Observation

Observation

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Observation is either an activity of a living being, such as a human
Human
Humans are the only living species in the Homo genus...

, consisting of receiving knowledge
Knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

 of the outside world through the sense
Sense
Senses are physiological capacities of organisms that provide inputs for perception. The senses and their operation, classification, and theory are overlapping topics studied by a variety of fields, most notably neuroscience, cognitive psychology , and philosophy of perception...

s, or the recording of data using scientific instruments. The term may also refer to any data
Data
The term data refers to qualitative or quantitative attributes of a variable or set of variables. Data are typically the results of measurements and can be the basis of graphs, images, or observations of a set of variables. Data are often viewed as the lowest level of abstraction from which...

 collected during this activity. An observation can also be the way you look at things or when you look at something.

Observation in science


The scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

 requires observations of nature to formulate and test hypothesis
Hypothesis
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. The term derives from the Greek, ὑποτιθέναι – hypotithenai meaning "to put under" or "to suppose". For a hypothesis to be put forward as a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it...

. It consists of these steps:
  1. Asking a question about a natural phenomenon
    Phenomenon
    A phenomenon , plural phenomena, is any observable occurrence. Phenomena are often, but not always, understood as 'appearances' or 'experiences'...

  2. Making observations of the phenomenon
  3. Hypothesizing an explanation for the phenomenon
  4. Predicting a logical consequence of the hypothesis
  5. Testing the hypothesis by an experiment
    Experiment
    An experiment is a methodical procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis. Experiments vary greatly in their goal and scale, but always rely on repeatable procedure and logical analysis of the results...

    , an observational study
    Observational study
    In epidemiology and statistics, an observational study draws inferences about the possible effect of a treatment on subjects, where the assignment of subjects into a treated group versus a control group is outside the control of the investigator...

    , or a field study
  6. Creating a conclusion with data gathered in the experiment


Observation plays a role in the second and fifth steps. However the need for reproducibility
Reproducibility
Reproducibility is the ability of an experiment or study to be accurately reproduced, or replicated, by someone else working independently...

 requires that observations by different observers be comparable. Human sense
Sense
Senses are physiological capacities of organisms that provide inputs for perception. The senses and their operation, classification, and theory are overlapping topics studied by a variety of fields, most notably neuroscience, cognitive psychology , and philosophy of perception...

 impressions are subjective
Subjectivity
Subjectivity refers to the subject and his or her perspective, feelings, beliefs, and desires. In philosophy, the term is usually contrasted with objectivity.-Qualia:...

 and qualitative making them difficult to record or compare. The idea of measurement
Measurement
Measurement is the process or the result of determining the ratio of a physical quantity, such as a length, time, temperature etc., to a unit of measurement, such as the metre, second or degree Celsius...

 evolved to allow recording and comparison of observations made at different times and places by different people. Measurement consists of using observation to compare the thing being measured to a standard
Standard (metrology)
In the science of measurement, a standard is an object, system, or experiment that bears a defined relationship to a unit of measurement of a physical quantity. Standards are the fundamental reference for a system of weights and measures, against which all other measuring devices are compared...

; an artifact, process or definition which can be duplicated or shared by all observers, and counting
Counting
Counting is the action of finding the number of elements of a finite set of objects. The traditional way of counting consists of continually increasing a counter by a unit for every element of the set, in some order, while marking those elements to avoid visiting the same element more than once,...

 how many of the standard units are comparable to the object. Measurement reduces an observation to a number which can be recorded, and two observations which result in the same number are equal
Equal
Equal commonly refers to a state of equality.Equal or equals may also refer to:* Equal , a brand of artificial sweetener* EQUAL Community Initiative, an initiative within the European Social Fund of the European Union...

 within the resolution
Measurement
Measurement is the process or the result of determining the ratio of a physical quantity, such as a length, time, temperature etc., to a unit of measurement, such as the metre, second or degree Celsius...

 of the process.

