The Week That Was: March 12, 2016 – Brought to You by www.SEPP.org
By Ken Haapala, President, Science and Environmental Policy Project
Quest for Precision: One of the characteristics of scientific activities is the quest for precision to describe the physical world. Precision in understanding the error, or uncertainty, of one’s knowledge is an example of this quest. In some of his many essays on the philosophy of modern science Bertrand Russell, a prolific writer, used the ability to articulate uncertainty of knowledge as an example of what separates a scientist from an ideologue. The scientist defines with empirically established boundaries of the certainty of his findings. For example, a finding may be within plus or minus 5% using rigorous procedures that are well established. The ideologue is certain, absolutely, without boundaries of error.
Another issue is false precision, that is presenting numerical data in a manner that implies greater precision than is possible with the instrumentation or procedures used or knowledge current. Combining high precision data with low precision data and using the error range of the high precision data is a common example. To others, this practice gives the illusion of greater understanding and overconfidence in the accuracy of the results. Scientists and engineers have various techniques to correct for false precision.