Posted tagged ‘debate’

Is that right? How do we know?

September 24, 2011

Yesterday a story suggesting that “Einstein may be wrong” hit the headlines. Apparently scientists at CERN have done some experiments whose results can only be explained by relativity theory being incorrect. Or by their experiments/interpretation/understanding of results being incorrect/flawed. But they’ve repeated the experiments many times and now they don’t know what to make of it all.

Presumably, being world-class scientists employed at a reputable institution, they’ve tried to find every other possible explanation apart from the one now hitting the headlines, and this is why they’ve opened their results up for debate by the wider community. Saying that one of the kings of physics may have been wrong is one thing, but contradicting a theory that explains almost all that we “understand” of physics is another. Apart from anything else, how embarrassing if they are wrong!

Some people have suggested that of course the CERN scientists must be wrong. But this is hardly a scientific viewpoint, rather, to me, it smacks of the kind of inviolable faith that we see normally in religion; belief despite the evidence or lack of it. I’m not going to talk about science and religion today except to say that when discussing science we should look at it in a scientific way, not a faith-based one.

I certainly don’t know if the experiments concerned are flawed or not, and I never really understood relativity theory anyway. But part of me hopes that their findings cannot be explained by using current theories, and that this is not due to any flaws. After all, this is how theories are improved and science is advanced.

When I was in school, I learned that scientific method consists of first observing, and recording accurately what you observe. You must then try to make inferences about what is occuring based on your observations and then form a hypothesis which can be tested. If your hypothesis stands up to experiment then your theory can be considered adequate, until a new set of observations which do not fit with the theory. Therefore, I’d argue that the only ways in which you can be wrong in science is to incorrectly record something or to hold blindly to a theory which does not fit the observed results.

This discussion is also pertinent to a group of Italian vulcanologists currently being sued for negligence because they failed to correctly predict a catastrophic event in which people died. If you think about it, they are being sued because their theory was incorrect. But if it was based on the best available evidence at the time, then how is this fair? They were surely only negligent if they failed to take into account information that could have been relevant and even then, it would have to have been evident to a third-party expert that the information was relevant as it’s often necessary to exclude outliers and noise in order to formulate an initial theory effectively.

It seems that people expect science to provide black and white answers, whereas in fact all we can ever do is give our best current opinion based on the available evidence. It may be that this fact is not adequately conveyed to the public, in schools, etc. Learning science is not like history, where you learn a set of known events and dates, nor like a language, in which lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules can be learned, along with the exceptions to those rules. Rather it is a way of thinking and understanding things.

Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

November 28, 2010

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

September 24, 2010

This was a not-very-well-advertised debate about science journalism,organised by the Times‘ Science Editor Mark Henderson (sorry Mark, due to The Times’ policy of charging for content you don’t get a proper link) at the RI. It was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and the speakers were Henderson, Ceri Thomas (Editor of the BBC radio 4 Today programme), Prof. Steve Rayner (Oxford, Science and Civilisation) and Ed Yong  (Information Manager at CRUK and famed science writer/blogger).

Enough with the links….down to the content…..

The RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions then opens the debate up to questions from the floor. Personally I found her method of taking 4 questions from the floor then asking for answers quite irritating as it means most people have forgotten the first question by the time it comes to be answered. Anyhow here are my summaries of the 4 positions of the speakers:

Henderson: The traditional view of impartiality and fairness is impossible to achieve. Correctness/accuracy and transparency are more important than being balanced. It is the journalist’s duty to evaluate competing claims and provide evidence, uncertainties must be acknowledged.

Thomas: Science is no different than any other subject, shouldn’t be treated differently (NB Thomas was the only speaker who was not a specialist science editor/reporter which may have something to do with his position!).  Shouldn’t take sides and it’s ok to put peoplewho are “wrong” on air. Though reporters should take the side of reason and evidence, it is important to remember that these are not the only important things, most peoplemake decisions based on emotions and irrational thoughts so these need to be acknowledged too. It’s important to represent views not “liked” by scientists where these exist to show they are out there and so they can be held to account in public.

