Scientific Analysis - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Scientific Analysis

Usain Bolt holds the current Olympic sprinting record: 100 meters in 9.77 seconds. Back in 1936 Jesse Owens had set the record with a time of 10.2 seconds. I've seen a couple of articles on the Internet claiming that "bioengineering analysis" of film of Owens running proves that if had run on the same type of surface as Bolt, he could have done just as well. The argument is that Owens ran on crushed ash while Bolt ran on a carpet especially designed to give runners a maximum speed advantage, that modern runners have starting blocks which were not used in Owens' day, etc. See, e.g., Usain Bolt vs. Jesse Owens: Here's the tale of the tape

I use this example because I think it's relatively non-controversial. Maybe Usain Bolt fans consider it an unfair attack on their hero, but to most people, even most sports fans I think, it's perhaps an interesting question but not one that they get emotionally invested in.

So I use it as an example of a larger category: fake science.

I couldn't find any details on the "bioengineering analysis", so maybe I'm being unfair here. But in the absence of further details, I'm left wondering: I don't doubt that the analysts engaged in rigorous study, careful measurement, etc. But ... is there any actual experimental evidence that their conclusions are valid? By which I mean, if they came up with this theory about how a running surface affects the runner's speed, and then carefully analyzeed this one particular runner, applied their theory, and formulated a conclusion about how fast he could have run on an alternative surface, their conclusions might be interesting, but whatever else we can say about them, they would not be "science". Not unless they did some actual experiments to prove that their theory was correct.

A scientific theory would be tested like this: You formulate your theory. Then you get a set of test subjects to run as fast as they can on surface A. You measure each runner's speed. You analyze the video of their running and apply your theory to predict how fast they could run on surface B. Then -- and this is the critical part -- you have them actually run on surface B, and you compare their actual speeds to your predicted speed. If your predictions were correct, within some reasonable margin of error, then your theory is probably sound and it's valid to apply it. But if your predictions turn out to be wrong, then you should either abandon your theory, or perhaps work on revising it.

This is where a lot of what is called "modern science" fails. Someone proposes a theory. But then instead of testing it and seeing if the experimental evidence confirms or refutes the theory, they just declare that it must be true because it sounds good to me and I'm an expert. They then proceed to apply their theory to cases where it is difficult or impossible to verify, boldly announcing their conclusions as proven "scientific" fact.

No. Science is powerful, not because it involves careful measurement or technical analysis, but because it advances by experimental evidence. You can present the most detailed, technical, carefully-thought-out theory in the world. If when we try to test it, it doesn't work, then your theory is wrong. Period end of story. No matter how plausible and convincing your theory sounds, no matter how careful your calculations, no matter how sophisticated your computer models, no matter how many experts agree, if your theory is not confirmed by experiment, it is wrong.

The runner in the picture is neither Jesse Owens nor Usain Bolt -- in case you were confused. It's a photo I got from a stock photo service.

© 2024 by Jay Johansen


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