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Prove It - Lunchtime Style

At lunchtime, we emerged from our cubicles, to squint at the warm
southern Californian sun and rest our carped-out hands. About
eight can sit at the picnic table, outside of the Heat Transfer
manufacturing building, and the table was filled with the younger
members of the analysis group.

For a bunch of analysts, lunchtime conversation is remarkable
normal (for highly educated and yet somewhat introverted people).
Usually, there is some talk of sports, or cars, or movies, or
amusing gossip about our coworkers. Indeed, most of us want to
avoid or quickly squelch work-talk (much as leaks in a dam should
be patched immediately).

The normalcy of our lunchtime conversations is not the point of
this little essay. Quite the opposite, really. We are all
engineers (and even worse: analysts), so we the topic of the
lunchtime conversation naturally turned to science.

Someone mentioned that a recent paper from the national lab in
Los Alamos suggested that the carbon dating process has some
inherent errors. The argument was that pressure (or
other environmental factors) plays a large role in the decay of
Carbon-12. The implication was that many of the carbon-dated
relics are actually much younger than previously thought.

So how should one respond to that idea?

We talked a bit about the implications: Estimates of growth
rates and evolutionary progress rates would have to be increased
some. Several coworkers were pleased to see the world of science
shaken up a bit... Some controversy is good for challenging the

But for the most part, we said "bullshit". Read the paper itself,
wait for more data, and wait to see if the experiments can be
duplicated. It is an interesting thought, and certainly worth
considering. But it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the
established techniques: There are other ways of measuring the age
of an object, and those techniques need to synch up with the
revisions to the carbon-12 methods.

There seems to be a couple of rules when hearing about new ideas:

  • Be skeptical but open. Don't reject it immediately, but
    don't accept it unprocessed either. Letting the idea roll
    around in one's head for a while is a good thing. (Not to imply
    empty heads...)
  • Make decisions based upon data. Argument by authority is
    never a good enough reason. (Some would say the the whole
    scientific method is just a hack to prevent "authorities" from
    having the final say.)
  • Ensure new facts are consistent with the rest of your knowledge.
    The universe might be a puzzle, but that only means that the
    pieces have to fit.

I guess that those rules are just common sense, and hardly worth
the trouble to write down. (But how often are they followed? How
much garbage is swallowed raw by people unwilling to think for

A friend of mine once suggested that making decisions in the face
of uncertainty should be like leading an army. Make your best
guess (and have the army march in that direction), but send scouts
out along other paths. If a scout finds something promising,
continue to send more men that way. If it turns out right, then
the whole army will soon be streaming in the new direction.

Maybe our lunchtime conversation was not explicitly about
thermodynamics or system design. But, we are trained to be
skeptical in technical matters, and it is interesting to see our
training kick in, under different circumstances.



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