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There seems to be a common thread amongst sceptics out there that science is done via something that looks a little like the Council of Nicaea. That is to say, that a committee of scientists decides what is “doctrine” before instructing publishers what to print. There is confusion between the ways the legal system (or political system) works and how science works.

Lets have a look at some typical tasks in a scientist’s professional life:

1. Data collection. This can be the longest and hardest (and most boring) phase. This is where hours are spent over test-tubes, or, in my case, hours in the hot sun staring closely at rocks. Whilst you may be thinking about the end-game in this phase, the task is usually so routine that bias hardly exists (if it does, it is because the method itself is biased, or you’re just sloppy). Actually, there will be mistakes, but these tend to revert to the mean, so will be cancelled out in the final analysis.

2. Hypothesis generation. I put this after data collection to bait some people, but actually, it has to be said that hypotheses are generated throughout the scientific process. The important thing is that you are only testing the original hypothesis whilst conducting an experiment designed to test that hypothesis. Other ones must wait for other experiments. There is no harm in “hypothesis-driven research” – this is what science is. However, this is different to biased research driven towards a pre-determined conclusion. Note the difference – a hypothesis is actually tested, a pre-determined conclusion is circular.

3. Data analysis. Here comes the statistics. So you have the data, and you see patterns. Are they significant? This is a technical, statistical question that determines whether you can use your data (gathered in 1. above) to test the hypothesis (2. above). If there is no significant result, then there is no support for the hypothesis from your results. THIS DOES NOT MEAN IT IS DISPROVEN. It is more like an absence of evidence, which, as the saying goes, is not evidence of absence. If the results show a statistically significant result, then you can compare it with your hypothesis. Now a hypothesis can be disproved – proposing that the sky looks blue and finding it to look green would be an example. Unfortunately the opposite does not apply. If your result concurs with your hypothesis, it lends support to it, but does not prove it. It can never prove it due to a quirk of inductive logic that demonstrates that no matter how many positive examples you show in support of a proposition, since the set of possible examples is infinite, you cannot rule out a counter-example emerging next. Which is quite different from the deductive logic of mathematics, where 2 + 2 = 4 as a result of the system itself.

To make a long story short, the last juicy step is publication.

Now you run into trouble. You’ve done your experiment, and supported your brilliant earth-shattering hypothesis. Will anyone believe you?

To find out, you detail your method (and the back story – why you felt it worthy of research) and your results and a bit of discussion on what it all means. Then you send it for peer review. This is a blind (well semi-blind – sometimes people work out who the reviewers are) process where your reviewer doesn’t know who wrote the paper and is asked to appraise the science, comment, and put their opinion on whether it is fit to publish. Most papers fail this test on the first pass, and the majority never make it to publication. What tends to define success is that the paper details a properly conducted line of research taking into account previous work in a similar field. Failure in peer-review doesn’t mean that there is a conspiracy against you – it usually means your paper is either not relevant to the journal in question, or that you need to write up your science better. Without peer review, this statement cannot be made with any certainty about a paper.

Also, consider that how the media treats science is not the same as the science itself. Science is only balanced in its reporting in so far as it “objectively” reports the outcomes of research and the opinions of researchers. So 90% of scientists might agree with a broad-based position, but it only takes one from the 10% to balance a journalists report – giving a 50/50 impression. Note also the diversity of opinion that will lie within the 90% who agree – these people do not speak to a common mantra, they merely assent to certain generalisations.

So next time you see controversy about methods and “conspiracies” to promote one “side” of an argument over another, consider the above and consider that most scientists are too busy with the steps involved to also hold some sort of cabinet meeting on how to bend the entire scientific community. After all, that would be like herding cats.

I am hardly the first person to examine the interview with Richard Dawkins and come out a little surprised. It has had a small rash of internet discussion, but being an Australian interview, has not yet captured the crazy creationist ire. Mostly it appears that neither Dawkins nor Denton did enough research on each other. This would have been an easier task for Denton than Dawkins given the quantity of material out there on Dawkins’ views and indeed his life. Denton is less famous outside Australia and has a career in journalism and TV making him perhaps more adept at only letting out what he wants. Either way, as one person said to me, Dawkins looked at Denton as though Denton was from Mars at some points throughout the interview. Denton’s style is usually to try and wrong-foot interviewees into revealing more about themselves by asking old-hat questions in unexpected ways. He triangulates on people, and it usually works, making him one of the best interviewers I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, when faced with a person who is professedly largely ignorant on topics outside his own field, this tactic fails. This is what has happened with Dawkins’ interview. A very straight bat to Denton is a good form of defensive play. In fact I had never seen that weakness until this interview.

Dawkins has been accused variously of being ivory-tower-dwelling, arrogant, pompous, strident (one he is particularly fond of) and narrow minded. However, this interview made Dawkins look humble when he explained that he doesn’t think that people should be interested in him, but that he does want to contribute his scientific knowledge to the world. His ideas about the value of truth and evidence I think were profound in the sense that rarely do people talk about it like that – the distinction between his views about life on other worlds versus the tooth fairy (or god) were very interesting. Perhaps he is right about the influence of fairy tales on children to prime them for religion. At no point did he distinguish himself from anyone else or make himself seem superior to others. Which is interesting considering that is precisely the sort of accusation frequently levelled at him. I think he did a good job of elucidating the difference between “belief” and “faith” and even distinguishing between religious faith and the kind of “faith” a scientist has in another scientist.

No doubt those who don’t like Dawkins will hold that up as an example of a boring, nerdy man who wants to take Christmas and tooth fairies away from children. Which is a shame since that is not what he said at all… And remember that Douglas Adams regarded him as a close friend, so he cannot possibly be humourless!

People seem incapable of grasping a central point to the philosophy of Dawkins and co. That is that there are seemingly infinite sources of wonder in the real world. There are new and exciting things to discover, and well worn paths to hold dear. There is little harm to be done in exploration, as long as a proper ethic is taken to the task. Not from god do we get to an ethics, but from analysis and reflection on life and its interrelationships.  What is not known may never be known, but we do not yet know that! Wonder, beauty, love, happiness, suffering, these are all real things in the real world that do not require a heavenly explanation to make them worthy of experience. The methods of science have revealed to us much of which we would otherwise be ignorant. It is an ignorance that carries no bliss.

Perhaps Charles Darwin said it best, as he penned these words, a man no longer accepting faith, seeing instead a wonderful connection between natural processes over geological time and the diversity and beauty of life on earth:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

All posts copyright Traversing the Razor

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