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Accuracy, Validity & Reliability

The Stage 6 Science (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) syllabus asks students to distinguish between these
terms in both first-hand investigations and when using secondary sources. NB. Students often confuse
these terms.

References to validity, reliability and accuracy in the Stage 6 Syllabus


Skills content 11.2: plan first-hand investigations to:
(c) design investigations that allow valid and reliable data and information to be collected
Outcome P12: discusses the validity and reliability of data gathered from first-hand investigations and
secondary sources
Outcome H12: evaluates ways in which accuracy and reliability could be improved in investigations
Skills content 12.4: process information to:
(e) assess the reliability of first-hand and secondary information and data by considering information
from various sources
(f) assess the accuracy of scientific information presented in mass media by comparison with similar
information presented in scientific journals
Outcome H14: assesses the validity of conclusions from gathered data and information

For secondary sources


Often students are asked to Identify data sources, gather, process, analyse and present information from
secondary sources. When researching information, using articles from journals, mass media, textbooks
etc, it is important to identify your sources in the correct manner and the information must be accurate.
To ensure secondary sources are accurate, the information from the site or source must be both valid and
reliable.

Validity
To determine if the information you are gathering is valid, you must consider or evaluate the following:

whether the information relates to the problem or hypothesis being investigated

Reliability
To determine if the information you are gathering is reliable, you must consider or evaluate the following:

the author of the articles credentials (i.e. the author is qualified in this area). For example, was the
author a teacher, a scientist in that field etc?
whether the purpose of the article is not resulting in bias
whether the site or publication is reputable, i.e. .gov.edu, biology textbook
whether the data was gathered using an appropriate method and measuring devices
whether it is current (check date)

This means that if your information is current, written by an expert in the area you are investigating,
without bias and is in a reputable publication, then your information could be considered reliable.

Accuracy
To determine if the information you are gathering is accurate, you must consider or evaluate the following:

whether the information can be substantiated in more than one reliable source. (i.e. is the information
consistent with information from other reputable sources?).

This means that if you can find similar information in at least two valid and reliable sources, then your
information could be considered accurate.

For first-hand investigations


Students planning a first-hand investigation must consider issues related to accuracy, reliability and validity.
These will impact on the choice of equipment and how confident they are about the conclusions drawn
from the results of the investigation.

Validity
A valid experiment is a fair test. A method is valid if:

it investigates what you think it will investigate (i.e. the procedure actually tests the hypothesis and
the experiment includes an appropriate range of values).
it incorporates suitable equipment (e.g. measuring cylinder to measure volume rather than a
beaker)
variables are controlled
appropriate measuring procedures are included

Discussions about validity must:

identify what validity is


identify the factors that affect the validity of the particular experiment you are considering (the
variables that must be controlled, the appropriate equipment, the range of values etc)
assess the overall validity of the experiment

Reliability
A reliable experiment has results which can be obtained consistently. To ensure that results are reliable:

the experiment must be repeated and consistent results obtained (within an acceptable margin of
error)

Note: Repetition will only determine reliability (it will NOT improve it).
A useful analogy is that of a friend arriving on time for appointments. If they arrive on time once, you cant
say they are reliable or not, but if they arrive late over and over again, then you can say they are unreliable.
Just because you make repeat observations of them arriving doesnt make them reliable.
The relationship between reliability and validity can be confusing. Measurements and other observations
can be reliable without being valid. A faulty measuring device can consistently provide a wrong value
therefore providing reliably incorrect results. However, measurements and observations cannot be valid
unless they are reliable and accurate. (Curriculum Support 2006 Vol. 11 No. 2)
Discussions about reliability must:

identify what reliability is


identify that reliability is assessed by repeating the experiment and averaging the results
identify that repetition minimises the effect of random errors/outliers and/or allows them to be
removed or disregarded
give examples of possible random errors that may have crept into the experiment you are
considering
assess the overall reliability of the experiment

Accuracy
Accuracy depends on the design of the experiment (i.e. the validity of the method) and the sensitivity of
the instruments used. Results are accurate if:

they are close to the true value of the quantity being measured
they can be substantiated in secondary sources

Note: Accuracy is important by making the experiment as valid and reliable as possible.

Accuracy and repetition:


The experiment should be repeated at least twice (i.e. carried out three times) and the results averaged.
This ensures that the effect of random errors is minimised or that the outliers can be disregarded or
removed. Random errors are errors that might affect your experiment the first time you do it, but not the
second or third, for example. Random errors may also be present in every measurement taken and be
caused by unpredictable fluctuations in the readings of a measurement apparatus, or in the experimenter's
interpretation of the instrumental reading.
In any experiment that involves measuring a variable that exhibits natural variation (particularly biological
variables or environmental factors), the accuracy of the results will be improved by repetition. In statistical
terms, the mean of the sample will more closely reflect the population mean. Similarly, investigations that
involve measuring the probability of an event occurring are also improved with repetition. For example,
one of the reasons why Gregor Mendel got such accurate results was because he tested large numbers of
plants. This is essentially the law of large numbers: the average of the results obtained from a large
number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are
performed.

