science as a human endeavour

What follows is the text of a talk I gave to a teachers’ conference last weekend, on the ‘human side’ of science. In other words (lots of them!), it’s about the nature of science. Quite a long post (for me), but I hope you get something from it.

I’m going to talk about science as a human endeavour. There’ll be a bit about the science curriculum & then – well, basically, I’m going to tell stories. I was listening to Bernard Beckett earlier & I thought, this is so serendipitous, we’re both story-tellers. So I hope you don’t mind a lot of stories today.

Okay, the new science curriculum. How does what I’m going to talk about fit into this? Well, the curriculum is really asking us to develop our students’ ability to think critically – & personally I think that’s about the most important skill we can give them: the ability to think critically about the huge amount of information that’s put in front of them from all sorts of sources. And we also need to recognise that the ideas and processes they are hearing about have come to us through the activities of people – it’s people who develop science understanding. And the other really important point is that science changes over time, as people’s ideas change. Science isn’t fixed; it’s fluid. And it’s done by people – science is a human endeavour.

Now, because science is done by people, and people are embedded in a society and a culture, then science is in an interesting position. It’s in its own world, with its own norms: science has its own culture; but it’s embedded in the culture that we’re a part of, as well.  And I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Those norms of science include its history – I find it really sad sometimes when my students come to me & they ‘ve got no idea about where these big ideas in science came from. They don’t know what the people who were developing those ideas were like. 

And science – & scientists – are a part of society. You can’t take science out of society. And that has a profound effect in shaping the way science is done, & in shaping people’s attitudes to science as well.

I’ll just remind you of what the new curriculum document has to say about the nature of science. This is an incredibly important strand in the curriculum, because it really is the one that ties it all together; that gives science its context; that lets students see science as that human endeavour that I spoke of earlier. They’re going to learn what science is, how scientists do science; that idea that scientists are people; that their ideas change as they’re given new information; that science is valuable for society – we’re not all bad people who do horrible things! – science is incredibly useful, & many of us wouldn’t be here without it. And obviously they’re going to learn how it’s communicated, as well.

This leads me on to another important point, & that is that our future prosperity depends on students continuing to enter careers in the sciences. I was talking with Richard Meylan earlier & he said, there’s no problem with kids taking science at school, but somewhere between the end of year 13 and that 2-month break before they go to university, we seem to be losing them. And so the universities are tending to see a drop in the number of students who have picked science as something that they want to continue in. They don’t seem to see it as a viable career option, and there are a lot of reasons for that.

Now, when I came in today there was that disc on the front bench from Paul Callaghan, Beyond the farm and the theme park. It’s a brilliant talk. He makes the point, and so did Robert Winston, that rich countries, first-world countries, countries with a strong economy, depend on high-end science and technology for that economy. Both Paul and Lord Winston have said that New Zealand’s going to have to continue to invest in science & technology – and also, to encourage people to understand science & technology, & to play a role in science & technology – simply to maintain, let alone enhance, the standard of living that we all enjoy. That means that we need more scientists, we need scientifically-literate politicians, and we need a community that understands science: how science is done, how science is relevant; one that sees science and scientists as being an integral part of the community.

This leads me on to what’s really going to be the thrust of this talk – how are we going to get there? And there’s heaps of things we can do: community initiatives like Cafe Scientifique; science roadshows… but we’re talking about kids in the classroom here. What sorts of things can we do that are going to make kids excited & want to carry on in science? Students often don’t choose science – how are we going to change that?

Well, one of the reasons, perhaps, is that they often don’t see themselves as scientists. We did a little bit of research on this at Waikato last year, talking with our first-year students, asking what would encourage them to go on; what would encourage them to continue as scientists? And what they were saying was, "Well, a lot of the time I don’t see myself as a scientist." We asked, what would make a difference? "Seeing that my lecturers are people." People first, scientists second.