Senses are limited, and are subject to errors in perception such as optical illusion
Optical illusion
An optical illusion is characterized by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. The information gathered by the eye is processed in the brain to give a perception that does not tally with a physical measurement of the stimulus source...

s. Scientific instrument
Scientific instrument
A scientific instrument can be any type of equipment, machine, apparatus or device as is specifically designed, constructed and often, through trial and error, ingeniously refined to apply utmost efficiency in the utilization of well proven physical principle, relationship or technology to...

s were developed to magnify human powers of observation, such as weighing scale
Weighing scale
A weighing scale is a measuring instrument for determining the weight or mass of an object. A spring scale measures weight by the distance a spring deflects under its load...

s, clock
Clock
A clock is an instrument used to indicate, keep, and co-ordinate time. The word clock is derived ultimately from the Celtic words clagan and clocca meaning "bell". A silent instrument missing such a mechanism has traditionally been known as a timepiece...

s, telescope
Telescope
A telescope is an instrument that aids in the observation of remote objects by collecting electromagnetic radiation . The first known practical telescopes were invented in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 1600s , using glass lenses...

s, microscope
Microscope
A microscope is an instrument used to see objects that are too small for the naked eye. The science of investigating small objects using such an instrument is called microscopy...

s, thermometer
Thermometer
Developed during the 16th and 17th centuries, a thermometer is a device that measures temperature or temperature gradient using a variety of different principles. A thermometer has two important elements: the temperature sensor Developed during the 16th and 17th centuries, a thermometer (from the...

s, camera
Camera
A camera is a device that records and stores images. These images may be still photographs or moving images such as videos or movies. The term camera comes from the camera obscura , an early mechanism for projecting images...

s, and tape recorder
Tape recorder
An audio tape recorder, tape deck, reel-to-reel tape deck, cassette deck or tape machine is an audio storage device that records and plays back sounds, including articulated voices, usually using magnetic tape, either wound on a reel or in a cassette, for storage...

s, and also translate into perceptible form events that are unobservable by human senses, such as indicator dyes
PH indicator
A pH indicator is a halochromic chemical compound that is added in small amounts to a solution so that the pH of the solution can be determined visually. Hence a pH indicator is a chemical detector for hydronium ions or hydrogen ions in the Arrhenius model. Normally, the indicator causes the...

, voltmeter
Voltmeter
A voltmeter is an instrument used for measuring electrical potential difference between two points in an electric circuit. Analog voltmeters move a pointer across a scale in proportion to the voltage of the circuit; digital voltmeters give a numerical display of voltage by use of an analog to...

s, spectrometer
Spectrometer
A spectrometer is an instrument used to measure properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, typically used in spectroscopic analysis to identify materials. The variable measured is most often the light's intensity but could also, for instance, be the polarization...

s, infrared cameras, oscilloscope
Oscilloscope
An oscilloscope is a type of electronic test instrument that allows observation of constantly varying signal voltages, usually as a two-dimensional graph of one or more electrical potential differences using the vertical or 'Y' axis, plotted as a function of time,...

s, interferometers, geiger counter
Geiger counter
A Geiger counter, also called a Geiger–Müller counter, is a type of particle detector that measures ionizing radiation. They detect the emission of nuclear radiation: alpha particles, beta particles or gamma rays. A Geiger counter detects radiation by ionization produced in a low-pressure gas in a...

s, x-ray machine
X-ray machine
An X-ray generator is a device used to generate X-rays. These devices are commonly used by radiographers to acquire an x-ray image of the inside of an object but they are also used in sterilization or fluorescence....

s, and radio receivers.

One problem encountered throughout scientific fields is that the observation may affect the process being observed, resulting in a different outcome than if the process was unobserved. This is called the observer effect
Observer effect (physics)
In physics, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner...

. For example, it is not normally possible to check the air pressure in an automobile tire without letting out some of the air, thereby changing the pressure. However, in most fields of science it is possible to reduce the effects of observation to insignificance by using better instruments.

Considered as a physical process itself, all forms of observation (human or instrumental) involve amplification
Amplifier
Generally, an amplifier or simply amp, is a device for increasing the power of a signal.In popular use, the term usually describes an electronic amplifier, in which the input "signal" is usually a voltage or a current. In audio applications, amplifiers drive the loudspeakers used in PA systems to...

 and are thus thermodynamically irreversible
Irreversibility
In science, a process that is not reversible is called irreversible. This concept arises most frequently in thermodynamics, as applied to processes....

 processes, increasing entropy
Entropy
Entropy is a thermodynamic property that can be used to determine the energy available for useful work in a thermodynamic process, such as in energy conversion devices, engines, or machines. Such devices can only be driven by convertible energy, and have a theoretical maximum efficiency when...

