Observation: Wikis

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Observation is either an activity of a living being (such as a human), consisting of receiving knowledge of the outside world through the senses, or the recording of data using scientific instruments. The term may also refer to any datum collected during this activity.

Contents

Observation in science

The scientific method requires observations of nature to formulate and test hypotheses. It consists of these steps[citation needed]:

  1. Asking a question about a natural phenomenon
  2. Making observations of the phenomenon
  3. Hypothesizing an explanation for the phenomenon
  4. Predicting a logical consequence of the hypothesis
  5. Testing the hypothesis by an experiment, an observational study, or a field study
  6. Creating a conclusion with data gathered in the experiment

Observation plays a role in the second and fifth steps. However the need for reproducibility requires that observations by different observers be comparable. Human sense impressions are subjective and qualitative making them difficult to record or compare. The idea of measurement evolved to allow recording and comparison of observations made at different times and places by different people. Measurement consists of using observation to compare the thing being measured to a standard; an artifact, process or definition which can be duplicated or shared by all observers, and counting how many of the standard units are comparable to the object. Measurement reduces an observation to a number which can be recorded, and two observations which result in the same number are equal within the resolution of the process.

Senses are limited, and are subject to errors in perception such as optical illusions. Scientific instruments were developed to magnify human powers of observation, such as weighing scales, clocks, telescopes, microscopes, thermometers, cameras, and tape recorders, and also translate into perceptible form events that are unobservable by human senses, such as indicator dyes, voltmeters, spectrometers, infrared cameras, oscilloscopes, interferometers, geiger counters, x-ray machines, and radio receivers.

One problem encountered throughout scientific fields is that the observation may affect the process being observed, resulting in a different outcome than if the process was unobserved. This is called the observer effect. For example, it is not normally possible to check the air pressure in an automobile tyre without letting out some of the air, thereby changing the pressure. However, in most fields of science it is possible to reduce the effects of observation to insignificance by using better instruments.

Considered as a physical process itself, all forms of observation (human or instrumental) involve amplification and are thus thermodynamically irreversible processes, increasing entropy.

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Alternative definitions

In some specific fields of science the words 'observer' and 'observation' have to be redefined to take into account factors that don't seem so important in everyday observation:

  • Relativity: In relativistic physics which deals with velocities close to the speed of light, it is found that different observers may observe different values for the length, time rates, mass, and many other properties of an object, depending on the observer's velocity relative to the object. Therefore an observation must always be qualified by specifying the state of motion of the observer, his reference frame.
  • Quantum mechanics: In quantum mechanics, which deals with the behavior of very small objects, it is not possible to observe a system without changing the system, and the 'observer' must be considered part of the system being observed. In isolation, quantum objects are represented by a wavefunction which often exists in a superposition or mixture of different states. However, when an observation is made to determine the actual location or state of the object, it always finds the object in a single state, not a 'mixture'. The interaction of the observation process appears to 'collapse' the wavefunction into a single state. So any interaction between an isolated wavefunction and the external world that results in this wavefunction collapse is called an observation or measurement, whether or not it is part of a deliberate observation process.

Biases

Confirmation bias

Human observations are biased toward confirming the observer's conscious and unconscious expectations and view of the world; we "see what we expect to see". In psychology, this is called confirmation bias. Since the object of scientific research is the discovery of new phenomena, this bias can and has caused new discoveries to be overlooked. One example is the discovery of X-rays. It can also result in erroneous scientific support for widely held cultural myths, for example the scientific racism that supported ideas of racial superiority in the early 20th century, and creation science today. Correct scientific technique emphasizes careful recording of observations, separating experimental observations from the conclusions drawn from them, and techniques such as blind or double blind experiments, to minimize observational bias.