So I went off & I googled ‘scientist’. And I don’t know that students do see themselves in these images. You have to go a long way, through 8-9 pages of the google results, before finding something that looks like my own idea of a scientist. (‘Woman scientist’ is a bit better!)  Almost all the guys have moustaches, they’ve all got glasses, all the women are kind of square-shaped. Students don’t see themselves in this. They see these weird people with bad hair, glasses, lab coats, some problem with their social life; kids don’t see themselves in that. And we need them to see themselves as part of that science community & we need therefore for students (& the rest of the community!) to see science as something that ordinary people do.

Now, what sorts of things are those ordinary people doing? They’re thinking; they’re speculating – they’re saying ‘what if?’; they’re using hypotheses, looking at evidence, ultimately making those strong explanatory theories that tie it all together. They’re thinking creatively: science is a creative process & at its best involves imagination & creativity. They make mistakes! Most of the time we’re wrong but you don’t get to hear about that because it doesn’t make good journal articles; usually no-one publishes negative results. So you just hear about the ‘correct’ stuff. Scientists persist when challenged, when things aren’t always working well. We’re part of society; we’re embedded in society; and we change the way society – and we ourselves – look at things.

And I agree with Bernard – one way of fostering students’ engagement with science, & seeing themselves in it, is to tell them stories. Give them a feeling of how science operates, how it fits. Now, I’ve got a quote here from Brian Greene, who’s a science communicator & physicist in the States, & he says:

I view science as one of the most dramatic narratives our species can tell. The story of our search to understand the Universe and ourselves. When that search is conveyed using the power of story – the story of discovery – we can all feel part of the journey.

So I’m going to tell you stories. And I’m going to tell stories about old, largely dead, people. And you’re going to say, hmm but there’s lots of new stuff. And yes, there is – but I feel we’re quite well served for that. We’ve got the Science Learning Hub, for example. You can go there & you can hear New Zealand’s scientists telling their stories and you can see them as real people. And I’ll put in a plug for Science on the Farm as well. You can go there and read about the people behind the science, where they tell about what they do in their own words. And a lot of those voices are those of students. There’s quite a wealth of information out there about today’s scientists; modern scientists doing their day-to-day work. You’re getting the old, dead, ones because one of my passions at the moment is the history of science: looking back; how it began; where did some of these big ideas in science come from? And a lot of those big ideas have a history that stretches back 300-400 years. But they’re just as important today, and I think that an understanding of the scientists who came up with those ideas is also important today. Hence the rather historical focus of the rest of this talk.

Scientists are a bit different. They are, & I think it’s important that kids recognise that, too: that a lot of scientists are a bit quirky. But then, everyone’s a bit quirky – we’re all different. I’ll give you an example of someone ‘a bit different’: Richard Feynmann. Famous for his discoveries in the nanotech field. He was actually a polymath: a brilliant scientist with interests in a whole range of areas – biology, art, anthropology, lock-picking!, bongo-drumming. He was into everything. He also had a very quirky sense of humour. He was a bit different. A brilliant scientist and a gifted teacher, and he showed that from an early age. His sister Joan has a story about when she was 3, & Feynmann was 9 or so. He decided that although she was 3 she could learn arithmetic. He’d been reading a bit of psychology & so knew about conditioning, so he’d say to Joan "here’s a sum: 2 plus 1 more makes what?" And she’s bouncing up & down with excitement. If she got the answer right, he’d give her a treat. The Feynmann children weren’t allowed lollies for treats, so – he let her pull his hair till it hurt (or, at least, he behaved as if it did!), & that was her reward for getting her sums right. So Feynmann was a bit different, even as a child.  Brilliant scientist, polymath, person.

Making mistakes. As I said, we get it wrong. We get it wrong a lot of the time. And even those really bright people, the ones we hold up as these amazing icons – they get it wrong. Here’s Galileo, looking a bit grumpy: he got it wrong. He thought the tides were caused by the Earth’s movement. We can look back & think, gee, you were a bit of a dork there, but – the reason he got it wrong was that, at the time, no-one had thought of the concept of gravity. Galileo’s sitting there, looking out through his telescope. He can see the moon, & it’s a long way away. How could something so small & so far away possibly affect the Earth? And that’s something that’s quite important, really – we look back at people in the past and we think, how could they be so thick? But, in the context of their time, what they were doing was perfectly reasonable. And Galileo’s explanation, for that time, made sense, even though we know now that he was wrong.