.

Alternative definitions


In some specific fields of science the words "observer" and "observation" have to be redefined to take into account factors that don't seem so important in everyday observation:
  • Relativity: In relativistic physics which deals with velocities close to the speed of light
    Speed of light
    The speed of light in vacuum, usually denoted by c, is a physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its value is 299,792,458 metres per second, a figure that is exact since the length of the metre is defined from this constant and the international standard for time...

    , it is found that different observers may observe different values for the length, time rates, mass, and many other properties of an object, depending on the observer's velocity relative to the object. Therefore an observation must always be qualified by specifying the state of motion of the observer, his reference frame
    Reference frame
    Reference frame may refer to:*Frame of reference, in physics*Reference frame , frames of a compressed video that are used to define future frames...

    .

  • Quantum mechanics: In quantum mechanics
    Quantum mechanics
    Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

    , which deals with the behavior of very small objects, it is not possible to observe a system
    Observer (quantum physics)
    In quantum mechanics, "observation" is synonymous with quantum measurement and "observer" with a measurement apparatus and observable with what can be measured. Thus the quantum mechanical observer does not...

     without changing the system, and the "observer" must be considered part of the system
    System
    System is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole....

     being observed. In isolation, quantum objects are represented by a wavefunction
    Wavefunction
    Not to be confused with the related concept of the Wave equationA wave function or wavefunction is a probability amplitude in quantum mechanics describing the quantum state of a particle and how it behaves. Typically, its values are complex numbers and, for a single particle, it is a function of...

     which often exists in a superposition
    Quantum superposition
    Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. It holds that a physical system exists in all its particular, theoretically possible states simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations.Mathematically, it...

     or mixture of different states. However, when an observation is made to determine the actual location or state of the object, it always finds the object in a single state, not a "mixture". The interaction of the observation process appears to "collapse
    Wavefunction collapse
    In quantum mechanics, wave function collapse is the phenomenon in which a wave function—initially in a superposition of several different possible eigenstates—appears to reduce to a single one of those states after interaction with an observer...

    " the wavefunction into a single state. So any interaction between an isolated wavefunction and the external world that results in this wavefunction collapse
    Wavefunction collapse
    In quantum mechanics, wave function collapse is the phenomenon in which a wave function—initially in a superposition of several different possible eigenstates—appears to reduce to a single one of those states after interaction with an observer...

     is called an observation or measurement, whether or not it is part of a deliberate observation process.

Observational bias


An observational bias occurs when researchers only look where they think they will find positive results, or where it is easy to record observations. This is called the "streetlight effect
Streetlight effect
The streetlight effect is a type of observational bias where people only look for whatever they are searching by looking where it is easiest.The parable is told several ways but includes the following details:...

".

Confirmation bias


Human observations are biased toward confirming the observer's conscious and unconscious expectations and view of the world; we "see what we expect to see". In psychology, this is called confirmation bias
Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.David Perkins, a geneticist, coined the term "myside bias" referring to a preference for "my" side of an issue...

. Since the object of scientific research is the discovery of new phenomena, this bias can and has caused new discoveries to be overlooked. One example is the discovery of x-ray
X-ray
X-radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation. X-rays have a wavelength in the range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz and energies in the range 120 eV to 120 keV. They are shorter in wavelength than UV rays and longer than gamma...

s. It can also result in erroneous scientific support for widely held cultural myths, for example the scientific racism
Scientific racism
Scientific racism is the use of scientific techniques and hypotheses to sanction the belief in racial superiority or racism.This is not the same as using scientific findings and the scientific method to investigate differences among the humans and argue that there are races...

 that supported ideas of racial superiority in the early 20th century, and creation science
Creation science
Creation Science or scientific creationism is a branch of creationism that attempts to provide scientific support for the Genesis creation narrative in the Book of Genesis and disprove generally accepted scientific facts, theories and scientific paradigms about the history of the Earth, cosmology...

 today. Correct scientific technique emphasizes careful recording of observations, separating experimental observations from the conclusions drawn from them, and techniques such as blind or double blind experiments, to minimize observational bias.

