Science, Statistics, Politics, Current Events, Photos and Life.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Research is an Attitude

I do research for a living. It is sometimes a little hard to explain to people what research is. After all, many people can go a lifetime without running into valid research.

  • Porcupine quills cure cancer (okay, not porcupine quills, but peach pits);
  • Vitamin C cures the common cold (an otherwise good scientist goes slightly off his rocker, and everyone follows suit in the face of overwhelming evidence against the hypothesis);
  • aliens abducted my mother (and every other supermarket checkout headline);
  • Vitamin E halts aging (last study I read about found it slightly harmful in large doses).
  • The latest activities of Brangelina, Britney, Paris, Bennifer, Julia, Bruce, Nicolle, Tom, Mel.
What is research? It is curiousity. It is an attitude towards facts and towards life. It is the finding out of 'things', the discovering of how things work, why something is done, why someone behaves in a certain manner. Is a given fact actually true? It is the discovering of
  • explanations;
  • rules;
  • laws;
  • how to achieve something new;
  • what happens if you do something a different way.
Here is an example involving curiousity more than research. In my neighborhood, rubber hoses have been stapled down on the street and connected to a small box on the sidewalk. The obvious questions are
  • What are the hoses?
  • What are they doing there?
  • Why are they there?
Some less obvious questions are:
  • Who put the hoses there?
  • How long will they be there?
  • Can I remove them?
  • Can I move them?
  • Are there any consequences to them being there?
  • Will there be more?
  • Can they damage my car?
Lots of questions. Research starts with curiousity. The more questions the merrier, as long as they don't get overwhelming.

What are the hoses? I believe I know that they are for counting the number of cars going by. In research, it is important to identify what you know already, and also to know how certain something is. I believe this, but it is knowledge from my childhood, not from being told by the owner of the hoses.

What are the hoses doing there? Measuring traffic. In a few places, there are a pair of hoses close by. That could be used to measure speed, for example, because the traffic engineers know the distance between the hoses. Actual speeds of cars is useful for setting speed limits, and knowing whether drivers are treating a road as unsafe. The impact of a stop sign is determined partly by the speeds that cars go past the intersection.

Why are they there? Well, obviously somebody or someone wants to consider changing the traffic signs: speed signs, presence of two or four stop signs, perhaps a cross walk.

Bringing other information to bear is important in research. I know that this street has recently been extended. It used to go nowhere, but now it is a through street. Many houses have been built along the road. Traffic patterns must be different from when the street was originally marked. I know people often complain about hazardous traffic conditions in our neighborhood (though I don't know of any complaints about this street), and this street is more hazardous than many, because cars park on both sides of the street, it is busy, and it is not particularly wide. When someone opens a car door on the street side, pulls out of a driveway or parking space onto the road, or when the trash truck or mailman stop their vehicles, an unsafe condition is created. Pedestrians are at risk because the street turns, and they cannot be seen. Skateboarders occasionally pull directly out into traffic along the street.

Making suppositions can be fun and useful. I conclude from this information that traffic changes may be warranted, and due to the many hoses placed, that quite a number of changes are under consideration. Possibilities include four way stops, speed limit changes, and I bet parking restrictions on one side of the street (boy would that be unpopular for residents!) are options I would consider.

But be aware that these are suppositions, and not facts!

What is the truth? How can I proceed? There are several possible actions I could take here:
  • Someone knows about those hoses, just not me. Research includes getting information from other people or sources when you do not know yourself. This may be considered spreading information around, rather than discovering something totally new. On the other hand, it is new to me, and for me that is research.
    • I could ask city traffic engineers (probably best);
    • I could ask a traffic engineer not connected with these hoses;
    • I could look up about traffic management in books or the web.
  • I could collect more data. In this situation, if I wait, the hoses will disappear, and traffic changes will or will not occur. If after six months or a year no changes have occurred, then I conclude that no changes were warranted. Personally, my bet is something will change.
Suppose I wait, and eventually traffic changes occur. It is important to understand that I have learned something. This is support for my suppositions. It suggests that my suppositions are sensible. It does not guarantee their truth, but it increases the probability of their truth. Compared to other possible explanations about the hoses, (residents gathering evidence for the city, aliens, act of God), my explanations are more plausible.

Aliens and acts of God would predict destruction of the street as equally likely as traffic changes, or straightening the street, or permanent hail storms. If those happened, my suppositions would be discredited, and the aliens/act of God hypothesis would be indicated, though not proven!

Residents directly installing the hoses seems implausible -- the hoses are specialized equipment, carefully and systematically installed, not someone's expensive play toys. Seems unlikely to me, though this could also lead to traffic pattern changes.

In summary: when I see new data (traffic changes, or no changes or miraculous straightening of curvy roads) I will change my opinions. Traffic changes increases the probability of my suppositions, and the resident hypothesis. But the resident hypothesis was implausible to begin with. No changes means I learn nothing and am left with my suppositions, because they seem most likely to me in the first place. Straightening the roads will cause me to either reread HG Wells, or start going to church, synagogue or mosque, depending on the decorations of the newly straightened road.

Research is an attitude. It is a way of thinking about the world, always looking, seeing, observing. It is about thinking of the whys, wherefores, whats and hows of the world

  • Why things are the way they are,
  • What are they in the first place??
  • How they came to be?
  • Wherefore will happen next because the world is the way it is right now?

No comments: