Comments on “An exercise: meta-rational phenomena”

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Identical apparatus do not yield identical results

My lab has multiple, ostensibly identical pieces of equipment. Constructed to the same specifications, wired using the same circuit diagrams, attached to instruments sold by reliable, well established vendors. Yet any reader with any lab experience at all will not be shocked to learn that only one of these experiment setups is considered to be ‘the good one’, the others have performance ranging from merely fine to outright bad. The differences between them are profound, yet extremely subtle and have stubbornly resisted debugging. It has taken months of careful, boring work to bring them into alignment.

Taken at face value, the results from experiments performed across all of the setups would be totally incoherent. We couldn’t possibly come to any conclusions about the phenomena were interrogating. But, since reliable results conform to a certain pattern, weird results from the bad apparatus are intuitively obvious and subject to greater scrutiny.

Such intuition is learned, of course, by regular re-calibration and benchmarking of our equipment, so that new members of the lab can form a picture of what correct operation looks like.

Epistemic Cultures

That’s an interesting thread! I’m definitely going to pick up Karin Knorr Cetina’s book, as it looks extremely interesting. I had no idea, until finding your blog, that anyone seriously thought about or studied this stuff.

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