X was white on day 1” and “turns to dark gray on day 3”. Then someone else observing the exact same sample can say the “sample X was purple-white on day 1” and “turns to light black on day 3”. You both may be right because the color is subjected to interpretations. The ambiguity factor is everywhere. How do you do you define sea level when sea rise and fall with seasons and time of the day, how do you know the soil color index is correct, how do you separate one Geologic Formation from another, how to you measure a success of a medical trial, etc?

Scientists have spent vast amount of resources to calibrate and standardize how we record and interpret our observations. Still as individuals we have to make decisions when we observe, record and interpret data. During all three steps, we can make mistakes or we may be influenced by our superiors (CEO, Manager, Professor, “smart friend”, etc). This is not always a problem in every area of science. But it does affect a lot of Geologists. I found this is a huge problem for students in Geology and Geophysics compared to Students in Mathematics and Classical Physics.

Let’s look at the problem from a Field Geologist’s point of view. Imagine you are given the task of mapping formations in a five by five kilometer area. This is what exactly I did during field school in Carlin Canyon, Nevada in May 2014. Compared to millions of square kilometers of Earth, this is a very small area. But even with such a limited area, you can be faced with multiple interpretation issues. First you need to define lithologies. Assuming you had no outside help, it will require you to walk across the area scanning for outcrops with different properties. Then you have to define the definitions you will be using to separate one formation from another. Just because of the lithology has changed; it may not be enough to call it a new formation from the unit above/below. (There are many other features like on a fault; you must decide what type of fault and the sense of motion. The list goes on…) This is where your interpretation is important. While not everyone will agree with you, whatever the interpretation you make has to be backed up by facts; facts that you observe and recorded. These facts must be able to traced and tested. For example, providing a GPS location reading for the contact between two or more formation must be able to trace back by someone else. You may be correct or you may be completely wrong. The important thing is that you have solid evidence on what you have found.

Just because all observations are subject to interpretation, it does not mean that all interpretations and subsequent conclusions are wrong. Even if the interpretations sound too extreme, they might be right. In fact, most reputed findings are born out of interpretations that at the time might even sound crazy. For example, by analyzing a wave, scientists said we can transmit sound and images over the air wirelessly. It was a crazy idea at that time, but this lead to the development of television.

Interpretations are not wild guesses, but rather educated decisions based on previous studies and your own observations. The problem is there is a human factor in which we all think differently.

Public must be educated

An experienced Geologist cannot predict when the next earthquake or sinkhole may occur. Even with the advancement of technologies we still cannot predict when and where these would occur. We can predict, but we cannot be sure. We need to realize this is always be a problem when we try to define nature.

Perceptions that all sciences are based on clear cut observations and evidence (by the public hurts) the academic community. In my opinion the solution is to educate the public by admitting that science is not perfect. Even if it damages the controversial and politically sensitive matters like climate research, we need to admit that science is not perfect. Otherwise the trust between the science community and the public will be broken. As a result I think we might even be going back to an age where religion rules the world over the reasoning and science. That world without logic, reason and scientific method is to me, unthinkable.