Saturday, October 1, 2011

The appearence of empiricism

The article on Why The Trip Home Seems To Go By Faster has all the superficial appearance of hard science and empiricism. But there is a problem with it. A big problem. One which I suspect exists only in the writing up the information and not with those who are doing the studies the article described.

"Why people who always find the trip back shorter feel that way" doesn't make as good a headline. However it probably would have avoided the plethora of comments that either said "I always find the trip back longer" or "sometimes the trip back feels shorter and sometimes it feels longer."

One of the tricks to not falling for faux-empiricism (or bad science writing) is to look for sentences like this at the beginning of the second paragraph:
People will often feel a return trip took less time than the same outbound journey, even though it didn't.
"Will often" has no quantifiable meaning. If that sentence had read "some people always feel" then the writer could proceed to discuss studies that focus on those some people who always feel. If that sentence had read "people sometimes feel" then the writer could proceed to discuss studies that focused on what made the difference between the times the people felt one way and the times they felt another.

As the article is written the one thing I do know about the study it discusses is that if I really want to know what behaviours or experiences it is premised on I will have to find a copy of the original.

Just another (minor) example of bad science writing -- or rather bad writing about science.

1 comment:

  1. Nice analysis of that subtle difference. I've done quite a bit of writing about science in addition to taking classes on it, and it's still hard to pick out details like that.


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