Louis Pasteur: the ‘father of microbiology’. Held things up for years by insisting that fermentation was due to some ‘vital process’; it wasn’t chemical. He got it wrong.

And one of my personal heroes, Charles Darwin, got it completely wrong about how inheritance worked. He was convinced that inheritance worked by blending. A chap called Fleeming Jenkins pointed out at the time that this was wrong. He used the example of a white sailor who, wrecked on an island inhabited by dark-skinned people – & remember, this is the 1800s we’re talking about, with different views on race – would by virtue of his innate superiority rise to be chief. And he’d therefore be able to lie in lust with all the women. If Darwin was right, you’d lose all trace of that white man’s genes, because they’d ‘blend’ with those of the dark-skinned majority. So Darwin didn’t understand inheritance. And here’s an example of serendipity – or rather, the lack of it: when Darwin published The origin of species, in 1859, Mendel’s work on inheritance hadn’t been published. It was published in Darwin’s lifetime – but Darwin never read it. If he had, he’d have had a ‘eureka!’ moment, because Mendel’s ideas would have made a huge difference to Darwin’s understanding of how inheritance worked – part of the mechanism for evolution that he didn’t have. But he never read Mendel’s paper.

We do come into conflict with various aspects of society. Here’s another picture of Galileo (perhaps why he was looking so grumpy in the previous one!). Galileo had huge issues with the church. He wrote a book called Dialogues (because it was in the form of a discussion between two people), in which he laid out his understanding of what Copernicus had already said: the Universe was not geocentric, it didn’t go round the Earth. This was a really unpopular idea at the time. The church model was that the Universe was very strongly geocentric: everything went round us, the heavens went round us. And the book was banned by the church. All available copies were burnt. And it wasn’t un-banned until the 1850s. Galileo, because his own observations provided very strong evidence indeed in support of heliocentrism – the idea of the Earth going round the sun – was accused of heresy. He was called in front of the Inquisition (the seated gentlemen in the picture). These were not nice people: they tortured people, burned them at the stake if they didn’t recant their heresy (or even if they did). They showed Galileo the various instruments of torture: for pulling out his thumbnails & squashing his feet, & all these other nasty things that you could do to people to get them to recant their heretical beliefs. Galileo did recant, & he was kept under house arrest until his death. And he was officially pardoned, or at least apologised to by the church, in the 1920s. A long-running conflict indeed. (There are others, but we’ll keep out of that arena tonight.)

And there’s conflict with prevailing cultural expectations. This image shows Beatrice Tinsley. An absolutely amazing woman; a New Zealander – she went to New Plymouth Girls High. She was a ‘world leader in modern cosmology, one of the most creative and significant theoreticians in modern astronomy.’ A world leader. She went over to the States to do her PhD, & as an example of how bright she was: she enrolled for her PhD in 1964. Now in the States the PhD system is a bit different from what it is here, it’s 2 years of taught papers & a 3-year thesis. She finished it in 1966. Beatrice published extensively, & received international awards, but she found the deck stacked against her in the States. Or at least at the University of Texas. Here she was asked if she’d design & set up a new astronomy department, which she did. The University duly made it official and opened applications for the new Head of Department. Beatrice applied. They didn’t even respond to her letter. So she left Texas to try to move on. (Yale did appreciate her, & appointed her Professor of Astronomy.) A couple of years later she found she had a malignant melanoma, & was dead by the age of 42. Which is one reason she didn’t receive a Nobel Prize for her achievements, because you can only get one if you’re alive; they don’t give posthumous Nobels. So the issue for Beatrice was a conflict between societal expectations & the area where she was working : women didn’t do physics.

