General Science

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.

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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.

BBC News – Nobel win for crystal discovery

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The award of the Nobel prize is the the highest achievement for any scientist. In this case, the thirty year wait between discovery and prize tells us a lot about ‘How Science Works’. The initial discovery was not accepted by the scientific community, but through research the acquisition of evidence, the existence of these strange crystals was confirmed.

Those who seek to bypass science for their ideas should learn from this story how science is conducted and how new ideas can be accepted.

BBC News – Nobel win for crystal discovery

Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science

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I’m just back from the BBC studio in Brighton having done 9 regional interviews/debates on the issue of teaching intelligent design creationism as science in schools.

It is quite simple, intelligent design creationism is not science. It is not accepted as science by the scientific community and, as such, cannot be taught as science in schools.

The interviews also featured Dr Alastair Noble (former science teacher, science inspector for schools and lay preacher at the Cartsbridge Evangelical Church Glasgow). He is the director of the Centre for Intelligent Design based in Scotland. He is a firm (in some ways aggressive) supporter of intelligent design. In debates you know that things are going wrong for one side when it descends to name-calling, which is what Dr Noble did, certainly in the final interview this morning.

As the interviews carried on, from regional station to regional station, you could hear in his voice the frustration and it ended with name calling. It seems that I am an ‘intellectual fascist’ who does not understand the ‘science’ and who fails to explain the ‘information’ contained in DNA. I also, he says, don’t know the history of the intelligent design movement.

All these charges are false. Dr Noble consistently and aggressively misrepresented the call for the ban signed by myself and the other 29 leading scientists and educators, he’s claiming that we wish to ban all mention of creationism or ID. He ridiculed the signatories’ position saying that we would have to get the police in (I think he mentioned the ‘thought police’ once as well) to stop mentions of these ideas in classes. Despite patiently explaining to him that the call is that neither creationism nor Intelligent design should be presented AS SCIENCE  he continued with his ridiculous claims of intellectual fascism etc.

His claim that I did not understand or define intelligent design correctly was also similarly ludicrous. The definition I quoted came from the discovery institute website, so if it is wrong then it is the DI who have it wrong. I explained, patiently on several occasions the roots of the ID movement in the USA; the ruling that it was religious by the courts; the intent of the Wedge strategy and Philip Johnson’s calls to keep the religion out of the debate so that ID can be accepted and only then discuss the religion.  Dr Noble vehemently denied that Johnson’s goal was to get religion into schools. But this is simply not true. For example, in describing how they would get creationism and God into the science classroom Johnson wrote:

Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.

American Family Radio, Jan 10, 2003 broadcast, in which Johnson discusses his book: The Right Questions, encouraging Christians to actively debate issues of eternal value

Johnson has also said: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science. It’s about religion and philosophy.” Witnesses for the prosecution

Dr Noble stated that he knows Philip Johnson and that my claims that this started as a religious movement and that the strategy is clear, get ID accepted then move on to the acceptance of the Christian God and the designer, is untrue.

Readers can judge for themselves who has the strongest argument here. Dr Noble and his denial or Philip Johnson and his recorded and reported admissions.

I suggested on air that he should read the wedge strategy and the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse. I explained that the call does not want a ban on talking about philosophical or religious viewpoints in RE lessons, or philosophy lessons etc. BUT and here is the nub of the argument they should be presented as faith and belief positions and NOT as science.

In one of the interviews he stated quite openly that he didn’t want intelligent design taught in science, so I don’t quite understand what his position really is. Nobody is stopping the discovery institute from doing what they do. If they can convince the academic community of scientists that their ideas are borne from science then fine, debate it and once it attains the status of science it can be brought into science teaching. But ID does NOT have a mandate to jump the queue, get injected into mainstream science teaching with no body of evidence and peer review behind it and certainly not while the community of scientists disagree with it.

