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

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.