2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Professor of Anthropology and Adjunct Associate Research Scientist, Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan
GIGO

A shorthand abstraction I find to be particularly useful in my own cognitive toolkit comes from the world of computer science, and applies broadly in my experience to science and scientists. GIGO means "garbage in, garbage out." Its application in the computer world is straightforward and easy to understand, but I have found much broader applications throughout my career in paleoanthropology.

In computer work, garbage results can arise from bad data or from poorly conceived algorithms applied to analysis — I don't expect that the results from both of these combined are a different order of garbage because bad is bad enough. The science I am used to practicing has far too many examples of mistaken, occasionally fraudulent data and inappropriate, even illogical analysis, and it is all too often impossible to separate conclusions from assumptions.

I don't mean to denigrate paleoanthropology, which I expect is quite like other sciences in these respects, and wherein most work is superbly executed and cannot be described this way. The value of GIGO is to sharpen the skeptical sense and the critical facility because the truth behind GIGO is simple: science is a human activity.