Lorin Hochstein

Ramblings about software, research and other things

Relative confidence in scientific theories

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One of the challenges of dealing with climate change is that it’s difficult to communicate to the public how much confidence the scientific community has in a particular theory. Here’s a hypothesis: people have a better intuitive grasp of relative comparisons (A is bigger than B) than they do with absolutes (we are 90% confident that “A” is big).

Assuming this hypothesis is true, we could do a broad survey of scientists and use them to rank-order confidence in various scientific theories that the general public is familiar with. Possible examples of theories:

  • Plate tectonics
  • Childhood vaccinations cause autism
  • Germ theory of disease
  • Theory of relativity
  • Cigarette smoking cause lung cancer
  • Diets rich in saturated fats cause heart disease
  • AIDS is caused by HIV
  • The death penalty reduces violent crime
  • Evolution by natural selection
  • Exposure to electromagnetic radiation from high-voltage power lines cause cancer
  • Intelligence is inherited biologically
  • Government stimulus spending reduces unemployment in a recession

Assuming the survey produced a (relatively) stable rank-ordering across these theories, the end goal would be to communicate confidence in a scientific theory by saying: “Scientists are more confident in theory X than they are in theories Y,Z, but not as confident as they are in theories P,Q”.


Written by Lorin

July 25, 2012 at 9:21 am

Posted in research

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