Dinosaur Killers 3 – The Science

He thought: meddle first, understand later. You had to meddle a bit before you had anything to try to understand…You have to try to get your mind around the Universe before you can give it a twist. — Pratchett, Interesting Times

Turns out, the quiz that kicked off my Dinosaur Killer essays was not about the Earth impact threat at all. Instead, it was about what typeface fonts people consider reliable.

My comments on the quiz took it at face value, and were based on a certain amount of background as an amateur astronomer and space enthusiast. Most people who took the quiz were neither. So all they had to go on was a vague impression from old news reports, Hollywood movies, ….and the gravitas provided by the fonts. Errol Morris was testing the idea that fonts matter when reading about something we know little about — “are we more inclined to believe that gold has an atomic number 79 if we read it in Georgia, the font of The New York Times online, rather than in Helvetica?” This belief, of course, has no impact on the fact that the atomic number of gold is, indeed, 79.

His findings? More people believed the statement when it was written in Georgia than when written in Comic Sans. This has implications for everything from advertising to political shilling to blog writing.

This experiment is a good example of how science works. You think about what you know, or think you know, on a topic, and you establish a working hypothesis — fonts are not important. Then you devise a way of testing this — ask a question that elicits an opinion about a statement on which the test subject knows little, and randomly print it in different fonts. Administer the test to enough people to accumulate good statistics, and then look at the results. In this case, the results were that fonts are important. We discard our working hypothesis for a new one, and we use the new one to ask new questions — if Georgia is more trustworthy that Comic Sans, is it because Comic Sans has no descenders? We have a new hypothesis and can create a new question. Do this often enough, and we can assemble the results into a Theory of Fonts.

Note that it took a while to come up with the Theory. In science, as I’ve said elsewhere, the word theory should never be preceded by the word just. A theory is a model of the world, based on what we know. It throws off hypotheses that are testable, and some of which have been tested. In civilian life something can be just a theory, but not in science. The differences between the two uses are as great as the difference in the use of the word shoot by photographers and hunters.


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