Archive 2012

A problem with logic Ken Perrott Dec 30

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Credit xkcd

Sometimes logic lays traps for us

Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science Ken Perrott Dec 27


Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.


Robin Ince, comedian, actor and writer, and Brian Cox, particle physicist and Professor at the University of Manchester.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the scientific process which even some supporters of science are not completely aware of, let alone critics. So it’s worth bringing out these points.

The place of science

Brian Cox and Robin Ince are clear that science cannot dictate to politics. Decisions in this and similar fields inevitably also involve non-scientific considerations. Considering the climate change issue they say:

“The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”

Decision making on politics and many other areas of society involves far more than just facts. Of course science can provide the facts, it can help inform the discussion, but social decisions also involve tradition, culture, emotions and feelings. And yes, prevailing social prejudices.

Unfortunately some critics do not see the difference between science, on the one hand, and politics or social decision-making, on the other. They slip too easily into the mistake of denying the science and/or slandering the scientists, and not debating the political, social and moral issues which really concern them. The mistake is really obvious among the climate change and evolutionary science sceptics/contrarians/deniers. And it can take really nasty forms (see, for example, discussion at Climate change deniers don’t understand expertise).

Scientific knowledge provisional but best we can do

Scientific knowledge is not absolute – we don’t make extravagant claims of Truth (with a capital T). There is humility in the scientific approach. Cox and Ince say:

“Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.”


“The wonderful thing about nature is that opinion can be tested against it.”

And just in case critics choose to interpret these descriptions naively – yes, scientists are human. Yes, individual scientists or groups are not as sceptical of their own ideas as an idealist might hope. But the nature of scientific knowledge, the checking against an objective reality and the social character of research helps overcome these very human prejudices.

Most working scientists have experienced more than once the horrible disappointment of their beautiful hypothesis being destroyed by an ugly fact. Maybe even finding the real fact mercilessly drummed into them by colleagues. But then picking themselves up and getting on with investigating a modified hypothesis or even new ideas. Being wrong is actually an important part of the scientific process.

It might take some time but, in the end, science has an inbuilt self-correcting process.

Scientific knowledge not just another opinion or belief

This validation against reality, the self-correcting and social nature of research and the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, makes it far more than just “another opinion.” Cox and Ince:

“Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.”

Those critics who attempt to equate simple belief, faith or opinion with scientific knowledge, who try to bring that knowledge down to the level of opinion of belief, have their own agenda. They wish to promote their own beliefs, not by checking them against reality, but by denigrating the scientific process that does check against reality.

Criticism of the editorial by Cox and Ince came mainly in two guardian articles and a blog post. These, and many of the comments attending the articles, reveal  misunderstanding of the points I made above.

Science and politics

Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist at University College of London, chose to interpret Cox and Ince’s description of the different roles of science and politics as a call for separation of the two (see Science and politics needs counselling not separation”). The misinterpretation seems to be a mechanism for repeating criticism of real or imagined influence of politics within science. And a chance to disapprove of scientists who criticise attacks on science, as on the issue of climate change. He charges that:

“Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.”

It seems to me that those who are attacking and misrepresenting climate science and scientists are the ones who are intending destruction of its “political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.” Stilgoe is surely blaming the victim here.

Rebekah Higgitt, a curator and historian at the Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum, is more explicit claiming a common influence of politics in science (see Science, the public and the history of science):

“Scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.”

Here she is just trying to teach Cox and Ince to suck eggs. Scientists are well aware of all these frameworks and influences (current science funding regimes quickly bring this home to us). That is why they consider that evidence and the validation of ideas and theories against reality is so important. It’s fundamental to science and helps reduce the distorting influence of influences, frameworks and opinions.

I just wish that some sociologists and historians could understand that.

As for “different kinds of evidence.” Reference to scientific evidence in no way inhibits Higgitt’s opportunities of presenting alternative “kinds of evidence” and arguing for them. I am curious to know what they are. Her inability, or unwillingness, to present them seems to me the real reason such discussion is inhibited.

Denying the special role of science

The blogger Haralambos Dayantis finds Cox and Ince, and indeed all “geeks,” “arrogant” (see Why the Geek movement is bad for science). To him their description of science as “the only way we have of exploring nature” is a “fundamentally close-minded attitude” which “will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.”

Strange then that this blogger didn’t simply describe alternative ways to explore nature – it would have immensely strengthened his argument! Again I am curious. I wish these people would share their secrets.

