How do subjective and external pressures affect the way scientists interpret 'fuzzy' data?

How do subjective influences and external pressures affect the way scientists interpret 'fuzzy' data?

New research at Glasgow University is to examine how subjective influences and external pressures may affect the way scientists interpret incomplete or 'fuzzy' data.

The nine month research project - funded by a £2,998 grant from the Royal Geographical Society ヨ has implications across a wide range of scientific disciplines but is particularly concerned with the interpretation of geological data.

Dr Clare Bond, Geographical and Earth Sciences Research Assistant explains: "Scientists are often asked to make decisions using limited, incomplete or 'fuzzy' data. In medicine, because of the risks as well as the cost and practicalities of using invasive surgery to find out what's wrong with someone, means that remote sensors such as MRI, CAT scans and x-rays are often used to image parts of our body. The images produced have a limited resolution, but are used to make decisions about possible surgery or bone setting. Similarly in earth sciences, remote sensing is used to image rock layers and structures below the ground to make decisions about where to drill for oil or bury waste as it's not always economically or physically practical to 'dig down' to find out more.

"Both physicians and earth scientists use their training and expertise to interpret such images to make important decisions. This prior knowledge will be potentially biased by, say, the last brain scan a surgeon looked at - what they can most easily recall, or what they think is happening based on other symptoms prior to looking at the image. The external environment may also affect their judgement - the length of the queue in the waiting room, for example, and the implications of getting an important interpretation of the image right or wrong. We would hope that the more serious the implications, the greater the amount of consideration and thought and checks take place, but we are all human."

Do individuals come up with the same answers for the same data in different scenarios with different pressures? How do subjective influences affect how individuals interpret data and make subsequent decisions? The research project will also look at how economic, compared to more ethical implications, affect the way scientists interpret and make decisions from 'fuzzy' data.

Dr Clare Bond said: "Seismic data is inherently 'fuzzy' and a perfect data source for assessing what biases and influences people bring to interpretation of data. The focus of our work is to see if ethical and moral judgements affect the way people go about interpreting fuzzy data and if different potential consequences affect their final decisions based on that interpretation."

The objective of the research is to assess how perceptions of risk, in particular in relation to hazardous waste storage, affect the way individuals interpret geological data. The research will attempt to demonstrate how final interpretations of the same data may differ simply because individuals' perception of risk affects their decision-making behaviour.

Martin Shannon (

Further information: Dr Clare Bond, Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences, Tel: 0141 330 5465

First published: 14 September 2006