Summary Table
Reliability, Accuracy and Validity
SECONDARY SOURCES

FIRST-HAND INVESTIGATIONS

The data in a source are VALID if


A method is VALID if
they have been gathered using
the measurements are actually measuring what you intend
appropriate methods
them to measure
they relate to the hypothesis or
it incorporates suitable equipment, controlled variables,
problem
appropriate measuring procedures etc
A secondary source is RELIABLE if
the information is not biased
it has been written by a

qualified person
it is on a reputable site, i.e.
.gov .edu
it is current (check date)
it refers to data and statistics
from valid first-hand
investigations
The information in a source is
ACCURATE if
the information can be
substantiated in more than
one reliable source

Results are RELIABLE if


the experiment is repeated the results are the same (within
an acceptable margin of error).
Repetition will only determine reliability it will NOT improve it.
Reliability can be improved by carefully controlling all variables
(except the experimental variables!!)
Another term often used for reliability is REPRODUCIBILITY.
Repetition will only determine reliability (it will NOT improve it).
Measurements can be reliable without being valid. However
they cannot be valid unless they are reliable!
Results are ACCURATE if
the design of the experiment is valid and the sensitivity of
the equipment used
they are close to the true value of the quantity being
measured.
they can be substantiated in secondary sources
Accuracy depends on the design of the experiment (ie the validity
of the method) and the sensitivity of the instruments used.

Further information on evaluating secondary sources can be found at the University of Southern
Queensland Library Website at the following link http://libtute.usq.edu.au/index.php?page=68

A source or
investigation cannot
be valid if it is not
reliable

Example of HSC Question on Reliability: Biology HSC Paper 2010


Question 29
You have been asked to write a report on the responses of plants to temperature change.
You find three sources of information.
Article 1 from Science News - a web based site reporting on current science
Plants are highly sensitive to changing temperatures and can coordinate an appropriate response for
variations as little as 1C, according to a new finding that can help explain how plants will respond to
climate change. Plants not only 'feel' the temperature rise, but also respond by activating hundreds of
genes and deactivating others. This offers new leads in the quest to create crop plants better able to
withstand high temperature stress.
Plants can sense, formulate reaction to temperature change. By IANS 11 January 2010
http://blog.taragana.com/science/20 I 0/0 1/11/plants-can-sense-formulatereaction-to-temperature-change-3207 /

Article 2 from Climate Research - a scientific journal


We analysed the flowering times of a violet and a tree at similar latitudes in the UK and Poland over 26
years. Careful analysis showed that both species in both locations showed significant responses to
temperature variation although plants in the UK were more responsive than those in Poland. We conclude
that locally adapted species may differ in their projected flowering times under future climate warming.
Modified abstract from Tryjanowski P, Panek M, Sparks T (2006). Phenological response of plants to temperature varies at the
same latitude: case study of dog violet and horse chestnut in England and Poland. Climate Research, 32 (I): 89-93.

Article 3 from Wikipedia - an online user-modifiable encyclopedia


Increases in CO2 concentration affect how plants photosynthesise1. Increased CO2 can also lead to
increased carbon to nitrogen ratios in the leaves of plants, possibly changing herbivore nutrition2.
1. Steffen, W & Canadell, P (2005). 'Carbon Dioxide Fertilisation and Climate Change Policy.' 33 pp. Australian Greenhouse

Office, Department of Environment and Heritage: Canberra


2. Oleadow RM, et al (1998). Enhanced CO? alters the relationship between photosynthesis and defence in cyanogenic
Eucalyptus cladocalyx F Mueli. Plant Cell Environ. 21: 12-22.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effect of climate change on plant biodiversity

Evaluate the relevance of the information to your report, and the reliability of each of the sources given.
5 Marks
Sample answer:
The first two articles are relevant because they show a relationship between temperature increase and
plant response. Article 3 has nothing to do with temperature change so is irrelevant.
Information for Article 1 has been sourced from a web blog that is not a reliable source.
Information for Article 2 has been obtained from a published scientific journal and can therefore be
regarded as reliable.

Information for Article 3 has been obtained from a user-modifiable web-based encyclopedia and as such
is not reliable even though there are references from a scientific journal as it is modifiable by numerous
individuals.

References:
Curriculum Support 2006 Vol. 11 No. 2
Curriculum Support, Science, 2001 Vol. 6 No. 3