As for audience appeal – hasn’t he got it exactly back to front? Cox and Ince argued for a special role for science based on its relationship to reality. In this case the close-minded ones are those who refuse to consider, or even misrepresent, the argument presented. And I don’t think this blogger even understood the argument.

Higgit is also is concerned about Cox and Ince’s description of the cognitive advantage science has because of its reference to reality. The validation of its ideas by checking against reality. She objects to the fact that:

“scientific evidence . . . . and ‘the scientific method’ are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion.”

Worse, she implies that evidence relies only on reputation, ignoring the ability to check, reproduce and validate. It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further. To hell with considering the evidence – she claims: “In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us.”

Stilgoe also misrepresents this cognitive advantage as a grab for dominance, even power:

“Churchill was right to have argued that science should be “on tap, not on top”. For Cox and Ince, this won’t do. For policy, they call science an “adjudicator above opinion”.”

By ignoring, even denying, the cognitive advantage its relationship with reality gives science, Stilgoe and Higggit reveal their own agenda – to present science as just “another way of knowing,” and inevitably contaminated by political influence, prejudice and bias.

I am disturbed these particular historians and sociologists of science are unaware of this special cognitive relationship between reality and science. Surely this is key to understanding modern science, its history and its role in society? That aspect of science is just a fact. It’s not a political grab for power.

Scientists sometimes need to remind society and politicians of that basic nature of science – if simply to fight the misunderstanding promoting by those who try to present scientific knowledge as just another opinion. And those who attempt to discredit scientific knowledge when they should be debating the policy and political implications of that knowledge.

Who is really guilty of arrogance?

Often these conflicts between scientists on the one hand and philosophers, historians and sociologists on the other derive from professional sensitivity. Sometimes participants feel their profession is being defamed, or at least under-rated or under-appreciated. I can understand the emotional need to “come out fighting.” Maybe I am doing a bit of that myself.

But in this particular situation scientists have not been misrepresenting philosophy or sociology – just attempting to win understanding for the special role scientific knowledge can play. These critics have responded because they themselves feel their specific professions are neglected in the discussion. Higgett expresses these feeling of neglect with her last demand:

“When scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.”

Well, one can hardly deny participation of these “realms” in the discussion – and of course no one suggests otherwise. Rather, these specific contributions have been welcomed, if not completely accepted. But it is arrogant to claim these realms must have the final word. That sociologists and historian should just have to say “Believe us” and we should blindly follow. Especially as some of the comments may not even represent consensus views of their professions (even if these particular critics assure us they do). Personally I think they derive from basic misunderstandings of the nature of science.

For example, Higgett lectures Cox and Ince’s reference to scientific method by pointing out:

“There are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.”

This response is a trite lesson on sucking eggs again. No working scientist is unaware of the complexity and creativity of research. Of the many ways of interacting with reality. Most of us will, like Richard Feynman, reject naive formulaic or algorithmic descriptions of method and instead describe it as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” And we all accept the need for evidence and validation against reality.

Higgett was challenged to give specific examples of these “many scientific methods”  and was not able to. She resorted instead to differences in specific methodology used in different disciplines:

“There are many methods in science – a field biologist works very differently to a theoretical physicist, works differently to a structural engineer, works differently to an experimental chemist etc. People work with models, with statistics, with exact numbers, with approximations, with theories, without theories – they make observations, develop experiments, crunch numbers, formulate RTCs.”

I think her answer was a diversion as clearly Cox and Ince were talking about the overall scientific approach, not specific methodologies. Her claim is easily interpreted along the lines of the “other methods of knowing” argument used by Sophisticated TheologiansTM and others when they attempt to discredit science. Those people also usually refuse to give specific examples.

An appeal to some historians and sociologists

Finally, I am responding here to specific arguments proposed by these specific historians and sociologists. I am not attacking the history and sociology of science professions themselves. I recognise that there is plenty of room for different trends and schools of thought within these professions and that the opinions presented in this discussion may only be minority ones (I hope they are). In fact, the whole-hearted endorsement of the criticisms by Steve Fuller, suggests this is the case. (Steve Fuller is a sociologist at the University of Warwick who was used as an expert witness for creationist defendant in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. He writes and lectures in support of Intelligent Design and I find it hard to believe that his views are at all representative of his profession).

I think these specific people show with their criticisms that they don’t understand the fundamental nature of science which gives it a cognitive or epistemological advantage. Its intimate connection with reality. This helps overcome, or at least reduce, biases and social or political influences. This is why scientific knowledge should not be treated as mere opinion. And that is why simply pointing out this fact is not arrogant or a demand for unwarranted power.

