Enthusiasts and amateurs are welcome. Academics are welcome. Observations and questions from the whole spectrum of expertise and opinion are appreciated. Feel free to comment - no need to make sure you understand the whole of something before putting in your two bits worth. Initial impressions can be insightful, partly because they are not weighed down by extensive knowledge. And of course expert knowledge and understanding are also valuable!
“Science is a method, remember - not a body of fact.”
- Reader’s comment on The Economist’s “Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab - Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.” (October 13, 2013)
“We used to say “question authority” – should we change that to “question authority only if we don’t like what authority says - and then call it ‘orthodoxy’?”
- Miriam Paisley
Confession: I am totally enamored of the Scientific Method and the Spirit of Science, speaking of which:
The Spirit of Science
From the Rational Enquirer, Vol 3, No. 3, Jan 90.(taken from The Kansas School Naturalist, Vol. 35, No. 4, April 1989), EO Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth” (2013), and W. Jay Wood, “How Might Intellectual Humility Lead to Scientific Insight?” December 10, 2012
Skepticism: Nearly all statements make assumptions of prior conditions. A scientist often reaches a dead end in research and has to go back and determine if all the assumptions made are true to how the world operates.
Suspended judgment: Diederich* describes: "A scientist tries hard not to form an opinion on a given issue until he has investigated it, because it is so hard to give up opinion already formed, and they tend to make us find facts that support the opinions... There must be however, a willingness to act on the best hypothesis that one has time or opportunity to form."
Willingness to change opinion: When Harold Urey, author of one textbook theory on the origin of the moon's surface, examined the moon rocks brought back from the Apollo mission, he immediately recognized this theory did not fit the hard facts laying before him. "I've been wrong!" he proclaimed without any thought of defending the theory he had supported for decades.
Awareness of assumptions: Diederich describes how a good scientist starts by defining terms, making all assumptions very clear, and reducing necessary assumptions to the smallest number possible. Often we want scientists to make broad statements about a complex world. But usually scientists are very specific about what they "know" or will say with certainty: "When these conditions hold true, the usual outcome is such-and-such."
Respect for quantification and appreciation of mathematics as a language of science: Many of nature's relationships are best revealed by patterns and mathematical relationships when reality is counted or measured; and this beauty often remains hidden without this tool.
An appreciation of probability and statistics: Correlations do not prove cause-and-effect, but some pseudoscience arises when a chance occurrence is taken as "proof." Individuals who insist on an all-or-none world and who have little experience with statistics will have difficulty understanding the concept of an event occurring by chance.
An appreciation for the concept of the continuum: Scientists tend to consider phenomena in terms of values along a continuum – think gradients like temperature, velocity, mass, or wave length. From this perspective, much of what is typically perceived categorically, like “toxins”, is more a matter of degree or “dose”, which changes the research question, e.g., from “Is this substance toxic?” to “At what dose does this substance have toxic effects?”
An understanding that all knowledge has tolerance limits: All careful analyses of the world reveal values that scatter at least slightly around the average point; a human's core body temperature is about so many degrees and objects fall with a certain rate of acceleration, but there is some variation. There is no absolute certainty.
Intellectual Humility: W. Jay Wood: “It is integral to science, as a self-correcting discipline, to receive criticism, and to be prepared to admit that some particular theory or practice is incomplete or incorrect. Suitably humble scientists are alive to the possibility that their expectations about how nature should behave may be wrong. Philosopher of science Israel Scheffler dubs this openness to correction “a capacity for surprise,” to which intellectual humility surely contributes.”
*Diederich, Paul B. "Components of the Scientific Attitude," Science Teacher, February, 1967, pp. 23-24
That said, scientists are imperfect vessels for channeling the Spirit of Science.
So make sure your critical faculty is turned on when reading claims made in the name of science. A Few Links to help fine-tune your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff:
Why Most Published Research Findings Are False (John P. A. Ioannidis,2005)
Problems with scientific research: How science goes wrong (The Economist - October 19, 2013)
Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab (The Economist - October 19, 2013)
Note: New stuff – reviews, quotes, commentaries - will be posted at least weekly.