Do You Know the Difference between Observation and Interpretation? Part 1

By Dr. Thomas Phillips, PhD

In science, it is important to distinguish between an observation and an interpretation. Observations are things we measure; while interpretations are the conclusions we derive from those observations. In well-designed experiments the resulting interpretations are the only possible explanations for the observations—but this is a rare occurrence. More often, alternate interpretations are possible.

Unfortunately, it is often the interpretation that gets reported in the review papers, the press, and the textbooks, while the observations may only be reported in the primary source. In cases where alternate interpretations are possible—or worse, where the observations do not actually support the vaunted interpretation—it may be necessary to examine the primary source (perhaps, even, the raw data) to determine which conclusions are justified and which are not.

To illustrate this point, let me examine an example from my own research.1 Most consider the existence of dark matter and dark energy to be scientific facts—but, in reality, this conclusion is just one of several possible interpretations based upon observations.

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Do Dark Matter and Dark Energy Exist?

We have never directly observed dark matter; its existence is inferred from astronomical observation. Using the Doppler shift of light, we can very accurately measure the speed at which stars and gas clouds orbit their galactic centers. When we compare the measured velocity to the velocity calculated on the basis of the gravitational force provided by all visible mass (see here), we find that the measured velocity does not fall off rapidly with distance as predicted by our theory of gravity. Rather it remains flat at a high value out to great distances from the center of the galaxy. The accepted interpretation for this observation is that, in order to increase the gravitational force enough to keep the stars and gas in orbit around the galaxy, there must be dark matter providing additional mass that we cannot see.

However, dark matter is not the only interpretation that can explain why galaxies have flat rotation curves. It could be that our understanding of gravity is incomplete…

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Reasons To Believe : Do You Know the Difference between Observation and Interpretation? Part 1