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Millikan Experiments and Selection Error

August 25th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

From Richard Feynman, “Cargo Cult Science,”:

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of
the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the
charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and
got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a
little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the
viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of
measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you
plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little
bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than
that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until
finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away?
It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because
it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a
number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something
must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why
something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to
Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated
the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.
We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that
kind of a disease.

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