Observation is either an activity of a living being, such as a human, consisting of receiving knowledge of the outside world through the senses, or the recording of data using scientific instruments. The term may also refer to any data collected during this activity. An observation can also be the way you look at things or when you look at something.
Observation in science
- Asking a question about a natural phenomenon
- Making observations of the phenomenon
- Hypothesizing an explanation for the phenomenon
- Predicting a logical consequence of the hypothesis
- Testing the hypothesis by an experiment, an observational study, or a field study
- Creating a conclusion with data gathered in the experiment
Observation plays a role in the second and fifth steps. However the need for reproducibility requires that observations by different observers be comparable. Human sense impressions are subjective and qualitative making them difficult to record or compare. The idea of measurement evolved to allow recording and comparison of observations made at different times and places by different people. Measurement consists of using observation to compare the thing being measured to a standard; an artifact, process or definition which can be duplicated or shared by all observers, and counting how many of the standard units are comparable to the object. Measurement reduces an observation to a number which can be recorded, and two observations which result in the same number are equal within the resolution of the process.
Senses are limited, and are subject to errors in perception such as optical illusions. Scientific instruments were developed to magnify human powers of observation, such as weighing scales, clocks, telescopes, microscopes, thermometers, cameras, and tape recorders, and also translate into perceptible form events that are unobservable by human senses, such as indicator dyes, voltmeters, spectrometers, infrared cameras, oscilloscopes, interferometers, geiger counters, x-ray machines, and radio receivers.
One problem encountered throughout scientific fields is that the observation may affect the process being observed, resulting in a different outcome than if the process was unobserved. This is called the observer effect. For example, it is not normally possible to check the air pressure in an automobile tire without letting out some of the air, thereby changing the pressure. However, in most fields of science it is possible to reduce the effects of observation to insignificance by using better instruments.
In some specific fields of science the words "observer" and "observation" have to be redefined to take into account factors that don't seem so important in everyday observation:
- Relativity: In relativistic physics which deals with velocities close to the speed of light, it is found that different observers may observe different values for the length, time rates, mass, and many other properties of an object, depending on the observer's velocity relative to the object. Therefore an observation must always be qualified by specifying the state of motion of the observer, his reference frame.
- Quantum mechanics: In quantum mechanics, which deals with the behavior of very small objects, it is not possible to observe a system without changing the system, and the "observer" must be considered part of the system being observed. In isolation, quantum objects are represented by a wavefunction which often exists in a superposition or mixture of different states. However, when an observation is made to determine the actual location or state of the object, it always finds the object in a single state, not a "mixture". The interaction of the observation process appears to "collapse" the wavefunction into a single state. So any interaction between an isolated wavefunction and the external world that results in this wavefunction collapse is called an observation or measurement, whether or not it is part of a deliberate observation process.
An observational bias occurs when researchers only look where they think they will find positive results, or where it is easy to record observations. This is called the "streetlight effect".
Human observations are biased toward confirming the observer's conscious and unconscious expectations and view of the world; we "see what we expect to see". In psychology, this is called confirmation bias. Since the object of scientific research is the discovery of new phenomena, this bias can and has caused new discoveries to be overlooked. One example is the discovery of x-rays. It can also result in erroneous scientific support for widely held cultural myths, for example the scientific racism that supported ideas of racial superiority in the early 20th century, and creation science today. Correct scientific technique emphasizes careful recording of observations, separating experimental observations from the conclusions drawn from them, and techniques such as blind or double blind experiments, to minimize observational bias.
"Cargo cult" science
Another bias, which has become more prevalent with the advent of "big science" and the large rewards of new discoveries, is bias in favor of the researcher's favorite hypothesis; we "see what we want to see". Called pathological science and cargo cult science, this is different from deliberate falsification of results, and can happen to good-faith researchers. Possible examples of mistaken discoveries caused by this bias are Martian "canals", N rays, polywater, and cold fusion. Recent decades have seen scientific scandals caused by researchers playing "fast and loose" with observational methods in order to get their pet theories published. This type of bias is rampant in pseudoscience, where correct scientific techniques are not followed. The main defense against this bias, besides correct research techniques, is peer review and repetition of the experiment, or the observation, by other researchers with no incentive to bias. For example, an emerging practice in the competitive field of biotechnology is to require the physical results of experiments, such as serums and tissue cultures, be made available to competing laboratories for independent testing.
Modern scientific instruments can extensively process "observations" before they are presented to the human senses, and particularly with computerized instruments, there is sometimes a question as to where in the data processing chain "observing" ends and "drawing conclusions" begins. This has recently become an issue with digitally enhanced images published as experimental data in papers in scientific journals. The images are enhanced to bring out features that the researcher wants to emphasize, but this also has the effect of supporting his conclusions. This is a form of bias that is difficult to quantify. Some scientific journals have begun to set detailed standards for what types of image processing are allowed in research results. Computerized instruments often keep a copy of the "raw data" from sensors before processing, which is the ultimate defense against processing bias, and similarly scientific standards require preservation of the original unenhanced "raw" versions of images used as research data.
Observations in philosophy"Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them."—Meditations. iv. 36. – Marcus Aurelius
Observation in philosophical terms is the process of filtering sensory information through the thought process. Input is received via hearing, sight, smell, taste, or touch and then analyzed through either rational or irrational thought. You see a parent beat their child; you observe that such an action is either good or bad. Deductions about what behaviors are good or bad may be based in no way on preferences about building relationships, or study of the consequences resulting from the observed behavior. With the passage of time, impressions stored in the consciousness about many related observations, together with the resulting relationships and consequences, permit the individual to build a construct about the moral implications of behavior.
The defining characteristic of observation is that it involves drawing conclusions, as well as building personal views about how to handle similar situations in the future, rather than simply registering that something has happened. However, observation according to Jiddu Krishnamurti does not necessarily imply drawing conclusions and building personal views. Instead of the accumulation of knowledge, a time-based, conditioning function he identified with the past, he stressed observation as a continuous process of learning, a timeless process that happens always in the present. Such observation, he asserted, frees the mind of its conditioning by discarding psychological dependence on the past.
- List of cognitive biases
- Naturalistic observation
- Observational learning
- Observations and Measurements
- Observer effect
- Uncertainty principle
- Observational science
- Observational astronomy
- ^ David H. Freedman (August 1, 2010). "The Streetlight Effect". Discover magazine.
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