An Empirical Test Could Help

And, of course, you’ll see the water draining the other way.

Before our trip to New Zealand and Australia, several people primed us to watch for a counter-clockwise spin in the bathtub or toilet.

Coriolis effect, you know, they’d say.

And we’d nod knowledgeably, just as if we, too, invoked the Coriolis effect daily to explain phenomena. Like, you know, the tendency to traverse grocery-store aisles clockwise, at least when the main entry is on the left-hand side.

So. Did we see a counter-clockwise spin in the water as it drained or flushed? No.

Did we even look for a counter-clockwise spin? No.

In a reverse Nativity-story effect, I guess, we had been warned by three wise men not to waste our time watching for differential drainage patterns. Were these magi actually qualified scientists? Well, I’d say so!

A brief aside. In something less than the full scientific spirit, I accept scientific conclusions based largely on the degree to which I fail to understand the explanations. By extension, so do I judge the qualifications of those who write said incomprehensible-ness. With articles achieving a 95% impenetrability quotient (me, I can usually follow only the abstract), writers for “Scientific American” are past qualified, beyond expert, approaching infallible.

Anyway, qualified or no, the three agreed: there is no north/south difference in how tubs drain or toilets flush. My favourite analysis of the three presented was, perhaps not surprisingly, also the shortest and lightest on jargon.

Really, I doubt that the direction of the draining water represents anything more than an accidental twist given by the starting flow. The local irregularities of motion are so dominant that the Coriolis effect is not likely to be revealed. An empirical test could help.

Fred W. Decker, professor emeritus (that’s smart, right?), said that. So calm. So rational.

An empirical test could help.

Yup. In this as in many areas of life.

Now, I could riff on this for a while. I could follow the lead of the liberal media, who bemoan what they see as the tendency of conservative politicians to put ideology over empirical observations about the environment. I could follow the lead of the conservative media, who bemoan what they see as the tendency of liberal politicians to put ideology over empirical observations about human nature.

Or, I could, instead, bemoan what I see as the human tendency to accept the common wisdoms without conducting our own empirical tests, however rudimentary. I could even just bemoan my own tendency to accept, as authorities, folks who have insufficient claim to it. Not that either of those angles would relate to the media. Or to politicians. Or to incomprehensible experts of any ilk.

But, you know, it’s been a full week of settling into our snowbird digs and taking five guided and unguided birding walks, capped off (completely unnecessarily, in my view) with a bout of not-the-bird-but-stomach flu. Talk about the dominance of “local irregularities of motion.”

So I think I’ll just leave it there for now.

But the next time I hear something a bit, well, questionable, unlikely, or excessive, I might just pack my bags, head south once more, and conduct my own tests. Metaphorically, that is. After all, God (er, “Scientific American”) has spoken. And I think I got the 5% that matters.

An empirical test could help.

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10 Responses to An Empirical Test Could Help

  1. Imagine how disconcerted you would be if you became the expert and found all those scientists don’t know what you know. I solved a problem in a research experiment my chemical engineer father shared with me in my teens. I had a better ability to visualize than he had. After three evenings of listening to stuff I could barely follow I grasped the physical problem about the action of a grinding wheel and suggested what could be done to solve it. He had a slightly shocked look on his face as the solution dawned on him and we exchanged his objections and my assertions for a minute or two; he then followed up with the lab tests and wrote a paper about his discovery and received some kind of industry award. He never admitted to me or to anyone else my role in that piece of research: of course not because I did not have the math or the language of physics to explain in his metalanguage the whole shebang. A similar sort of insight occurred when I suddenly saw why music was healing our son of schizophrenia; only that time I was in the process of learning the metalanguage to explain what I had observed to those people who ought to care. It’s pretty simple; it would have to be for me to be able to find the puzzle pieces that completed the jigsaw of my lifetime of learning about behaviour. I spent an hour last night listening to a blow-hard academic talking about genius and psychosis: he hadn’t a clue but he was no doubt impressing his thousands of You Tube viewers. My point being, Isabel, that you have funds and reserves and data banks of expertise like no other! Don’t underestimate your capacity to come up with the 95% spectacular solutions to common problems — the experts often only appear that way behind their smokescreen of words. And you are a wizard with words.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Thanks for your kind words about my, umm, words. I think perhaps you underestimate your own prodigious abilities and overestimate others’ (including mine), but I get what you’re saying about different abilities coming at problems in different ways, with different results. One of my best calculus teachers at university (and she had to be good to communicate calculus to me!) would put a diagram on the board to illustrate a problem. Then one of the guys in the class would get up in some irritation to change/correct it. Other male students would nod in agreement with his changes; I and the other woman in the class would look at what he had done and not really see the difference. Our prof carried on, seemingly a bit amused. I never talked to her about it and regret that now: I’d have loved to get her take on it. I understand from family members who do get math that the ability to visualize problems, so helpful at the outset, can become a liability in later mathematics (when dealing with more than 3 dimensions, for example). That’s why it’s kinda cool when the various perspectives can actually come together. It’s too bad that your father couldn’t acknowledge your contribution.

