The Unfocused Lens

by Deb on September 4, 2009

With thanks to Dr Harriet Hall for the metaphor. I think this is something that applies across a lot of areas, not just science.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why there is so much debate in science. Surely we have the scientific method? Isn’t it just a matter of devising an experiment and then we’ll know? Unfortunately a lot more goes into it than that, there could be (in fact are) university courses taught on ‘Ways to Stuff Up Your Experimental Design.” But before we even get to the experiments there are other causes for debate.

Really, the basis for science isn’t the experiment, but the observation and the hypothesis. This is a tentative explanation. You look at the world, think about everything you already know, and say to yourself “I wonder if maybe this might be causing that?” From there, you go on to think about the consequences, and see if you can come up with a way to test them.

But what if there are problems with your original observations? This is where the metaphor of the unfocused lens comes in.

When you first look through a telescope it is incredibly unlikely to be focused. A complete fluke. So your first glimpse of a strange new landscape (or scientific question) will be a blur, with maybe a bit of brown at the bottom, a bit of blue at the top, and some green in between. For a complete unknown this actually tells us a fair bit. It tells us we’re on land, or maybe really murky water, like a delta. It tells us there are plants, or bushes, or swamp grass. It tells us that the weather is clear. Already we are hypothesising and people have different, but equally valid, ideas.

We work out how to focus a bit better (do some experiments), and see that there are large blobs moving around. Most people now say this means it’s land, although a few diehards argue that they’re boats or flamingoes and it could still be water. As other people get interested and swing their telescopes towards our landscape, we have people looking in slightly different directions with slightly different lenses. They each refine it a bit and together decide that they are definitely not flamingoes, it’s land. But while this happens there are intense debates, with people telling others how to focus their telescopes, someone coming up with a new way to twist it, someone complaining it’s been twisted too far, and at least 3 people who think they have found a forest way off to the left and claim everyone else is looking in the wrong place.

And it’s really painful if you’ve invested a lot of time into the water hypothesis, and you were convinced you were right, to give it up. You’re human, so it might take a long time. But if you are truly a scientist, when the data comes in you will give it up, and join the consensus that it’s land. And usually you will find something new to be passionate about, so examining this landscape is still a joy.  It’s important to remember that while the people who thought it was water were wrong, they had reasons to back up their beliefs.

But now are those blobs cars or animals?

Horses or cows?

Dairy or beef?

At each level, there are new questions, new ideas, new debates. It might get to the level that our telescopes just can’t get any closer, so someone invents a new one to get a closer view. And someone else thinks maybe they could drive over there and have a look, or even use a microscope to get in really close.

This is exactly how scientific investigation occurs as a collaborative activity. This is why there are debates, why we need lots of people talking and looking at it in slightly different ways, why we like to have lots of different experiments that confirm each other, and why people are creative in coming up with new ways of doing things.  And it’s why there are no final answers – there is always another level you can go to, something more that can be learned. This is why it’s fun!

It’s also how a lot of other learning happens. I know myself that I can chart my development as a teacher from the basics of what do I teach and how do I keep the kids in the class, through years and experiences to a debate on when constructivism or situated cognition is the more appropriate epistemology. (I used that language on purpose. I’m not showing off, I’m showing how specialised people become and how unintelligible that can be to outsiders.) Another example, I can see how my use of computers and the internet has changed, to the point I’m running 3 websites! I can see my children’s development from noise to a private language, then through signing to words and sentences.

Look around you. Where is your telescope focused? What about your children’s?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

momi September 6, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Very interesting! What happens when you make a hypothesis that can’t be scientifically tested?

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Deb September 6, 2009 at 5:06 pm

That’s actually part of the definition of science – it’s technical name is ‘falsifiability’ meaning if you can’t theoretically test it and prove it wrong then it isn’t part of science. This is where scientists get really creative, for example we can’t travel at the speed of light, but Einstein tested parts of his theory during a solar eclipse. Or there is an enormous detector being built of Antarctic ice to study gravity waves. Or there are particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider that are rings 20-30km long underground to try to study tiny particles and conditions around the Big Bang.

This is why something like Creationism is not science – there is no test that can be made, even theoretically or far in the future, that it can get wrong.

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momi September 6, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Thanks for that explanation, it helps clear things up 🙂

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