To claim that it is avoids the real issues.

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Wonders of Life coming – we hope Ken Perrott Dec 24

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Readers of the New Zealand Listener will probably have read the recent interview with Professor Brian Cox (see Interview: Brian Cox). It’s good to see such interviews down in this part of the world – just hope we get to see some of the science TV programmes Brian Cox is currently fronting. (He was a regular on TV7 which we have unfortunately lost this year)

Anyway – here’s hoping we will get to see his new programme Wonders of Life. Eric Idle has rewritten one of his best known songs for the programme – an evolutionary version of the “Galaxy Song” from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life.

Here’s a promo for the programme which includes the song.

Wonders of Life Trailer – BBC Two

Thanks to Why Evolution is True: Wonders of Life by Brian Cox – with added Eric Idle.

Coming up:

An article by Brian Cox and his collaborator Robin Ince* seems to have provoked some controversy in the UK. In particular, some science historians and sociologists have got on their high horses. I will discuss the issues in an upcoming post Historians and sociologists lecture scientists -  about science.

(Cox and Ince current produce a science comedy podcast for the BBC – The Infinite Monkey Cage. Have a listen if you enjoy both science and comedy).

A dose of reality Ken Perrott Dec 23

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A bit of an antidote to those mushy Christmas cards.

Worth thinking about the meaning of this image.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the faithful Ken Perrott Dec 20

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Occasionally I watch videos, or listen to podcasts, distributed by the Intelligent design crowd at the Discovery Institute. So, I wasted a few minutes on this video below where one of their tame scientists, Ann Gauger, spoke “authoritatively” on population genetics and why this proved Darwin wrong!

It’s a load of old rubbish, aimed at convincing the gullible with sciency sounding words, but causing giggles from real biologists. However, I was interested in the background chosen for the interview. Could this be a lab in the much vaunted ID Biologic Institute? The one set up by the Discovery Institute to do “real” research. The lab where no journalist or non-ID scientist has been allowed access.

Well, it turns out that the background is false. It’s a green screen, using a stock photo (see The Disco ‘Tute’s fake laboratory).


Stock photo used for background in video

Why go to such trouble?

Well, I guess the simple answer is they don’t have a lab, or access to a lab, they can use as an impressive background – so they fudged it. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

The whole purpose of forming the Biologic Institute was to impress. I mean, to impress their convinced adherents (because no-one in the scientific world is impressed by such a façade). It’s the “silo effect” such ideological communities go in for. They can maintain beliefs because they have their own tame experts and members of the community usually self-censor. The faithful can go along with the pretence their beliefs are supported by scientific evidence and avoid having to deal with real science and scientists.

The ID community provides the amenities require for such a blinkered outlook. They even have their own list of “scientists” rejecting Darwinism. The faithful can thus repeat the lie evolutionary science is on its last legs. That high ranking scientists have proven it wrong.

The Discovery Institute and the Biologic Institute also provide another element of the façade – peer reviewed publications supporting ID. To this end they have established their own “scientific journal” – BIO-Complexity. This presents a veneer of a peer-reviewed journal – but look at it. A small handful of papers, all by the same people listed under the “staff” of the Biologic Institute.

Again, this fools no credible scientist but it can be used to fool the faithful.

But what a a situation – having to lie to your own supporters.

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Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning Ken Perrott Dec 18


I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.


The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.


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Christmas present from NASA Ken Perrott Dec 16

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Photography can produce some great abstract art. Even if it’s of the very large or very small.

Here’s some really beautiful abstract art based on photograph of earth taken from orbit.


The Dasht-e Kavir, or Great Salt Desert, is the larger of Iran’s two major deserts, which occupy most of the country’s central plateau.

From the introduction:

In 1960, the United States put its first Earth-observing environmental satellite into orbit around the planet. Over the decades, these satellites have provided invaluable information, and the vantage point of space has provided new perspectives on Earth. This book celebrates Earth’s aesthetic beauty in the patterns, shapes, colors, and textures of the land, oceans, ice, and atmosphere. The book features 75 stunning images of Earth from the Terra, Landsat 5, Landsat 7, EO-1, and Aqua satellites. Sensors on these satellites can measure light outside of the visible range, so the images show more than what is visible to the naked eye. The images are intended for viewing enjoyment rather than scientific interpretation. The beauty of Earth is clear, and the artistry ranges from the surreal to the sublime.

