Monday, July 22, 2013

Science is all about comparisons

It amazes and frustrates me that this basic point is so often neglected.
Comparisons are central to science in two respects.

Control variables.
As you vary just ONE parameter [pressure, electron-phonon coupling, temperature, isotope, Planck's constant] how do the results of the experiment or calculation vary.
People seem to often vary more than one parameter.
Or, they don't vary any. For example, they do some complicated calculation and get "an answer", i.e. a number, but don't investigate or report how that answer depends on the parameters or approximations in their calculation.

Comparison with earlier work.
Many people don't seem to feel a need or obligation to report how their results compare to those of others who did related experiments or simulations.
Earlier I made the case for why Tables are wonderful in papers for these reasons.
I also considered the astonishing case of a widely downloaded paper about the theory of hydrogen bonding that tried to make a case that there was no reason to compare the calculations to experiment.

It is interesting to me how often people neglect to make such comparisons. Yet after they give a talk these are often the first questions that are asked.

Do you agree this is a problem?
If so, why are people so reluctant to make comparisons?
Are they just lazy? Or scared?

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