Friday, June 01, 2007

Asking the right question

I was reading a story on this afternoon about a new video of the "Loch Ness Monster," when I saw this poll asking if I believe there is a Loch Ness Monster. I didn't like the poll's request for a "yes" or "no" answer, though. My answer would be, yes, I think there is a phenomenon in Loch Ness commonly called the "monster," but no, I don't think it is some exotic creature unknown to science or long thought extinct. In other words, I don't think the question is well-phrased, as it ignores important nuances.

The same is true when people ask me if I believe in UFOs. Yes, I think that people see things in the sky that cannot be identified. But, no, I don't think these are aliens come to visit the Earth.

The phrasing of questions, especially scientific questions, is a very important skill that most people (myself included) don't think about often enough. We like questions that can be answered from a simple choice; we don't like nuances. When we ask our politicians, "Do you support or oppose X," we don't want to listen to qualifications. Sometimes it is because the politician doesn't want to answer the question, but often it is because the question we are asking isn't a fair "yes" or "no" question.

I heard a more scientific version of careful posing of questions in this story on NPR's All Things Considered program yesterday regarding the issue of global warming. NASA Administrator Michael Griffen was quoted as saying that it was arrogant to suppose that we have the right to decide what an "optimal" climate is; in other words, it is arrogant to claim we can answer the question, "Is global warming good or bad?" And I think that, to a degree, Griffen is correct. A warmer or colder climate will benefit some creatures and people to the detriment of other creatures and people. Who is to say which creatures/people should or should not benefit from a certain climate change? But I think the problem is that "Is global warming good or bad or neutral" is not a scientifically valid question; science cannot address these issues.

In the NPR interview, Penn State professor Richard Alley states that the question that has been put to scientists is much more clearly defined: "Are the actions of humanity now, in changing the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, pushing us in a direction that will hurt us or help us?" After all, asking "Is global warming good or bad" covers up a lot of issues -- people suffering through a winter blizzard would benefit from a few degrees warmer temperature, but people living along the equator or polar bears living on the Arctic ice cap would not benefit from it. It just isn't possible to answer the question "is global warming good or bad" with either "good" or "bad." There are a zillion qualifications. Yet when it comes to the more well-defined question Richard Alley poses, the answer is scientifically clear: human activities are pushing in a direction that will cause humankind more harm than good.

A recurring theme in the science fiction/humor world of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Since beings from across the Universe always wanted to know the answer, they built a computer to determine the answer. And the answer is, "42." When everyone got mad, the computer pointed out that nobody really knew what the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything actually was.

When we ask questions of science, we need to be careful to fully phrase what we want to know. Science is good at answering specific questions. How long ago was the Big Bang? What gene causes people to have blue eyes? What medicine will cure acute viral nasopharyngitis (the common cold)? Is human action causing global climate change? What will these changes be? These are all fairly well-posed questions. Ask me one of those. And leave "are you for or against immigration reform" to the politicians.

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