Wednesday, February 20, 2013

pernicious advice?

"Better is the enemy of good enough."

Supposedly this was the motto of the Soviet Admiral Gorshkov. Voltaire had something similar to say, which Gorshkov was probably paraphrasing, and which translates to something more like "The perfect is the enemy of the good".

My mentor in graduate school often repeated this advice, and now with a few years hindsight, I've decided that this is, for a scientist, an especially bad mantra. It lends itself to 'significance seeking', where you collect results until you observe the effect you're looking for, and then stop collecting. If you've got what you want, why keep looking?

Anyways, I just was thinking about this phrase last night, as so many times before I was looking over a developing set of data with some disappointment at an unexpected turnaround in the meaning of the results; I thought to myself, "better is the enemy of good enough", and then I thought, "what? you haven't even finished the experiment yet!".

Point is, avoid mantras and mottos. If you have a hypothesis to test, do it. Choose your stopping point far in advance, and determine that whatever happens, this will be the test of this hypothesis; if you still aren't convinced one way or another after the test, do another one, but don't go thinking that the first one is invalidated somehow. There is no such thing as "good enough".

No comments:

Post a Comment