"Observe the Candle..."

"Observe the candle!"

I can still hear the booming voice of my high-school chemistry teacher. My classmates and I sat around the octagonal lab tables, staring at the candles burning before us as he walked us through the scientific method.

"Now, take your lab books and record your observations!"

We did:

"The candle is giving off heat..."

"The candle is green..."

"The candle's flame is yellow..."

But we were one step ahead. Our public-school education had overflowed with films and filmstrips about the wonders of science and its method, so we knew what to do: Observe the candle objectively, scientifically, without bias or preconception—and, above all, never wear a crewcut or those thick, black glasses like the scientists in those films.

"Now, stop writing and observe the candle some more!"

We did. But when you're 15, objectivity is boring. Just for fun (and just to annoy our teacher), my friends and I had a contest to see who could be the most unscientific. Naturally, I won. My lab book contained some startling discoveries:

"The flame looks like a sunburst Vox Mark VI electric guitar (just like Brian Jones'!).

"The candle is not funny-looking in precisely the same way that the chemistry teacher is.

"The candle is just burning to get out of this class and go home."

Today I'd be too embarrassed to tell this story were it not that 1) I have no shame, and 2) my fellow cutups and I were staring right at a murky philosophical puzzle—one that leads straight to the endless debate between objectivists and subjectivists.

The puzzle is about the two main ingredients of science: observations (like the ones that filled our notebooks) and theories (by which I mean all the laws, ideas, principles, and even just the hunches that make science go). Are these truly separate and independent ingredients?

The conventional wisdom says "Yes!" Observations and theories are like apples and oranges. They don't interact. What that candle looked like—what we all observed—had nothing to do with our various beliefs and ideas. While I was thinking about Brian Jones' guitar, for instance, Barbara the valedictorian-to-be was probably thinking about the atomic structure of oxygen. Still, we both saw the same phenomenon: a burning candle.

Like a recipe, the scientific method requires some ingredients. In our case, we took some observations and carefully added some theories and hypotheses about atoms, molecules, energy conservation, and so on. Then we stirred carefully while adding some logic and common sense. In the end, we cooked up a basic understanding of combustion.

This isn't just science, it's common sense. Sgt. Joe Friday, of the old TV show Dragnet, knew all about it. If you saw the crime take place, he wanted only your observations: "Just the facts, Ma'am." He especially didn't want your theories or hunches about whodunit. It was his show, so he'd collect all the observations, build his own theory, and catch the crook just before the last commercial break.

Objectivists take Sgt. Friday's approach to equipment reviews. "Just the facts, Wes (or John, or Steve, or Kalman, or...)." A reviewer's job, they believe, is to report objective, scientific observations about a component, especially the results of test-bench measurements. If subjective impressions are reported, they should be backed up with blind tests or ABX techniques. Why? To keep reviewers from drifting into unscientific reveries that will only detract from the objectivity of the information being reported.