Month: June 2014

Part 2: The nature of science

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How science “reasons” to come to conclusions about natural phenomenon

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

Francis Bacon, The Advancement Of Learning

How science proceeds or works has been subject to many ideas. Often, people talk about ‘the scientific method’ as if there is some methodology applied to all science that is settled, understood by all scientists and which leads us to certainty. ‘The’ scientific method does not exist. There are methods used in science and how a theoretical physicist works as compared to a geologist, organic chemist, ecologist or physiologist can be as different as the ways in which a geographer works and an historian. In some ways the problem lies with scientists. We are not good at explaining how we work or explaining the differences between the disciplines in which we work. Just the term ‘science’ on one level is meaningless (which science? What type of science?) yet we continue (especially in schools) to use a generic term to cover quite different subject areas. I’ll admit that the term ‘humanities’ can do the same job and may well cover quite separate disciplines, e.g. geography, history, religious education etc. But we don’t often lump them together expecting one person to be able to understand all the disparate disciplines. Yet in science, particularly in teaching in schools, we do.

Science utilises a range of ways of working and reasoning, like most academic disciplines. Science can be practical and experimentation lies at the heart of many scientific disciplines, but not all. Science can also be observational, but again not always. A common attack on evolution is the lack of ‘observation’ – “nobody ‘saw’ one animal change into another, nobody has seen major evolutionary changes; nobody was there when life first began.”

As an argument against evolution, it initially looks compelling to many people. Yet there are simple counter arguments – for example nobody has ever ‘seen’ an atom close up to look at its structure and certainly sub-atomic particles have never been ‘observed in any conventional sense. Does that mean that the theory of atoms is suspect? That sub-atomic particles clearly do not exist? Of course not, but these counter arguments do not seem to be persuasive to the creationist.

Having an understanding of the nature of science or ‘how science works’ is at the heart of my definition of scientific literacy. Understanding that all science is ‘provisional’ – that is, we do not say that science is about the search for truth and that all science, even the most established scientific facts, are open to change – is actually a strength of science and not a weakness.

So how do we reason about things in science?

Deductive or Inductive?

Science can generally operate in two ways:

Deductive Reasoning (top down)

Starting with things that we know to be true (premises) and from these confirming our ideas through a process of logic. The classic example being:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Darwin is a man
  3. Therefore, Darwin is mortal.

Inductive Reasoning (bottom-up reasoning)

In this case we start with evidence which we believe will support a particular conclusion, inductive reasoning however does not require the outcome to be true, merely probably true.

In science the inductive reasoning route is the route applied to almost all scientific enquiry. As such scientists avoid making definitive statements about the ‘truth’ of any idea, concept or theory. Scientific theories (even gravity) then are probably true but never certain to be true. In real life some theories will have a higher level of certainty than others (gravity again) but at no point can we or should we say that even gravity is proven, true, certain etc. There may (even if we think it inconceivable) be some part of the universe where gravity acts in a way that counters our current understanding.

Deductive science is really ‘theory confirming’ science. In school science we do spend a lot of time on theory confirming. This is to be expected. The science we teach is, for the most part, the science that is generally accepted and for which the scientific community has reached a scientific consensus. Kuhn called it ‘normal science’. The basic scientific concepts that we are teaching and what we have taught for over 100 years is the science that has largely not changed. Newtonian Physics for example is still a key aspect of our physics education.

In biology photosynthesis in its basic form is exemplified by a model equation:

This equation is not what ‘actually’ happens but is a model that summarises many complex processes. To an extent the equation is not ‘real’ yet it is accepted by all as a way of describing the process of photosynthesis. This equation was first worked out by Julius Sachs around 1862-4. It has remained unaltered since then.

We also teach newer ‘established’ science – e.g. plate tectonics which was first described in a theoretical way in the 1960s. But what we do not do in science education is teach untried, untested controversial science that has not been through the science ‘filter’. So calls for the inclusion of Intelligent Design to be taught as ‘another side to the argument’ are nonsensical. Intelligent Design is not science and has yet to prove itself as science. We don’t teach it because it is not science.

How does science become ‘accepted’?