Rayner: Mostly thought that the debate was about science policy rather than science. Scientists shouldn’t have the last say in policy debates because the debate is not about the science itself. When scientists are called on to make judgements about subjects outside of their expertise they are no better than any other layperson. Dislikes polarisation such as the portrayal of “climate deniers” as he feels this stifles debate about the real problems and the ability to reach an inbetween position.

Yong: Many reporters are lazy, don’t investigate enough. The term “scientists have claimed…” is a get-out that allows lack of investigation and lack of endorsement. Reporters must provide a context and analysis as if they don’t, in the internet age, someone else will. Shifting the necessity to make the decision onto the reader is tricky because the reader has less resources (and will) to make this decision than the reporter. All choices are subjective including what we choose to write about at all and how it is written. Overuse of quotes and getting others to tell the story for you is a problem. Reporters shouldn’t take sides with a specific scientist, theory, or science, but always take the side of truth. Journalistic practices are not always compatible with this.

This was an interesting debate as ostensibly all of the speakers were on the same side (i.e. take the side of truth) but all had quite different approaches to it. I did disagree with a few of the comments that were thrown out there. For example, Henderson said at one point that if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and it is up to jouralists to get to the bottom of things and find out about this. Which is all well and good but if the work has been peer reviewed (as in the example of the Woo Suk Hwang fraud he used),what makes journalists qualified to discover this when several peer reviewers and trained editors cannot? Because they are not experts in anything, journalists are only as good as their sources. And someone else also made the point that we all know scientists who will say certain things on certain topics, so you can pretty much always find someone who will say what you want to hear.

I also disagreed with Thomas’s position that science should not be treated differently from art or politics. In these cases, opinion and point of view actually shapes the outcome. If enough people think something, this will inform a policy or a perception of quality. But in science, there are specific rules and ways of working that define this and they are not subject to opinion, they just are. Obviously interpretation of results is variable, but  even their interpretation is based on context within science and models etc that non-scientists cannot hope to understand. If you let unscientific minds try and interpret results they won’t know where to start and you end up with the kind of statements that say that you don’t need evidence for something, like God or ghosts or the Holocaust, because you (want to) believe it so it must be true.

Rayner’s insistence through most of the debate that discussions about science in the news are mostly about science policy not science itself was interesting, but I think ultimately wrong-headed. Yes, I agree that this does happen and there is no point only taking a scientists’sviewpoint on whether stem-cell research should continue or what kind of drugs should be legal, because scientists are not equipped to pronounce on the societal concerns and consequences of the science. But they do need to be a part of the debate. If you don’t have a scientist to tell you about their research then how can you hope to anticipate the societal consequences?

There was a long-running point introduced by Fox about what “her Mum” (read non-scientist member of the public) would understand on reading news pieces. Not knowing Fox’s mum, I imaged my equally scientifically illiterate and disinterested Grandma in this position; you can insert your own beloved relative or neighbour for ease of imagination. This person is not interested in investigating something they are told further. They want to be told in words of a few syllables only what the news is, and why it is important, not to be expected to make up their own mind. They need a clear message not a balanced piece as there is a danger they will only read half of a story before boring of it, thus missing the other half of the argument. If they don’t like what they read, they will go somewhere else where they can get what they do like. When faced with this sort of person, “Joe Public”, how realistic is it to publish a balanced piece in which the scientific viewpoint challenges general beliefs, and then expect that the reader can really make up their own mind in an informed way? Discuss.

Another much-discussed point was the differences between different  media. People may expect opinions in blogs and that’s where they go to get opinions; this is where you get communities building up that agree with each other. There may be a place (and I personally think there is) for straight reporting that gives bald facts and doesn’t try to dress it up too much; information rather than propaganda. There may also be a place for the more opinionated commentary on these facts. But it should always be made clear which is which.

For the avoidance of doubt, this blog is a representation of my opinions which I am justifying with facts where possible – if you want pure scientific facts read a journal paper, discard all the interpretation, and hope that the data is not fabricated. Pure facts are pretty hard to come by these days.