  2. Neighbour Dave says:

    My one-and-only time in the southern hemisphere I did conduct a study (of sorts) about just this phenomenon. Many years ago, while aboard one of Her Majesty’s Cruise Ships (HMCS), I had the opportunity to experiment on several plumbing apparatus and came to an astounding conclusion. Whoever told me this (and there were many) was full of hot air. Which is sorta what I expected, but an empirical test could help and did!

    Great article about wise men and empirical thought! Bravo Zulu!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – That’s hilarious. I’d say I can see you doing it, but let’s not go there! It’s hard, I think, to know when to accept common wisdoms and carry on, and when to test. But I suspect that as we age we do less and less testing, not necessarily to our benefit.

  3. I sat in on a case at the Supreme Court and for over an hour could not understand a single sentence what with the jargon (which inflated the simplest sentences to double and triple negatives, for starters). Later that week, I had a chance to talk to a high-court British judge and asked him why I couldn’t figure out what the case was even ABOUT (much less any particulars after an hour of careful listening and taking notes!).
    He sniffed, and said, “You’re not supposed to,” and walked away.

    This may be a little O/T, but my point is that specialty education teach an arcane language and don’t expect or want you to make them “spell it out”.
    It’s why we give them the big bucks, believing they are smarter and know best. …there are all kinds of intelligence and many are disregarded. E.g., your case, Laurna.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, every field has its jargon, and artists (cough, cough) are not exempt. Some of it is entirely legitimate, in my view – naming nuances that outsiders don’t even notice. Some of it sure looks like making the simple unnecessarily complex, to exclude on purpose.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    The question you neither raise, nor answer, is, “What is an empirical test?” Yes, I know, it is a) a test rather than an assumption, and b) open to objective measurement. You and I can examine the flushing of a toilet, or view the circulatory patterns of cloud movements on the TV, but there ain’t no way we’re ever going to have a Hadron Collider available to do empirical tests of quarks or bosons. So should we parrot the experts’ jargon about whatever the damned things are? Ignore them, in the conviction that if we can’t do an empirical thing with them, then they obviously don’t exist? Or refill the tumbler with Scotch?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Ah, the quantum world. It’s a fair point – empirical tests of that realm (and many realms, I guess) require specialized equipment, advanced training, and lots of money. I guess I’m thinking more of the world of everyday observances and socio-political consequences – and just trying to remember that a little observation (just even the willingness to look) will go a long way. As for the Scotch – no, not a chance (although it is my mother’s tipple). I prefer full-bodied red wines. I know that through careful (and I think, empirical) testing. Or tasting, anyway.

      • Ted Spencer says:

        The ground is getting wobblier by the second. In the quantum world, the empirical test is a no-no: in a mind-numbing sort of way (read some of the ‘popular’ literature on the subject), the test determines the outcome. Which ties in nicely with the way research is conducted these days: big oil tests the global warming hypothesis, and finds the result they want, as does big pharma and any number of others. What was the question? Oh, ya: which way does the effluent spin in the Antipodes? Whatever way it wants to.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Ted – Drat it – I knew that about quantum mechanics. Not for nothing did I plow my way through “Schrodinger’s Cat,” lo these many years ago now. (Well, since I “know” it but don’t apply it appropriately, maybe it was for nothing.) As for testing and magically (ta da!) getting the result you want – yeah. Another good reason to maintain some skepticism.

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