Science: minimizing interpretive variance

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All of us in science are challenged with the question of how to explain our work to those outside of our field. Over the weekend I was asked by a performance artist to explain the meaning of the sentence fragment "doing research".  When explaining the ways and the whys of math and science, I often come back to a claim made by my undergraduate linear algebra professor - "mathematics is about the communication of ideas".

I liken research to the work of an artistic painter. Imagine beginning with a blank canvas in the studio.  Leave your studio, toodle around town, grab a couple of cups of coffee and find combinations of sights, sounds and feelings that inspire you.  Internalize your experience, return to the studio and recreate your experience with paint, brush and canvas.  VoilĂ ! - an unambiguous record of your impressions of the day.  Not so (not the way I paint, anyway).  Art is open to to interpretation (is Mona Lisa frowning or smiling?).  In science, the intent of the artist or investigator should be clear to all.  If a scientific manuscript were represented as a painting, the color and texture of each brush stroke would (ideally) be deliberate and defensible. Each stroke placed in an effort to reduce ambiguity and increase the uniformity with which the painting is interpreted. This goal of uniformity of interpretation is one of the primary reasons that mathematics has become the language chosen by scientists to communicate their ideas.

maxentExample.jpg On a less abstract note, images are created and used in science to convey information. I generate images of areas likely to host right whales.  In the image shown, blue represents an area where you would be unlikely to find a right whale, and red areas are likely to be a temporary home for the animals. The right whale habitat map below was generated with the maximum entropy species distribution modeling software. In the next post I'll talk about the methodology behind these "paintings".

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Pendleton published on February 10, 2009 1:29 AM.

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