Earth as art—enjoy the gallery.

NASA Science Mission Directorate

Earth Science Division

Download your gift:

As a PDF

As the Accompanying iPad App

via NASA – “Earth As Art”.

Thanks to ebook friendly

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At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos Ken Perrott Dec 13

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Participants in conferences and workshops all seem to use laptops these days. So I find myself trying to establish if Apple or Windows dominate when I watch videos of these meetings. It seems to vary according to the subject. I think Apple dominates at this meeting.

Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

Sean Carroll has announced that videos from the October Moving Naturalism Forward workshop are now on-line (see Moving Naturalism Forward: Videos and Recap). See my posts Moving Naturalism Forward and Reports from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop for more information on the workshop.

There are ten videos of about an hour-and-a-half each. I haven’t watched any of them yet – but plan to get started this weekend.

You can find all the videos at the Workshop web-site.

Sean describes the workshop this way:

The format of the meeting was a relatively small group of people sitting around a table and discussing things. Each session had someone say something to kick things off, but in general the discussion was central, not formal presentations. Participants included Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and me. A good cross-section of philosophers, physicists, biologists, and assorted other specialties. From start to finish the conversation was lively, informative, and at a very high level.


Nicholas Pritzker, who helped support the workshop, attended the sessions as a participant. Jennifer Ouellette also attended some of the sessions. Richard Dawkins had to leave early on the second day, due to travel complications caused by Hurricane Sandy. Hilary Bok, Patricia Churchland, and Lisa Randall were scheduled to attend but each had to cancel for different reasons.

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Getting the Book Invented Ken Perrott Dec 12

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So, Douglas Adams was talking about eBooks way back in 1993.

Getting the Book Invented…

This hilarious animation was prepared for a competition run by The Literary Platform. The goal was to design motion graphics to accompany a prophetic recording by Douglas Adams from 1993, in which the great writer was detailing the invention of the electronic book.

via ebookfriendly:  Getting the book invented properly

Sense on evolutionary psychology. Ken Perrott Dec 11

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Controversy around Rebecca Watson’s recent talk on pop-psychology and media presentation of evolutionary psychology is probably having a least one positive side effect (see  Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology and Sceptical humility and peer review in science). There’s now more discussion on the Internet about evolutionary psychology and much of that discussion is sensible.

I often find lately I am linking to Jerry Coyne’s website Why Evolution is True. I won’t apologise for that – he does have interesting articles – and I often find myself agreeing with his take on current issues. That’s certainly true with this new article – Is evolutionary psychology worthless? And it’s timely, because Jerry Coyne has sometimes been used as a witness for the prosecution in the current debate. So it’s good to be reminded that, as is often the case, his positions are far more nuanced.

Jerry’s article is not specifically targeting Rebecca’s talk (he had not watched the video when he wrote it), but it is relevant, as a number of the commenters showed.

Jerry says:

“I have gone after the popular distortions of evolutionary psychology that appear in the press or books (e.g., my comments on David Brooks’s New Yorker article “Social animal”—an article subsequently turned into a dreadful book). And I have criticized some evolutionary psychologists for failing to police the speculative excesses of their colleagues. But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless, nor do I think that now. In fact, there’s some good stuff in it, and it’s getting better”

“. . . . I have to admit, though, that as the field has evolved, I’ve become less critical of it as a whole. That is, I think, as it should be!”

“Anyway, those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior. Yes, there’s some dirty bathwater in evolutionary psychology, but there’s also a baby in there!”

Love that he used the same baby/bathwater metaphor I did in Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology but more creatively, of course.

Both the article, and the comments, are worth reading in this case.

Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker


And here’s a related discussion also worth following. It’s a Blogging Heads programme with a discussion between Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker.

These both can be called evolutionary psychologists and there work is hard pop-psychology. Although, Pinker’s books particularly are quite popular.

There’ some interesting details in the discussion which are very relevant to the current controversy. I particularity take Pinker’s point that the science does not talk about evolution of behaviour – more the evolutionary origins of emotion and instinct underlying behaviour (discussion around 5 min, 30 sec).

Something to look forward for those who enjoy Pinker’s writings – he is currently working on a book which he describes as a “style book” for those communicating science. Sounds like a must read for those of us blogging on science issues.

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PZ Myers has now contributed his first significant article in the current discussion (αEP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise). I have yet to digest it but it appears he is fundamentally agin the field.

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