What is science?

N.B. If you’re after a quick answer then see here, if you want an in-depth outline see here or if you want to know how science works see here– this blog is more concerned with the broader conceptual framework within which science fits.

Knowledge is an interesting concept – how can we really “know” anything? How do we determine truth from untruth? Does knowledge even require what is “known” to be true? I don’t think so – I think it merely needs to appear true.

The human brain looks for explanations – being able to identify cause and effect is a powerful capability, after all, it underpins all human achievement. For example, if our ancestors were unable to identify that seeds grow into plants, we could never have established agriculture (and subsequently civilisation).

There are a variety of ways in which we make links between cause and effect, from straightforward reflexive Pavlovian classical conditioning, through more complex methods of identifying concept-based causation, to the rigourous statistical analysis of double-blind randomised controlled trials of modern biomedical research (which marks our current best attempt at linking cause to effect, whilst minimising the influence of coincidental factors). However, one of the most common ways in which we find explanations is by relating an observed occurance with an observed outcome – we look for a correlation.

Of course, the trouble with correlations is that you will often be spotting a relationship that doesn’t really exist. Factor A might occur at the same time or increase at the same rate as factor B, but it could be due to factors 1,2 and 3. For example, seasonal sales of ice-cream in the UK can be directly correlated with seasonal umbrella sales in Australia – obviously they are not directly related to each other, but they share the factor of seasonality in their respective hemispheres. So a summer in the Northern Hemisphere sees more ice-cream being bought, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere it is winter and people are buying umbrellas to keep off the rain. This is a simple illustration that is intended to be clear, but unfortunately most of the time we find it very difficult to identify what the factors involved in a correlation actually are – but that doesn’t stop us drawing conclusions from what we see, or think we see.

Identifying cause and effect?

Identifying cause and effect?

So what else do we use as a way of acquiring knowledge Continue reading

WTF is homeopathy?

My first exposure to the word ‘Homœopathic’ was at Hampton House, a hall of residence at Bristol University which was an ex-homœopathic hospital (and is now the student medical centre). All I knew was that it was a magnificent building that used to be a hospital of some sort – but I never really thought about what the ‘Homœopathic’ bit meant – I just assumed it was another branch of medicine. Continue reading

Beware the spinal trap

For anyone who has not been in the sceptical blogosphere much, there has been a rising tide of support for science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Their grounds for this action was an article published in the Guardian newspaper that highlighted the lack of evidence supporting some of the claims made by chiropractors. Rather than take the opportunity of a 500 word rebuttal of the article as offered by the Guardian, the BCA chose instead to personally sue Simon Singh.

The British legal system has an unusual take on libel laws that strongly favours the claimant by flipping the onus of proof onto the defendant (no innocence until proven guilty here) and by being prohibitively expensive (usually for the defendant). In the case of Simon Singh the judge in the case has fastened on the word “bogus” as having a very specific legal meaning entailing deliberate deception rather than simply being “not genuine” or “spurious” (for the ruling see the excellent Jack of Kent). This means that Simon has a long and expensive time ahead, first appealing this initial ruling and then (assuming his appeal will fail as most do) he will need to compile evidence to support an assertion that he never intended to make.

Many in the scientific and sceptical community are rallying around Simon to offer support where possible. We see the BCA’s action as being inappropriate because science is founded on rebuttal of claims by the provision of evidence, not on who has the best legal support. Science cannot progress without disagreement and libel laws are unnecessary when evidence should be used to rebut. The BCA’s actions undermine the scientific process and they significantly weaken the claims of chiropractic – after all, if they had evidence for efficacy, why would they go through the hassle of suing? The poor support for some of the claims made by chiropractors has been subsequently dragged into the light of the British Medical Journal by a variety of scientists (see DC’s improbable science), and a “quacklash” by members of the sceptical community (in particular by the efforts of Zeno and Andy at the Quackometer [and of course Simon Perry!]) has innundated the BCA with complaints against chiropractors who advertise  poorly supported ‘treatments’ for non-spinal conditions.

Below is an edited version of the original article by Simon Singh, which I am reproducing in support of Simon and the Sense About Science campaign to keep libel laws out of scientific debate.

“Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh. Continue reading

Friday mystery object #1

I’ve decided to share my world with others – at work I get to see some amazing stuff and often I have to work out what it is, because the label has gone missing. So here is the first of my Friday Mystery Objects!


So, what is it and why does it look like that?

Put you thoughts in the comments section below. Answer will follow on Monday in a seperate post.

Good luck!

Mail online – ‘Homeopathy works!’ Part II

Right (rolls up sleeves), I said I would try to track down the reference that the Mail Online used in their comment adverse and misleading article by Jenny Hope, so that I could comment further. It has been tracked down – not by me I am ashamed to admit, but by EoR who commented on a blog about the same article at Thinking is Real.

Here it is in all its glory in the BMJ ( 19 August 2000) pp. 321:471-476 . Notice the date? It’s nine years old, which explains why I couldn’t find it – after all, it was supposed to be news, so I foolishly expected it to be new. Silly me. Continue reading

Dumbing down

I work as a museum where we are constantly trying to improve our science communication to get scientific principles across in an accessible and concise yet accurate way. It is not easy.

Science is complicated – as is the world that science attempts to describe and interpret. This makes it difficult to package science in a sound-bite-sized chunk that the lay person can quickly grasp. We end up having to trim away much of the reasoning, context and alternative interpretations of what we try to report, leaving a core of information that comes across as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is the antithesis of the scientific method. Continue reading

Science comment and creationist trolls

It has only been in the last year or so that I have paid much attention to the comments sections at the bottom of online science articles. It strikes me that everyone feels the need to comment, regardless of whether they understood the article or not – in fact, those who have not understood it tend to be the ones who comment most vociferously. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this tends to include a substantial proportion of creationists. Every article that touches upon my fields of interest (biology and palaeontology) seems to be followed by an irritating and distracting cloud of creationist comments, akin to the swarms of biting flies that pester large mammals. Here’s an example. Continue reading

Science – a powerful tool based on what’s real

Science communication is something I consider to be important, because I consider science to be important.

Our understanding of reality may be shaped by many things, but to me there seems to be no justification in basing our understanding on something that is not observably and demonstrably real. Science provides a framework within which we can test ideas of reality against one another and, more importantly against real evidence, to find which ideas are the most robust.

I work at the Horniman Museum in South East London, where we are dedicated to providing the public with access to objects that provide evidence to inform their understanding of the world in which they live. Part of my role as a curator is to provide interpretation of what we can be learned from natural history objects.

I never really thought about my role in this light until Alom Shaha asked me to answer the question “Why is science important?”. My answer can be seen below (apologies for the low volume).


I should probably make it explicitly clear that this blog is personal and in no way represents the views and opinions of the Horniman Museum.