Show me the data

Science is a method to distil truth from the world. The core of science is experimentation: formulating a hypothesis about how something works, aggressively testing it, collecting observations in the form of data, analysing the results, and coming to a conclusion. All of these steps require “invention, sagacity, [and] genius” (Whewell, History of Inductive Science, 1837, and in Philosophy of Inductive Science, 1840) – and in my personal experience, a generous helping of luck.

It can be nigh on impossible to truly apply the scientific method in some fields. I have the greatest respect for people trying to work in these areas, and a fair amount of sympathy too. Sometimes it’s because no one can figure out how to actually do more than just observe, for example in astrophysics. In other cases, such as economics, ethical considerations limit the scale and types of experiments that can be performed. Then there are those fields where the results are so ambiguous as to challenge the best analytical techniques available, like psychology and nutrition.

Scientific methods are slowly becoming more common in areas far removed from the halls of academia. Evidence-based policy making in government, data analytics in business strategy, and sports analysis are three ways in which the tools and mindsets of science are being disseminated through to broader society. These are tough fields to work in, given the complexity of the systems involved, the constraints on what can be done, and time scales available; but the potential rewards are huge.

This blog documents my attempts to apply science to my day-to-day life. The idea that truth comes from experimentation is probably the one constant in my career to date – a career that has been maddeningly unfocused: I started off as an engineering undergrad in computer engineering, then branched off to medical science, cryptanalysis, photonics and surface (bio)-chemistry before going to grad school in molecular biophysics (supervised by a former bioscience head at Los Alamos). The birth of my first son knocked me off my career trajectory, whatever that might have been. These days I work as a management consultant for a cool boutique by day, and a sabre fencing instructor by night.

I’ll try to tackle three questions in this blog for the most part:

  1. What’s the most effective way to train a 29 year old, 5′ 7”, injury-prone male in sabre fencing in under 20 hours a week?
  2. How should I be raising my kids now to prepare them for the world of 2040 (including worst-case of zombie/jellyfish apocalypse)?
  3. Can a person with a laptop, free (or cheap) software and public data derive insight into how the world works?

I’ll be relying on you to keep challenging the assertions in this blog. The name, by the way, comes from a bit of wisdom from a grizzled old post-doc back when I first started in a lab:

“Trust no one. Assume nothing. Show me the data.”

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