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Saturday, March 12, 2011

BERNARD: Observation and Experiment

Yogi Berra once said that you can observe a lot just by watching. Yogi was a pretty good baseball player but he wouldn’t have made a good scientist. Claude Bernard explains that observation is only half the goal. You can indeed learn a lot by watching. But in order for it to mean anything you have to put your observations into some sort of logical context. There needs to be a framework so all those observations will make sense and be useful. That’s where experiment comes in. It’s the second half of being scientific. Bernard puts it this way: Men who gather observations are useful only because their observations are later introduced into experimental reasoning; in other words, endless accumulation of observation leads nowhere. So where should observation lead us? In his case Bernard wanted to establish medicine in a logical context. Bernard’s aim was to establish medicine as an exact science, comparable to chemistry and physics... We can’t do that by just looking around. By simply noting facts, we can never succeed in establishing a science… To learn, we must necessarily reason about what we have observed, compare the facts and judge them by other facts… In order to create a foundation for knowledge Bernard has to walk us through the steps it takes to establish an exact science. First of all we have to keep an open mind. Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations. Of necessity, they observe a preconceived idea… If we think we already know something then we’ll be blind to facts that don’t confirm what we already think. We’ll unconsciously look for the facts that back us up and discard the facts that are against us. That’s why Bernard is very firm on this point: We must never make experiments to confirm our ideas… one must accept the results of experiments as they come… So our relationship to the world should follow in a strict order. We begin by observing something that happens. Let’s say it’s something simple like seeing a straight pin sticking to a magnet. We come up with a theory that other materials will also stick to magnets. So we devise an experiment to test our theory. Here’s where we can get into trouble. Why? Because we’re already prejudiced. It was our own idea that materials stick to magnets. That’s fine when we try a nail. It works. But when we put a piece of cloth next to a magnet, nothing happens. Does that mean our experiment is a failure? Even worse, does that mean that WE are failures? We’re human beings and human beings have emotions. That’s why Bernard thinks it’s so hard to be both observer and experimenter. He says that Observers must …purely and simply note the phenomena before their eyes…(they) must be photographers of phenomena… But on the other hand an experimenter…is a man inspired…to devise experiments which in the logical order of his anticipations shall bring results serving as controls for his preconceived idea. These are two very different operations. The job of the scientist is to keep these two operations going at the same time. Why is this important? Because the observer does not reason, he notes; the experimenter, on the other hand, reasons… it seems impossible to separate them in practice. We all have a tendency to want to jump in and make something happen. We want to make things happen the way we think they should happen. And we especially want things to turn out in ways that fit our notions of the way the world SHOULD be. This is a noble goal for politics but it is bad science. That’s why we have to keep politics and science separate. The same goes for religion. Politics deals with one set of problems. Religion deals with another set of problems. Science has a different goal: Our experimenter puts questions to nature, but as soon as she speaks he must hold his peace, he must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision. Politicians don’t want to give up power. Believers don’t want to give up God. This is only human. Science, politics and religion are all human activities, but in very different ways. Bernard was passionate about keeping science pure.


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