Robert Millikan, Jane Austen, and Confirmation Bias

By George Johnson | February 17, 2014 2:32 pm

This weekend, as I was putting the final touches on my next “Raw Data” column for Tuesday’s New York Times, a friend mentioned, out of the blue, her reaction to an opinion piece published last month in the paper’s Sunday Review section. It was called “Scientific Pride and Prejudice,” by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, a political scientist at U.C.L.A. and the author of Jane Austen, Game Theorist.

I was belatedly reading the piece when I was struck by an eerie feeling resembling déjà vu. Or maybe backwards déjà vu. My column, which is about the Higgs boson and a phenomenon called the “look elsewhere effect,” ends with a story I first told in 2008 in The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. It is about the physicist Robert Millikan and his famous oil-drop experiment, which measured the charge of the electron. (Here is my summary from an old blog post titled “Fraud, Cancer, and the Millikan Effect.”)

Toward the end of the book, I described my own ham-handed attempt to repeat Millikan’s century-old experiment at home with equipment bought on eBay (I had much better luck with J.J. Thomson’s classic measurement of the electron’s charge-mass ratio), and I found myself siding with Millikan’s supporters in a long-standing controversy over whether he cherry picked his data. Millikan’s own autobiography left me with the impression that he was, at times, an arrogant jerk, and I think he should have been more generous in acknowledging his assistant, Harvey Fletcher. But his discovery was genuine and monumental. It was a beautiful experiment.

It was a surprise to read about Millikan again in Dr. Chwe’s op-ed — just hours after I had pressed “send” and delivered my own column into copy-editing. Dr. Chwe had learned the story from when he was a student of David Goodstein’s at UCLA. It was Dr. Goodstein who wrote the ringing defense of Millikan I cite in my book and who was such a great help when I was researching Strange Beauty, my biography of Murray Gell-Mann. His review of the book is one of my favorites.

I was able to insert into my column a mention of Dr. Chwe’s piece, and I urge you to read them both and see our different takes on the matter of confirmation bias in science. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to his book — after I finally read Pride and Prejudice.

Millikan’s_oil-drop_apparatus_1

Millikan’s oil-drop experiment. Wikipedia

 

Comments are welcome by email and Twitter.

For a glimpse of my new book, The Cancer Chronicles, please see this website.

@byGeorgeJohnson

 

Postscript: Faye Flam commented on the Chwe essay in the KSJ Tracker.

Postscript 2: updated with a link to the Raw Data column.

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Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.

About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at talaya.net. Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.

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