The next example is one that many of you will have he ard if you’ve come to the on-campus days we run at Waikato for year 13 biology students. Science versus societal ‘knowledge’.  Changing how we look at things. It’s an example of a clash between science & societal norms: Raymond Dart & Australopithecus africanus. Raymond Dart was an English zoologist who had moved to a job at the University of Witwaterstrand in South Africa. He was widely known among the locals for his fondness for fossils; you could trundle down to Prof Dart’s house, bring him a lovely bit of bone, & he’d pay you quite well. So one day in 1924 the workers at Taung quarry found this: in real life it would sit in the palm of my hand. It’s a face, lower jaw, and a cast of the brain. ‘Wow, Dart’s gonna love this!’ So they chipped it out of the rock – that’s all they found, there’s nothing else – & they raced back to Dart’s house. The story goes that he was getting ready for a wedding: he hadn’t got his cuffs & his collar on properly. And he was so excited by this find that when his wife came in to drag him off to be best man, he still didn’t have his cuffs & his collar on & there was dust all over his good black clothes. He was just absolutely rapt.

Dart looked at this fossil & he saw in it something of ourselves. He saw it as an early human ancestor. And that’s what the name tells us: Australopithecus – the southern ape-man from Africa. He named it that on the basis of features of the jaw. The jaw is like ours, it has a parabolic shape, and the face is more vertical – relatively speaking – than in an ape. He described it as being in our own lineage & went off to a big scientific meeting, expecting a certain amount of interest in what he’d discovered. But instead of the approval & the glory of a new discovery, what he got was actually a fair bit of doubt (& some ridicule). This couldn’t be a human fossil; how could he be so foolish? It was surely an ape.

Now, in order to understand why Dart got that sort of response, you’ve got to understand what the paradigm was at the time for our understanding of evolution. Darwin had published the Origins in 1859, & by 1924 evolution was pretty much an accepted fact in the scientific community. But they had a particular model of what that meant. In some ways this built on the earlier, non-evolutionary concept of the Great Chain of Being. Man’s place in nature. Now this is quite interesting – look at where ‘man’ isAnd look at where women are… They also had a model that tended to view the epitome of evolutionary progress as white european males. And, because of this, that humans had evolved in Europe, because that’s where all the ‘best’ people came from. Black Africans were sometimes placed as a separate species, and in any case they were regarded as being lower down the chain, which went: European men – European women – Asians, & so on. And that tells you something about perceptions of women at the time, doesn’t it? In fact, there were papers written which said, it wasn’t a good idea to encourage woment into higher education. Why? Because exercising their brains would draw the blood from their reproductive organs & thus negate their one true purpose in life!

Anyway, in that context, here was Dart saying that he’d found a human ancestor in Africa. This meant the ancestor must have been black – which didn’t fit that world-view. Yes, it’s a racist view. But that reflected the general attitudes of society at the time, and the scientists proposing that view were embedded in that society just as much as we are embedded in ours today. We don’t like that view, but you can understand where they were coming from. 

And there was another reason for this difficulty with what Dart was proposing, and that too had to do with prevailing ideas about how humans had evolved. By the 1920s Neandertal man was quite well known. Now Neandertals have the biggest brains of all the human lineage – a much bigger brain than we have. And  the perception was that one of the features that defined humans, apart from tool use, was a big brain. The follow-on conclusion from that was that the big brain had evolved quite early on in the piece, so when you look at early reconstructions of Neandertal, you see a big hulking guy standing there in a slouch, wih a club dangling from his hand, and his head, his big head, jutting forward. Dart was saying was that Australopithecus was a hominin, but Australopithecus as an adult would have had a brain size of around 400cc. We have a brain size of around 1400cc. There’s a big difference there, & Australopithecus didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm. The big brain had to come first; everybody knew that.

