What is significant?

How do you decide what is significant? I’m thinking here of how we bridge between the humanities and science or medicine.

I count significance in so many ways. We all do. In the lab or in clinical trials, I’m interested in statistical testing of results. I want to know that things haven’t occurred by chance alone. Reliable repetition of high quality experiments is the key. There’s an element of this that is about the objective describing of underlying truth, though it’s easy to misread data and get confused about truth, or fail to see hidden bias in thought or experimental design.

What’s significant to me is, of course, rather different. Data makes me happy, but not as happy as my friends, family and loved ones make me. Significant events in my life can’t be measured by p values.

My friends in the humanities undertake research using different standards of evidence. They talk about stories, and the value of individual lives. They ‘triangulate’ evidence from historical texts to make conclusions about the past and the present, though these conclusions are not really testable by experimentation. Stories tell us the truth about ourselves, often even when they’re purely fiction. John Steinbeck in Sweet Thursday said “There are people who will say this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.”

So here’s the dilemma. If I want to see lives change for the better, in people with an illness, I can study and measure things about the disease. I can quantify and prove that specific pathological processes occur, and hypothesise how this might be relevant to disease. I can measure the impact of disease on survival or quality of life, and test the effects of treatments. But how do we quantify the significance of a the history or human stories of the impact of disease? Is it even valid to try? Another quote: Wittgenstein said, fairly famously, “The limits of my language means the limit of my world”. What language brings science and the humanities together?