"Cargo cult" science


Another bias, which has become more prevalent with the advent of "big science
Big Science
Big Science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, as scientific progress increasingly came to rely on large-scale projects usually funded by national governments or groups...

" and the large rewards of new discoveries, is bias in favor of the researcher's favorite hypothesis; we "see what we want to see". Called pathological science
Pathological science
Pathological science is the process in science in which "people are tricked into false results ... by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions". The term was first used by Irving Langmuir, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, during a 1953 colloquium at the Knolls Research Laboratory...

 and cargo cult science
Cargo cult science
Cargo cult science refers to practices that have the semblance of being scientific, but are missing "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty". The term was first used by the physicist Richard Feynman during his commencement...

, this is different from deliberate falsification of results, and can happen to good-faith researchers. Possible examples of mistaken discoveries caused by this bias are Martian "canals", N rays, polywater
Polywater
Polywater was a hypothetical polymerized form of water that was the subject of much scientific controversy during the late 1960s. By 1969 the popular press had taken notice, and by 1970 doubts about its authenticity were being circulated. By 1973 it was found to be illusory...

, and cold fusion
Cold fusion
Cold fusion, also called low-energy nuclear reaction , refers to the hypothesis that nuclear fusion might explain the results of a group of experiments conducted at ordinary temperatures . Both the experimental results and the hypothesis are disputed...

. Recent decades have seen scientific scandals caused by researchers playing "fast and loose" with observational methods in order to get their pet theories published. This type of bias is rampant in pseudoscience
Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status...

, where correct scientific techniques are not followed. The main defense against this bias, besides correct research techniques, is peer review
Peer review
Peer review is a process of self-regulation by a profession or a process of evaluation involving qualified individuals within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility...

 and repetition of the experiment, or the observation, by other researchers with no incentive to bias. For example, an emerging practice in the competitive field of biotechnology
Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a field of applied biology that involves the use of living organisms and bioprocesses in engineering, technology, medicine and other fields requiring bioproducts. Biotechnology also utilizes these products for manufacturing purpose...

 is to require the physical results of experiments, such as serums and tissue culture
Tissue culture
Tissue culture is the growth of tissues or cells separate from the organism. This is typically facilitated via use of a liquid, semi-solid, or solid growth medium, such as broth or agar...

s, be made available to competing laboratories for independent testing.

Processing bias


Modern scientific instruments can extensively process "observations" before they are presented to the human senses, and particularly with computerized instruments, there is sometimes a question as to where in the data processing chain "observing" ends and "drawing conclusions" begins. This has recently become an issue with digitally enhanced
Digital image processing
Digital image processing is the use of computer algorithms to perform image processing on digital images. As a subcategory or field of digital signal processing, digital image processing has many advantages over analog image processing...

 images published as experimental data in papers in scientific journal
Scientific journal
In academic publishing, a scientific journal is a periodical publication intended to further the progress of science, usually by reporting new research. There are thousands of scientific journals in publication, and many more have been published at various points in the past...

s. The images are enhanced to bring out features that the researcher wants to emphasize, but this also has the effect of supporting his conclusions. This is a form of bias that is difficult to quantify. Some scientific journal
Scientific journal
In academic publishing, a scientific journal is a periodical publication intended to further the progress of science, usually by reporting new research. There are thousands of scientific journals in publication, and many more have been published at various points in the past...

s have begun to set detailed standards for what types of image processing
Image processing
In electrical engineering and computer science, image processing is any form of signal processing for which the input is an image, such as a photograph or video frame; the output of image processing may be either an image or, a set of characteristics or parameters related to the image...

 are allowed in research results. Computerized instruments often keep a copy of the "raw data" from sensors before processing, which is the ultimate defense against processing bias, and similarly scientific standards require preservation of the original unenhanced "raw" versions of images used as research data.