And belief in that particular paradigm – accepted by scientists & non-scientists alike – helps to explain why something like Piltdown man lasted so long. Over the period 1911-1915 an English solicitor, Charles Dawson, ‘discovered’ the remains of what appeared to be a very early human indeed in a quarry at Piltdown. There were tools (including the infamous ‘cricket bat’ – obviously cricket goes back a long time!), a skull cap, and a lower jaw, which looked really very old. The bones were quite thick, & heavily stained. (That’s an interesting thing for students – bones when they’re fossilised aren’t white.) This was seized upon with joy by at least some anatomists because the remains fitted in with that prevailing model: old bones of a big-brained human ancestor. And they were quite cool because England didn’t have any human fossils at the time. Germany had the Neandertals, and there was erectus from Indonesia, but nothing from Britain. The fossil was named Eoanthropus dawsoni & no doubt Mr Dawson felt very pleased with himself. People began to express doubts about this fossil quite early on, & these doubts grew as more hominin remains were confirmed in Africa & Asia. But it wasn’t completely unmasked as a complete and utter fake until the early 1950s. The skull looked like that of a modern human because it was a modern (well, medieval) skull that had been stained to make it look really old. The jaw was that of an orangoutan, with the teeth filed so that they looked more human & the jaw articulation & symphysis (the join between right & left halves) missing. When people saw these remains in the light of new knowledge, they probably thought, how could I have been so thick? But in 1914 Piltdown fitted with the prevailing model; no-one expected it to look otherwise.And I would point out that it was scientists  who ultimately exposed the fraud. And scientists who re-wrote the books accordingly.

But this is an example of just how strongly cultural beliefs & expectations can play upon how science is done. In fact, here’s another sad episode in the history of science, but a very interesting one in light of how issues to do with race are perceived. This whole big-brain thing came to a peak in the US in the 1850s, when there was a real passion for measuring intelligence by the size of the skull. Bigger brains meant you were brighter, everyone knew that. It was used particularly to demonstrate differences between racial groups, particularly blacks & whites, in their intellectual capacity, & was then used to make arguments about their respective fitness for education & employment. Now, everyone ‘knew’ that blacks were not as able as whites. So scientists were doing this really bad thing – they were making an a priori assumption about what their results were going to show on the basis of what they already knew. So they got thei r skulls, and those doing the work knew which was which; the experiments weren’t double-blinded. They measured the volume of the skulls: you poured small seeds into the skulls. Then you tipped that into a measuring cylinder. Unfortunately the early data showed that the black skulls had at least the same capacity as the white skulls, & in some cases more. So what do we do? Well, we ‘know’ that blacks are less intelligent & so must have smaller brains. So – we measure them again. This time using larger buckshot for the black skulls. For the white, small seeds which you tamp in hard with your thumb – & look, when you shake the seed out into the measuring cylinder you get a larger volume for the whites, so whites are more intelligent! And what almost beggars belief is that the researchers wrote in their notebooks & papers the process that they followed (there was no attempt at fraud). But that is the power of societal & cultural belief in shaping science. (I recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man (Pelican), if you want to delve into this area more deeply.)

Let’s move on: thinking creatively. Using evidence, hypotheses & theories, but also, thinking creatively. And this time I want to tell you about Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, & the Nobel Prize in medicine. (These guys aren’t dead yet!) They received the 2005 Nobel Prize in physiology & medicine, & here’s the citation:

[The 2005] Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who with tenacity and a prepared mind challenged prevailing dogmas. By using technologies generally available (fibre endoscopy, silver staining of histological sections, and culture techniques for microaerophilic bacteria), they made an irrefutable case that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is causing disease.

Up until this point, the prevailing dogma was that if you had a gastric ulcer or a duodenal ulcer, you were a type A stress-ridden personality. And that the high degree of stress in your life was linked to the generation of excess gastric juices & that these basically ate a hole in your gut. Doesn’t sound very nice, does it? Marshall & Warren noticed that when they examined preparations from patients’ guts, in every preparation they looked at, there was this bacterium present. They said, ‘hey, guys, there’s this bug. Don’t you think that, just maybe, the bug might be causing the disease?’ ‘No, no, no – everyone knows it’s stress.’ So they went on, collected more data from their patients, & they found that yes, in every patient they looked at, Helicobacter pylori was present in the diseased tissue. This wasn’t enough. One of them got a test-tube full of Helicobacter pylori broth & drank it. He got – gastritis: inflammation of the stomach lining & a precursor to a gastric ulcer. He took antibiotics, & was cured. The pair treated their patients with antibiotics: their ulcers cleared up. And because they were creative, and courageous, they changed the existing paradigm. And this is important (particularly in the light of the creation-evolution debate) – you can overturn prevailing paradigms, you can change things. But in order to do that you have to have evidence, & a mechanism. Enough evidence, a solid explanatory mechanism, & people will accept what you say.