Lynn Margulis (1938 – 2011) had an idea in 1966 – she postulated that some organelles we find in cells – mitochondria (responsible for energy release during cellular respiration) and plastids e.g. chloroplasts, essential for photosynthesis, originated as free-living bacteria which were assimilated into cells and have, over time evolved to become part of the organism as a whole. Her theory of endosymbiosis was not immediately accepted, her paper being rejected by several journals. She knew that what held sway in science was not the idea or the person, but the evidence and so she set about gathering the evidence to support her idea. We did not teach endosymbiosis in schools io the late 1960s, the 1970s or, for that matter, the 1980s. It took decades for her theory to be accepted. In 1995 Richard Dawkins had this to say:

I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy. I’m referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it.

Richard Dawkins, 1995

The work required for new ideas to be accepted in science should never be underestimated. Margulis showed that evidence is the currency of science not ideas or ideals. Hers is not the only story of ideas which take time to be accepted and many others, including the work of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in the field of evolution itself are not simply accepted as they ‘sound right’ or ‘seem to make sense’.

Intelligent Design could just be another case of wishful thinking – things ‘look’ designed, so, therefore, they must ‘be designed’. Many, including Dawkins have written on this subject. But why we should not teach intelligent design need not be a case of science rejecting intelligent design through bias or conspiracy. We don’t teach it because as it stands it has little to no support from mainstream science and no evidence in its favour that is compelling. Even with compelling evidence Margulis’s ideas took a long time to be accepted. That’s how science works.


Part 1: The Language of Science: Are Creationists Like Humpty Dumpty?

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(Peter Newell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass.

When this blog post started it was to be a single post to address some of the issues surrounding the Evolution vs Creationism issue highlighted recently in a BBC radio Interview on the Jeremy Vine Programme with Johnny Scaramanga and developed in an on-air debate between Professor Alice Roberts and John Lewis, a curriculum developer for the Accelerated Christian Education programme, on Newsnight, chaired by Jeremy Paxman on 16th June 2014

It quickly became apparent that more than one post is necessary to try and explain my ideas on this issue. Over the coming days I will publish three blogs that examine three difficult and important issues.

  • The language of science and how we use that language in specialist and everyday settings
  • The nature of science and how science reasons to come to conclusions about natural phenomenon
  • The nature of belief and how belief and acceptance are two different things.

Part 1- The language of Science

Two Sides of the Argument

The debate between evolution and creation is often expressed as ‘two sides of an argument’. It is educationally appropriate, creationists argue, to let students examine two possible ‘solutions’ to long-standing problems that affect us all – how did life come into being and is all life related?

The problem is, it’s a false argument. ‘Two sides to an argument’ implies that the two sides carry equal weight; they do not. ‘Two sides to an argument’ implies that the defeat of one side provides victory to the other; it does not.

The recent arguments surrounding the teaching of evolution and creationism in British schools raises some important questions over the nature of science, the language of science and the ‘rights’ of those who are devout followers of a faith to teach their version of science (or for that matter any subject) over and above the accepted scientific consensus.

It’s Just a theory

Yes evolution is a theory, or to be more precise, there is a theory for evolution. But before we get into the pedantic (yet very important) issues over the use of the word we should establish a few definitions.

In science words are used which are also everyday words. Sometimes it is easy – take for example the word ‘conductor’ we may use that word in everyday language for a person checking tickets on a train or someone leading an orchestra. In science it relates to the transference of heat or electricity. The context of the surrounding narrative helps us decide on what the precise meaning of the word is when it is used. Other words are not so easy to distinguish as the vernacular and specific meaning may well be very similar. Theory falls into this bracket. In everyday language a ‘theory’ can be as simple as a speculative guess or an idea with some evidence but yet to be proven. It’s used, for example, in detective novels , films and TV. The detective will have a ‘theory’ about how a murder was committed and by whom. They may have some evidence but as they try to ‘prove’ their theory they are guided to look at certain lines of enquiry.

In science theory has a different meaning. A theory is an accepted explanation of a natural phenomenon and as such, it is evidenced. The un-evidenced idea – the ‘guess’ if you like is the hypothesis – an idea that can be tested scientifically from which a theory may or may not develop. It is the hypothesis in science which leads to lines of enquiry, not the theory.

At this stage then it seems quite simple – when a scientist uses the term ‘theory’ they are not referring to a guess.

There is a problem however. Not all scientists use the term theory in the same way. A physicist, for example, often talks about ‘theory’ with a view to testing out ideas and on the basis of little to no empirical evidence – the physicist ‘theory’ may well be speculative and waiting for evidence and confirmation.