Observations in philosophy


Observation in philosophical terms is the process of filtering sensory
Sense
Senses are physiological capacities of organisms that provide inputs for perception. The senses and their operation, classification, and theory are overlapping topics studied by a variety of fields, most notably neuroscience, cognitive psychology , and philosophy of perception...

 information
Information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

 through the thought process. Input is received via hearing
Hearing (sense)
Hearing is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations through an organ such as the ear. It is one of the traditional five senses...

, sight
Visual perception
Visual perception is the ability to interpret information and surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching the eye. The resulting perception is also known as eyesight, sight, or vision...

, smell
Olfaction
Olfaction is the sense of smell. This sense is mediated by specialized sensory cells of the nasal cavity of vertebrates, and, by analogy, sensory cells of the antennae of invertebrates...

, taste
Taste
Taste is one of the traditional five senses. It refers to the ability to detect the flavor of substances such as food, certain minerals, and poisons, etc....

, or touch
Haptic perception
Haptic perception is the process of recognizing objects through touch. It involves a combination of somatosensory perception of patterns on the skin surface and proprioception of hand position and conformation....

 and then analyzed through either rational or irrational thought. You see a parent beat their child; you observe that such an action is either good or bad. Deductions about what behaviors are good or bad may be based in no way on preferences about building relationships, or study of the consequences resulting from the observed behavior. With the passage of time, impressions stored in the consciousness about many related observations, together with the resulting relationships and consequences, permit the individual to build a construct about the moral implications of behavior.

The defining characteristic of observation is that it involves drawing conclusions, as well as building personal views about how to handle similar situations in the future, rather than simply registering that something has happened. However, observation according to Jiddu Krishnamurti
Jiddu Krishnamurti
Jiddu Krishnamurti or J. Krishnamurti or , was a renowned writer and speaker on philosophical and spiritual subjects. His subject matter included: psychological revolution, the nature of the mind, meditation, human relationships, and bringing about positive change in society...

 does not necessarily imply drawing conclusions and building personal views. Instead of the accumulation of knowledge, a time-based, conditioning function he identified with the past, he stressed observation as a continuous process of learning, a timeless process that happens always in the present. Such observation, he asserted, frees the mind
Mind
The concept of mind is understood in many different ways by many different traditions, ranging from panpsychism and animism to traditional and organized religious views, as well as secular and materialist philosophies. Most agree that minds are constituted by conscious experience and intelligent...

 of its conditioning by discarding psychological dependence on the past.

See also

  • Introspection
    Introspection
    Introspection is the self-observation and reporting of conscious inner thoughts, desires and sensations. It is a conscious and purposive process relying on thinking, reasoning, and examining one's own thoughts, feelings, and, in more spiritual cases, one's soul...

  • List of cognitive biases
  • Naturalistic observation
    Naturalistic observation
    Naturalistic observation is a research tool in which a subject is observed in its natural habitat without any manipulation by the observer. During naturalistic observation researchers take great care to avoid interfering with the behavior they are observing by using unobtrusive methods...

  • Observational learning
    Observational learning
    Observational learning is a type of learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating novel behavior executed by others...

  • Observations and Measurements
    Observations and Measurements
    Observations and Measurements is an International Standard which defines a conceptual schema encoding for observations, and for features involved in sampling when making observations...

  • Observer effect
    Observer effect
    Observer effect may refer to:* Observer effect , the impact of observing a process while it is running* Observer effect , the impact of observing a physical system...

  • Uncertainty principle
    Uncertainty principle
    In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be simultaneously known...

  • Observational science
    Observational science
    An observational science is a science where it is not possible to construct controlled experiments in the area under study. For example, in astronomy, it is not possible to create or manipulate stars or galaxies in order to observe what happens...

  • Observational astronomy
    Observational astronomy
    Observational astronomy is a division of the astronomical science that is concerned with getting data, in contrast with theoretical astrophysics which is mainly concerned with finding out the measurable implications of physical models...

  • Observatory
    Observatory
    An observatory is a location used for observing terrestrial or celestial events. Astronomy, climatology/meteorology, geology, oceanography and volcanology are examples of disciplines for which observatories have been constructed...