Which was a problem for Ignaz Semmelweiss. He had evidence, all right, but he lacked a mechanism. Semmelweiss worked in the Vienna General Hospital. He was in charge of two maternity wards, Ward 1 & Ward 2. Women in Vienna at that time would apparently beg on their knees not to be admitted to Ward 1. In Ward 1 the mortality rate from puerperal fever (childbed fever) was about 20%. Ward 2? 3-4%. You can see why women wanted to go to Ward 2. What caused the difference? In Ward 2 the women were looked after exclusively by midwives. In Ward 1, it was the doctors. What else were they doctors doing? They were doing autopsies in the morgue. And they would come from the morgue to the maternity ward, in their black frock coats, with their blood-spattered ties &… well, I hate to think what they had on their hands – & do internal examinations on the women. Small wonder so many women died. Semmelweiss felt that the doctors’ actions were causing this spread of disease & so he said that he wanted them to wash their hands before touching any of the women on his ward. Despite their affronted reactions he persisted, & he kept data: when those doctors washed their hands before doing their examinations, this had a profound effect on mortality rates – which dropped to around 3%. The trouble was, that no-one knew how puerperal fever was being transmitted. They had this idea that disease was spread by miasmas – ‘bad airs’ – & although the germ theory of disease was gaining a bit of traction the idea that disease could be spread by the doctors’ clothes or on their hands still didn’t fit the prvailing dogma. Semmelweiss wasn’t particularly popular – he’d gone against the hospital hierarchy (& he’d done it in quite an abrasive way), & so when he applied for a more senior position, he didn’t get it, & left the hospital soon after. He was in the unfortunate position of having data, but no mechanism, & the change in the prevailing mindset had to wait for the conclusive demonstration (by Koch & Pasteur) that it was these little single-celled things in tissues, in the air, on the hands, that actually caused disease.

What I’d like to finish off with is the idea of collaboration and connectedness. Scientists are part of society. They collaborate with each other, are connected to each other, & are connected to the wider world. Well, OK, there have been some really weird people that weren’t. I mean, if you want really weird, take Cavendish (the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge is named after him). He was a true eccentric. He did an enormous amount of science but published very little. One of the things that he wanted to investigate was the mass of the Earth. So he built a bit of apparatus to do this. It was enormously sensitive; just a breath would be enough to put it off its task. So he’d set up his experiments in a room, go out (shutting the door very carefully so that there was no sudden gust of wind), wait for things to quieten down, & then sit, observing his apparatus by telescope through the keyhole. He was quite reclusive – Cavendish just didn’t like talking with people. There’s a story that on one occasion he answered the door to a visitor & was so horrified that someone had come to speak with him that he ran off out the door. If you wanted to find out what he thought, & he was in a meeting, you’d sidle up next to him & ask the air, I wonder what Cavendish would think about so-&-so. If you were lucky, a disembodied voice over your shoulder would tell you what Cavendish thought. If you were unlucky, he’d flee the room. (Had he been alive today, he might well have been diagnosed as autistic.)

But most scientists collaborate with each other. Even Newton, who was notoriously bad-tempered, unpleasant to people whom he regarded as less than his equal, collaborated with others. And recognised the importance of that collaboration: If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. (Mind you, he may well have been making a veiled insult to Robert Hooke, to whom he was writing: Hooke was rather short.) He knew how important it was that other scientists had done earlier work, that he could then build upon.

What about Darwin? Was he an isolated person, working completely on his own? Or was he a connected genius? After all, most of the images you see of Darwin show this isolated person. We know that Darwin spent much of the later years of his life in his study at Downe. He had that amazing trip round the world on t he Beagle; he collected a huge amount of data; and the theory he developed on the basis of that evidence was going to shake the biological world. After a couple of years in London, he retreated to Downe (he was quite ill at times; we don’t really know why, although some have suggested Chagas’ disease, which you get from being bitten by assassin bugs. He might have been a raging hypochondriac, but that doesn’t really ring true). He went with his wife & growing family, & spent hours in his study every day, working away. He’d go out & pace the ‘sandwalk’ – a path out in the back garden – come back, write a bit more. He sounds like a really isolated person, someone who’s not part of society, someone who’s actively taken himself out of society.