To illustrate this point I published a paper (Williams, 2013) on just this issue. Surveying 189 science graduates it was clear that their grasp of definitions of common scientific terms was poor. When it came to defining what ‘theory’ meant, 29% stated that a theory was an ‘unproven idea’ only 25% saw a theory as an explanatory system of ideas. More worryingly, 34% of the biologists surveyed thought that a theory was an unproven idea. The full paper is available on Open Access here

Another common creationist cry – which also shows an ignorance of the nature of science – is that if evolution was a ‘fact’ then surely it would be a ‘law’ and not a ‘theory’. Laws and theories are two different things and theories exist alongside laws and vice versa.

A theory is an explanation, as noted above. Laws, however, describe things in science. It is perfectly possible to envisage a Law of Evolution in the terms of a description of what happens – e.g. descent with modification would be a good starting point for a Law of Evolution. Laws in science do not
explain how things happen. So Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation describe the effects of gravity it does not explain gravity: The Law of Universal gravitation states that “any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”
This does not tell us what gravity is or what causes gravity, it does not therefore explain gravity.

A hypothesis is the starting point for many scientific ideas. This is a testable question that science has the potential to answer. Hypothesis can be hunches or guesses. There may be evidence there may not. All scientific hypotheses will be testable, if the results of these tests are consistent then it is entirely possible for a hypothesis to develop into a full blown theory. Certainly many hypotheses are discarded and most are modified before developing into theories.

So are creationists like Humpty Dumpty? In some cases yes, when they use a scientific term they do often choose its meaning to suit their purposes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the word ‘theory’. For the creationist ‘theory simply means unproven. The problem we have is that 29% of science graduates (34% of biologists) overall will fail to see this trick of language. They also think that theories in science are ‘unproven’. In the case of evolution the meaning which must be ‘master’, as Humpty declares, must be the meaning that science gives – a well-evidenced explanation of a natural phenomenon. That evolution is a theory does not mean it cannot at the same time be a scientific fact.

In my paper on scientific terminology I offer a solution to this issue.

One possible approach that could improve children’s understanding of the special nature of some of the words used in science may be the adoption of the prefix ‘scientific’ before such words as ‘theory’, ‘law’, ‘fact’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘principle’, to distinguish them from their common everyday use. Adopting the prefix ‘scientific’, to help separate common meaning from a more precise scientific meaning, may help to reduce misunderstandings and strengthen the discipline of science.” (Williams, 2013 p.8)


In Part two of this series I will look at creationist misunderstandings (either deliberate or unintentional) of the Nature of Science and how scientific reasoning works.


WILLIAMS, J. D. 2013. “It’s just a theory”: trainee science teachers’ misunderstandings of key scientific terminology. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 6, 12.



Evolution is a lie says the school. Good curriculum, says England’s School Inspectorate

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We do have a serious problem when nonsense is validated as acceptable education. Scientific integrity is essential, this threatens to undermine science education in the UK and abroad. Thanks to Paul for this analysis.

Primate's Progress

MaranathaPlaque Maranatha Christian School, featured in a BBC news report this week, teaches that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that this is a scientifically established fact, and that evolution has long since been scientifically disproven. Then why do some scientists still advocate it? Because they don’t want to admit the existence of a God to whom they would be morally responsible. It is these GodlessEvolutionsame benighted evolutionists who are responsible for the theory that the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion., whereas in reality it is powered by gravity, and shrinking at such a rate that it would have been large enough to engulf the young Earth if the Earth really were millions of years old. But of course we shouldn’t be contemplating any such silly idea, because God has told us different and that settles it. The waters above the firmament in Genesis 1 ended up feeding Noah’s…

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‘Dawkins is right; there is a danger with make-believe when it used as evidence for pseudo-science’ – Education – TES News

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The famous Cottingley fairies duped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today anyone who touted such a belief would be widely scoffed at. There is no scientific evidence that fairies exist and no serious scientist would ever apply for research funding to show that they did.

Why was Conan-Doyle fooled? He was a well-respected writer, a qualified doctor so at heart a scientist. The photographs were taken by cousins Elsie and Frances Griffiths at the bottom of their garden in Cottingley, near Bradford.

My blog on the TES Opinion Website:

‘Dawkins is right; there is a danger with make-believe when it used as evidence for pseudo-science’ – Education – TES News.