'Cargo cult' science

Another bias, which has become more prevalent with the advent of 'big science' and the large rewards of new discoveries, is bias in favor of the researcher's favorite hypothesis; we "see what we want to see". Called pathological science and cargo cult science, this is different from deliberate falsification of results, and can happen to good-faith researchers. Possible examples of mistaken discoveries caused by this bias are Martian "canals", N rays, polywater, and cold fusion. Recent decades have seen scientific scandals caused by researchers playing 'fast and loose' with observational methods in order to get their pet theories published. This type of bias is rampant in pseudoscience, where correct scientific techniques are not followed. The main defense against this bias, besides correct research techniques, is peer review and repetition of the experiment, or the observation, by other researchers with no incentive to bias. For example, an emerging practice in the competitive field of biotechnology is to require the physical results of experiments, such as serums and tissue cultures, be made available to competing laboratories for independent testing.

Processing bias

Modern scientific instruments can extensively process 'observations' before they are presented to the human senses, and particularly with computerized instruments, there is sometimes a question as to where in the measurement chain 'observing' ends and 'drawing conclusions' begins. This has recently become an issue with digitally enhanced images published as experimental data in papers in scientific journals. The images are enhanced to bring out features that the researcher wants to emphasize, but this also has the effect of supporting his conclusions. This is a form of bias that is difficult to quantify. Some scientific journals have begun to set detailed standards for what types of image processing are allowed in research results. Computerized instruments often keep a copy of the 'raw data' from sensors before processing, which is the ultimate defense against processing bias, and similarly scientific standards require preservation of the original unenhanced 'raw' versions of images used as research data.

Observations in philosophy

"Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them." Meditations. iv. 36. - Marcus Aurelius

Observation in philosophical terms is the process of filtering sensory information through the thought process. Input is received via hearing, sight, smell, taste, or touch and then analyzed through either rational or irrational thought. You see a parent beat their child; you observe that such an action is either good or bad.[citation needed] Deductions about what behaviors are good or bad may be based in no way on preferences about building relationships, or study of the consequences resulting from the observed behavior. With the passage of time, impressions stored in the consciousness about many related observations, together with the resulting relationships and consequences, permit the individual to build a construct about the moral implications of behavior.

The defining characteristic of observation is that it involves drawing conclusions, as well as building personal views about how to handle similar situations in the future, rather than simply registering that something has happened. But according to Jiddu Krishnamurti, observation does not imply drawing conclusions and building personal views. He stressed the non-accumulation of knowledge. Such an observation, he asserted, make the mind free.

See also

References


Simple English

Simple English Wiktionary has the word meaning for:

Observation is an activity of an intelligent living being (e.g. human), which senses and assimilates the knowledge of a phenomenon in its framework of previous knowledge and ideas.[1]

Observation is more than the bare act of observing: To perform observation, a being must observe and seek to add to its knowledge.

Observations that come from self-defining instruments are often unreliable ­¹. Such observations are hard to reproduce because they may vary even with respect to the same stimuli. Thus they are not of much use in exact sciences like physics which require instruments which do not define themselves. It is thus often necessary to use various engineered instruments like: spectrometers, oscilloscopes, cameras, telescopes, interferometers, tape recorders, thermometers etc. and tools like clocks, scale that help in improving the accuracy, quality and utility of the information obtained from an observation.

The accuracy and tremendous success of science is primarily attributed to the accuracy and objectivity (i.e. repeatability) of observation of the reality that science explores.

The role of observation in the scientific method

Scientific method refers to techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methodologies of knowledge. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many hypotheses together in a coherent structure. This in turn may help form new hypotheses or place groups of hypotheses into context.

Among other facets shared by the various fields of inquiry is the conviction that the process be objective to reduce a biased interpretation of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established.

Testing and improvement

The scientific process is iterative. At any stage it is possible that some consideration will lead the scientist to repeat an earlier part of the process. Failure to develop an interesting hypothesis may lead a scientist to re-define the subject they are considering. Failure of a hypothesis to produce interesting and testable predictions may lead to reconsideration of the hypothesis or of the definition of the subject. Failure of the experiment to produce interesting results may lead the scientist to reconsidering the experimental method, the hypothesis or the definition of the subject.

Other scientists may start their own research and enter the process at any stage. They might adopt the characterization and formulate their own hypothesis, or they might adopt the hypothesis and deduce their own predictions. Often the experiment is not done by the person who made the prediction and the characterization is based on experiments done by someone else. Published results of experiments can also serve as a hypothesis predicting their own reproducibility.

References

  1. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary

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