But – he spent 8 years of that time in Downe looking at barnacles. He produced a definitive work on barnacles. And he didn’t do it alone. He didn’t actually have that big a barnacle collection. There are an enormous number of letters from Darwin to various specialists in barnacles (& in other areas): please send me this; please may I borrow the other… He wrote very actively to other scientists asking to use work that they’d done, or to use their specimens to further the work that he was doing. The 8 years on barnacles informed a lot of Darwin’s evolutionary thinking, because he was able to look at phylogenetic relationships (not that he called them that!) within the group.

Darwin was also connected to a less high-flying world: he was into pigeons. And this marks his interest in artificial selection – the power of artificial selection to change, over a short period of time, various features in a species. So he wrote to pigeon fanciers. And the pigeon fanciers would write back. These were often in a lower social class & various family & friends may well have been a bit concerned that he spent so much time speaking to ‘those people’ about pigeons. So he was connected to that wider society. And Darwin had a deep concern for society as well. He was strongly anti-slavery, & he put a lot of time (& money) into supporting the local working-class people in Downe. And of course, he was still going in to London to meet with his colleagues, men like Lyell & Hooker, who advised him when Alfred Wallace wrote to him concerning a new theory of natural selection. Now there’s an example of connectedness for you & the impact on other people’s thought on your own! Because Wallace wrote to him along the lines of, ‘dear Mr Darwin, here are my thoughts on how species might evolve. What do you think?’ And that kicked Darwin into action, publishing the Orign of species.

That’s enough stories. I’m going to finish with another quote from Brian Greene:

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable – a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations – for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth – not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

Science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instil a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

With careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of [the] details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

Science lets us see the wonder and the beauty of the stars, and inspires us to reach them.

6 thoughts on “science as a human endeavour”

