Saturday, June 8, 2013

Intuition or Evidence?

Robin Hanson has an interesting post on the tradeoff between acting on weak information versus insisting on solid evidence in which he concludes about the sort of topics for which we often present weak information:
On this blog I often present weak clues, relevant to important topics, but by themselves not sufficient to draw strong conclusions. Usually commenters are eager to indignantly point out this fact. Each and every time. But on many topics we have little other choice; until many weak clues are systematically collected into strong clues, weak clues are what we have. And the topics of where our intuitive conclusions are most likely to be systematically biased tend to be those sort of topics. So I’ll continue to struggle to collect whatever clues I can there.
More generally, this is a tension that comes up when conducting academic research.  How do you pick a topic to study?  Most of the topics worth studying are either (A) interesting questions for which you -- for the time being -- can only provide (relatively) weak information, or (B) questions for which weak information exists, but with some work, you can provide solid evidence.  Academic knowledge progresses as people pursue both types of topics.  When it is done right, academic work is a slow accumulation of knowledge that -- hopefully -- leads to the right conclusions.

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