Dr Noble kept challenging me to explain the ‘information ‘ in DNA and how it arose. It could ONLY have come from an intelligent mind, he kept repeating. I pointed out that Information scientists do not accept the ID definition of information. I cited Professor Jeffrey Shallit who has criticised Stephen Meyers’ definition of information as confused wrong. He says of Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell”; “Two things struck me as I read it: first, its essential dishonesty, and second, Meyer’s significant misunderstandings of information theory”. He goes on to say that:

Creationist information, as discussed by Meyer, is an incoherent mess.” and “Intelligent design creationists love to call it “specified information” or “specified complexity” and imply that it is widely accepted by the scientific community, but this is not the case. There is no paper in the scientific literature that gives a rigorous and coherent definition of creationist information; nor is it used in scientific or mathematical investigations.

Meyer doesn’t define it rigorously either, but he rejects the well-established measures of Shannon and Kolmogorov, and wants to use a common-sense definition of information instead. Stephen Myers Bogus Information Theory

I asked Dr Noble to define information, in one interview, several times and he did not.

In another interview I challenged Dr Noble over some accepted science, the age of the earth and common descent, knowing that he probably does not accept this science (though he is very, very careful not to expose his own views on creation and Biblical literalism). He said that there was a ‘lot of evidence’ for these things ‘but do you accept the premises?’ I asked. I pressed him, more than once. He did eventually admit that he didn’t necessarily accept them. This, I think, is the closest he has come to admitting publically his own creationist beliefs (that said I have not heard all his public talks so he may have divulged his true beliefs elsewhere).

In many of the interviews I said that accepting ID as science would mean that other pseudosciences would also be entitled to acceptance in science such as crop circles and astrology, both claim to use scientific methods, both claim mathematical foundations. With crop circle science, for example, they have their own research (very small) institutes; have PhD qualified scientific staff; carry out lab based experiments and publish in peer-reviewed science journals. In some ways they are ahead of the ID movement. They characterise their science as dealing with:

  • Number, complexity, and placement
  • Changes to plants
  • Electromagnetic and radioactive effects
  • Physical side effects
  • Highly intricate mathematical design
  • Eyewitnesses and balls of light

Surely, I said in one interview, they would have more claim for crop circle science to be taught as science than ID?

I also mentioned astrology. This again, its supporters claim, uses scientific methods, makes observations, measurements has testable predictions – but we are not going to teach that as science in school either!

I kept coming back to the point that school science is not the place for these debates. Both Dr Noble and I referred to the latest ‘shocking’ science, that a particle could possibly travel faster than the speed of light. We will not, I said, go into schools tomorrow and teach that Einstein was wrong that our understanding about the speed of light barrier is wrong. We must wait for the scientific community to verify this new experimental data and down the line (possibly many years) we may have to revise our thinking or we may find that it was the result of experimental error. The classroom is not where such things should be decided. We will not present this to children and say ‘you decide’.

I stated, many times, that ID starts from the premise that design and a designer exists and they look for evidence to support this. In the one solo interview I had, I pointed out that while scientists now may do a lot of theory confirming experiments and tests on our understanding of evolution, the idea which became a theory did not start that way.

Darwin and Wallace both wondered about how new species arise. They observed they gathered data they went into the field they amassed evidence and then, only then did they move towards an explanation, a scientific theory. They were, in effect, theory building They conducted real science they did not begin with the idea that things have developed and diversified through a mechanism that they called natural selection. They did not go out to seek to find evidence to fit this idea.

Intelligent Design,  as the Discovery Institute admits, seeks to find evidence to support their assumption that some things are so complex they can only have been designed. I put it to Dr Noble that how they characterise ‘design’ is based on looking at the features of things that we know to be designed (that is that are man-made). If they feel that the universe and many natural things are ‘designed’, what is their frame of reference? How do they know what the features of an unintelligently or non-designed universe or cell look like? If your notion of design is simply referenced to designs by humans then the logical conclusion is that the designer is human: so God is human, a human is God (or substitute ‘the intelligent designer’ if you wish). Again Dr Noble said this was not what they were arguing. Yet according to my reading of the Discovery Institute definition of ID that is exactly what they are arguing.

This is the Discovery Institute definition, taken from their website, I was using for reference:

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in  nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
 Discovery Institute definition of Intelligent Design

From this very definition there are contradictions which were rejected by Dr Noble, as he claimed that I was not defining Intelligent Design properly!

