Why I am not an Experimenter

I enjoy reading Katja Grace’s blog, but I disagree with almost everything she says. Oh well. I am known as a contrary fellow. Recently she wrote:

the central idea of science [is] experimenting for the purpose of changing your mind.

And lamented that science experiments at school don’t really teach this, because if the experiment doesn’t say what the theory predicts, you retain the theory anyway. I commented, disagreeing strongly: science is about looking at all the data. If you change your mind based on your one experiment, you are privileging your experiment over the zillions conducted by others. Proper science is about humility, reproducibility, etc, and that is what children are being taught. So when some crackpot has an experiment that purports to show the power of prayer, people don’t think “Aha! Experimental proof!” They think “What is more likely? This experiment is junk, or prayer works like that?”

But perhaps this is simply a temperamental difference between Katja and myself. Like many utilitarians, she seems to believe in the power of rational thinking to improve people’s lives. Like many conservatives, I don’t. She wants to encourage children to experiment with such questions as:

Does decreasing the length of my skirt increase the propensity of the cool students to talk to me? Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life? Does Father Christmas exist? Do the other children hate me or are they just indifferent? What factors best cause my brothers to leave me alone? How much do my grades change if I do half an hour more or less homework each night? Does eating sugar all evening really keep me awake? How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school?

Whereas I think that your grandmother knows the answers to all these questions, so why not just ask her? Do you think these questions just arose yesterday, or that you are cleverer than everyone else who’s thought about these things? Experimentation costs lots of time and money, and the results are normally inconclusive – that’s why econometric studies almost never persuade the other side. The hard sciences have the necessary experimental rigour, but the social sciences don’t, so what hope your personal experiments? Your grandmother will turn out to be right 99.9% of the time, and you have no way of knowing which is the 0.1%. I’d liken it to evolution: mutation can be beneficial, but it’s almost always harmful. Experimentation has its place, but it needs to be limited and controlled. You can’t redesign the human genome from scratch.

I think it’s pretty easy to see how this thinking leads me to be a conservative, both economically and socially, and why it makes me mistrustful of progressives and libertarians alike – to my mind, they are opposite sides of the same coin. It’s also why I have such a high regard for science, and such a low regard for “intellectuals.” My father’s favourite saying was “Learn from other people’s mistakes, so you don’t have to make your own.” I love Kipling’s poem, which charts the disasters of social experiments with pacifism, social liberalism and redistributive taxation. Yet like Kipling, I don’t think people really learn from their mistakes:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

Still, live in hope.


One response to this post.

  1. […] to one person is obviously biased to another, and that 99% of the time, it’ll turn our that your grandmother was right all along. Note: validity may vary with […]


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