  • After much meditation on science, motivated by encountering an excessive quantity of balderdash masquerading as science, I have come to the conclusion that there is a seriously wrong concept of science is being used.
    There is a problem with the concept of a scientific theory that can only be falsified by counterexample but never “proved correct”. I think that an important concept of science – is it useful – has been lost in the discussion. If you ask the question “what are the crucial components of a useful scientific theory?” the answer illuminates the source of much of the aforesaid pseudoscientific twaddle. There are four components to a useful scientific theory:
    1) A body of clearly expressed theory validated by peer review that clearly expresses the relationships and processes covered by the scientific theory.
    2) A body of expertise in making measurements that relate the theoretical concepts in the theory to real world phenomena. Again peer review is required to avoid such embarrassments as using glass test tubes when checking the effect of UV on organisms.
    3) A set of public examples of predictions of the theory together with corresponding measurements. This is public information that any prospective user of the theory may use to determine the expected accuracy of the theory in its current state.
    4) A clear statement on the limitations of the theory – under exactly what conditions is the theory likely to give good predictions or be a useful tool and what indications should caution the user against probable failure.
    Conventionally descriptions of science have extolled having the smallest range of conditions under clause 4 – the ideal of a theory of everything. However, although we have quantum mechanics and both special and general relativity Newtonian physics remains the most useful physical theory. Basically if you can see it with the naked eye Newton’s laws are applicable. NASA uses it for space programs, not because they do not know about relativity, but because there is a clear measure of when Newtonian physics ceases to apply and they know they are nowhere near that limit. Similarly a flat earth theory is known to be faulty, but the limits are precisely known and you may lay out you back garden using flat earth geometry certain that the deficiencies of the theory will not affect the outcome.
    This approach makes it clear what should be taught in schools – useful theories with some guidelines on where and why they fail and what, more esoteric theories, are required in special cases. Very few people will ever have any occasion to apply a relativistic calculation to anything and the only knowledge they need is that the theory exists and when it is likely to apply.
    This approach also makes it clear why so much twaddle has made it through the “scientific” net. The requirement for a useful theory is a clear public measure of the utility of the theory and of its limitations. In the attempt to raise the “status” of various theories the statements on the utility and exceptions are fudged. One of the most common dishonesties is the extension of the concept of peer review to the demonstration of the utility of the theory. “The theory has been peer reviewed and the peers have agreed that it is supported by evidence – you clods should bow to our superior wisdom”. This is a matter of consumer rights. Any consumer of science is entitled, as of right, to public evidence that the theory they are having foisted on to them is properly engineered and fit for purpose. Astronomers predict publicly observable eclipses, geologists predict the content of holes before they are dug and these examples set the standard. There must be theoretical predictions and measured values that the science consumer, not some mysterious clique of peers, may examine to determine the quality of the theory.
    The second dishonesty consists of fudging the question of when the theory will fail. Quite well respected theories fail in this regard – Quantum mechanics has no guide to when a quantum state will decohere, hence the well known “paradox” of Schrodinger’s cat which the theory allows to be in multiple states where the actual outcome is always fixed. There is no current theory that does not have exceptions and all theories should come, like packets of medicine, with warnings about when they should not be used.
    One of the most glaring examples twaddle revealed by this analysis is the notorious case of Darwinian evolution. There is no doubt that on a small scale it, like flat earth theory, works. Extended over the entire history of life on earth it gives ridiculous answers. Attempt any arithmetic on where and when novel genes appear in genomes if you doubt this. Instead of teaching the theory as a limited theory we are told “the experts have reviewed the data and found it convincing”. Some experts. The problem with Darwinian theory is simple, it assumes no direction to evolution whereas for any organism a direction to evolution arises whenever the environment changes substantially and some other organism is thriving while it is becoming extinct. The difference between the relative success of the collection of genetically encoded algorithms in the two species provides a temporary direction of evolution to the less successful one and under these conditions they can and do actively evolve. Since these events occur on a time scale of tens of thousands of years it explains why Neo-Darwinism only operates successfully on shorter time scales. But you will not find this information in any Darwinist propaganda.
    Honesty about the evidence for a theory and its limitations benefits both the science and the users.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Well, I’m not quite sure how we got to this point from what was essentially a look at the history of science in order to illuminate some of its characteristics. But I’ll give it a go.
    First up, any scientific theory is ‘useful’ in that it provides an explanation for a substantial body of observations. The ‘public examples’ of predictions & measurements are readily available in the relevant literature (for example, much of the work of Massey University’s David Penny & his colleagues) & I don’t see that it’s necessarily the role of the scientists to ensure that this is also promulgated in the popular press – if in fact it would be published there, given that editors tend to go for what will sell papers/magazines. And in any case, anyone with access to Google Scholar or the science search engine can search for this material for themselves.
    With regard to the concept of ‘consumer rights’ & scientific theories – there aren’t any. Science isn’t democratic in that regard (as I’ve said elsewhere) and the validity of a theory is not determined by whether it receives general popular acclaim. I doubt that your average ‘science consumer’ on the street would be able to determine the quality of relativity theory, for example – I know I couldn’t! But this doesn’t mean that the theory is thus invalidated.
    Darwinian theory most certainly does not fail when applied to the history of life on Earth. ‘Mathematical’ attempts to prove otherwise tend to be based on flawed understandings of probability. Nor does it require ‘novel’ genes – simple gene duplication is enough to start things off as the duplicated copy is then free to accumulate mutations without impacting on phenotype. Duplication of genes is a fairly common event, for which there is considerable evidence in our own genome.
    Nor does evolutionary theory (we’ve actually moved on a bit since Darwin’s day) assume that there is ‘no direction to evolution’. (It does recognise that evolution is not directed, however – not the same thing.) While genetic variation is randomly generated, through mutations & the genetic reshuffling that accompanies meiosis, natural selection is anything but random in its effects.

  • This is an amazing piece of science writing. I think that the issue with science is the common perception of how science works and what scientists do. Perception is hard to change.

  • I got my own moment of eureka when my masters course guided me here. What a wonderful work science writing. Your writing style is so captivating, and the message is so cheerfully yet effectively delivered. This is what I want my students to read. Thanks Alison.

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