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October 03, 2006



Unreliable means exactly that: unreliable.

Not only could beaches get tagged polluted when clean (false positive), they could also get tagged as clean when polluted (false negative).

When public health is at stake, most prefer tests more prone to false positive than false negative, for obvious reasons.

Also, these tests are expected to be (statistically) similar across time, so that, for example, we can tell if beach health is improving or declining across the decade. Thus there are solid scientific reasons to continue to use the test, even when new knowledge reveals heretofore unknown problems.

Nothing you've presented thus far suggests the test should be suspended. Indeed, all the science you need for policy is there in the same article, near the end: "While more research is needed, Ferguson said..."

Science is imprecise stuff. Until something comes along that's provably better (and let's hope something does, and soon), the best policy is to stick with what you know, warts and all.


"Science is imprecise stuff"

No, science as a process, while having an undoubted stochastic character, is precise - which is why it's demonstrable. If it's refuted by real science (precision) then it was never science in the first place - it was most likely wishful thinking or outright chicanery. Science can also be misapplied by technicians - as may be happening in the ocean studies.

Curiously, even "bad science" (a contradiction in terms) can have a certain pragmatic value and can often serve until a better truth comes along - think of the geocentric universe.


Hi red,

I appreciate what you are trying to say. Science, in its modern conception, is study of testable hypothesis (feel free to rephrase that, but I think we are in close agreement here) - A distressingly precise notion

What I meant by "science is imprecise stuff" is exactly is that it has "an undoubted stochastic character." That is, pretty much all the output of empirical inquiry, the numbers from the lab if you will, have far greater uncertainites and more leaps of assumption than most of the public realizes. Working in a research lab, as I have done many times, really drives that point home.

You have lost me here, however: "If it's refuted by real science (precision) then it was never science in the first place"

Plenty of "real science" has been later refuted by later science, but still remained useful science. For example, all basic physics classes still rely on the Galilean transforms, even though Einstien revealed the transforms could be proven false, and indeed the transforms were proven false eighty years ago.


I once conducted an academic study of the use of the "precautionary principle" in public policy. Basically it states that in the face of scientific uncertainty precautionary measures should be taken to protect human health and the environment. This language is included in the founding documents of the European Union. Interestingly, both republicans and democrats use it at their discretion to promote and protect their own philosophies. For example, Bush used the principle when attacking Iraq but America does not employ it in preventing "global warming." Democrats use it to cease production on certain children's toys, and . . . well I can't think of a way Democrats wouldn't use it for now, but I'm sure there's something. Anyway, look it up.


tyler, I too think we are basically saying the same thing. I painted with too broad a brush when talking about things not being "science." In practice, science is an evolutionary process where hypotheses are adopted by their ability to explain observable phenomena. In this they have what William James called "provisional truth" and are maintained until an explanation that works better comes along and builds on it or debunks it.

It's also unfortunately true that many erstwhile practitioners fall from science in tortured explanations of the inexplicable. The Ptolemists fell all over themselves trying to explain retrograde motion, etc.

The challenge to decision makers and policymakers (too few of whom ever got past 10th grade chemistry)is to understand what science is as a philosophy (empiricist precision); what it is as a practice (a pragmatist explanation of how the world works); and how people who aren't scientists at all (like doctors, lab technicians, and political tract writers) use it.

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