They start with their ‘theory’ that there is a designer for things that are so complex we cannot conceive of how they could have evolved. So their work is not theory building (evolution theory as mentioned above started with evidence and built up to theory) but theory confirming they state that they are ‘seeking evidence’ so the clear implication is that they do not, as yet, have such a body of evidence. In science, particularly biology, the ‘theory’ comes from the evidence not the other way around!

The definition also confirms that their point of reference for deciding if something is ‘designed’ is by comparison to man-made objects that we know to be designed. The assumption here is that the ‘intelligent designer’ works to the same notions of design as humans, why? Why should they have to do that? Hence my comment that the logical end result is that the intelligent designer must therefore be human or that the intelligent designer is only capable of thinking and acting like a human.

I pointed out that ‘theory’ can have different meanings and that in the case of intelligent design ‘theory’ is being used in a speculative way, little to do with evidence, more a hunch or notion that the answer may be ‘designer’ and then you go and look for something to confirm what you already ‘know’. Theory in science, especially biology, means we have the data, the observations and the evidence and our explanations for the natural phenomenon take in what we know and have observed and serve to provide us with a means of making predictions. It is also accepted by the scientific community.

Many times Dr Noble kept banging on about randomness and blind chance. I pointed out that evolution is not about randomness and blind chance and that environmental conditions are the ‘directive force’ in evolution. He of course ignored this and kept on about randomness and blind chance. No doubt he will accuse me of ignoring his claims that ID did not come from religion and to all intents and purposes still is a religious position.

I was clear that this call does not want any mention of ID or creationism banned, that we are not going to call in the police (not even the thought police, as he hinted we might have to) to enforce it and that it was not the job of science teachers to remove religious views from the classroom or tell students that God does not exist. When ID or creationism comes up in science lessons the way to deal with it is, in my view, straightforward. Science is not about faith or belief, it is the acceptance of evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and just as we accept gravity and atoms, so too should we accept evolution. ID creationism and Biblical creationism are faith-based positions and, as such, require a belief in the supernatural. Science is about the natural world.

If someone wishes to believe in a creative force that instigated ‘the big bang’ fine. If you wish to call that force ‘God’ fine, but all the evidence for the diversity and development of life on Earth does not require the intervention of a designer. It is a product of natural processes.

I have no doubt that Dr Noble will be proclaiming a great defeat of me in his debates today. That I failed to address any of his challenges and that I am ignorant, clearly, of intelligent design.

I could also claim a great victory. Dr Noble clearly does not understand how school science teaches accepted, verifiable and reliable science and that the ‘controversies’ we do talk about are based on the application of science (technology, such as GM foods, mobile ‘phone radiation etc.) and as such  these are more social controversy than scientific controversy, though they have their origins in the science. I could also claim that he clearly does not know how ID is defined by his own peers at the Discovery Institute and that their ‘science’ is no more reliable than crop circle science or astrology. I can also claim that despite explaining very clearly what the call by the signatories is all about. He clearly did not read or understand what our position really is.

I could, but I won’t (well, OK, I admit that I just have). I’ll simply say that after two hours it was only one side that resorted to name calling (intellectual fascist) and that is the true sign that someone has lost an argument!

A Better Way to Teach? – ScienceNOW

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Academic Teacher
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Better Way to Teach? – ScienceNOW.

Stop the Press! Hold the front page! Lecturing at students isn’t necessarily the best way to teach!

How fascinating that for the full 25 years I’ve been in science teaching I’ve known that getting children to work through misconceptions, problem solve and have hands-on experience with science through investigations is a better way to get them to understand science rather than just telling them all about it. Yet only now are some academics ‘getting it’!

This is a flawed study (as pointed out in one of the posts) and the effect does seem very ‘large’ and this could be due to the methodology used in this study. But there is no doubt that this type of teaching produces better results. The problem that we have of course is that it is also expensive and many lecturers who will believe that the prime concern of universities is research not teaching will not wish to increase their teaching loads in order to achieve such results. With fees now considerably higher, the consumer may well demand more teaching and more contact with the big names in their universities – that will place pressure on the profs to do more teaching and less research and that could affect the university world ranking.

I wonder how this paradox will be solved? Read the rest of this entry »