Guest post: Now is not the time to sell science short

I seem to have drifted into ‘science communication’ week rather by chance so this gives me an opportunity to put up this piece my my old friend and developmental biologist Neil Gostling that he recently had published in his ‘local’ newspaper in the US. Here it is in full, but you can read the original and the associated comments here:

Science is important, but good science is imperative!

Good science is really important for our society. Issues from health care to education, from how we feed our population to how we move around the globe, from satellite TV to global warming, all depend on scientific research. We cannot pick and choose the science that we like and reject that which we do not.

As an evolutionary developmental biologist, I am concerned about this trend. This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” but the critical scientific message of this work is being eroded from the public consciousness. I teach a variety of biology courses related to evolution, development and zoology at SUNY Oswego. Evolutionary science is the key to understanding biology as a whole discipline.

“The Origin” was published in London in 1859, and for the first time in human history we had the opportunity to explain the world using a method not outlined by religion and to ask questions and derive a naturalistic explanation. Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu or member of any other religion, science will get you the same answer to your question. Science is a tool, but it must be used properly.

In recent years, there has been an increase in attempts to conflate science with religion. This starts with the claim that science and religion are compatible because there are religious scientists. This is true, and I know some religious scientists, However, they do not use their religious beliefs to carry out their scientific explorations. If they did, it would ultimately lead to concepts like intelligent design creationism. That is dangerous because it seeks to undermine the importance of the scientific method.

In the run up to “The Origin”’s anniversary, I have been trying to gauge the public perception of science and, in particular, evolution. Some element of the mood was seen on the Sept. 16 letters page of The Post-Standard. There was a very polite and well-written letter suggesting that scientists really should stop going on about evolution. The argument went along these lines:

The idea that God created the universe and life within it is “simple.” Evolution is difficult, and, when confronted with possible explanations, we should take the simpler, or simplest, argument. We should use a philosophical ‘tool’ called Occam’s razor.

Unfortunately this is a false premise.

Named after the 14th century English Franciscan friar who first posited the principle, Occam’s razor, in the original Latin, states: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, and translates roughly to “Entities must not be multiplied beyond that which is necessary,” or, “Keep things simple.” This is true if you have two competing ideas; the simpler is statistically the better option. But you must compare apples with apples, and not with oranges. Religion is an apple to the orange of science: science is different from religion, and “‘Occam” cannot be invoked to compare the two.

Science does not require a belief system. We use the hypotheticodeductive system. This sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. This is how it works:

We start by making observations. From this we ask a question. We then generate a hypothesis (this is the part of the sequence that many would call a “theory” in everyday language). We then perform an empirical test. This is essential. Science is only science when it is testable, and most importantly when the hypothesis is falsifiable (if the hypothesis cannot be falsified — for example, “God did it,” it is outside the realm of science).

Finally, conclusions are drawn from the results. If the hypothesis is falsified, then we reject it and ask different questions. However, if the hypothesis is not falsified, and the experiment supports the hypothesis, it stands- until the next question is asked anyway.

If the hypothesis is supported by many experiments, it may gain the status of theory (in the scientific sense). We don’t stop testing it, but it may enter into the scientific world as close to a fact as science ever claims to have. In the case of evolution, we have asked questions and tested the hypothesis over and over and over again for 150 years. Darwin himself made careful observations for more than 25 years before he eventually published the nearly 500-page “abstract” that we know as “On The Origin of Species.” The ideas that Darwin had in the mid-19th century have changed in minute details, as we have developed an understanding of DNA and genes totally unknown in Darwin’s world, but the substance remains. Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory right up there with Newton’s theory of gravity (yes, gravitation is “just” a theory, too, but a scientific one).

So, how and why is it that I claim that it is good science that will allow us to live in today’s world with all of the comforts that we enjoy and benefits that we experience?

The theory of gravity needs to be understood, as well as it can be, for planes to get off of the ground and defy an otherwise insurmountable force. Newtonian physics keeps the plane in the sky and allows your car to run. We enjoy high-speed Internet connections by relying on the best optical physics research and development that we have. No problems here, because our beliefs are not challenged and we like all of these things.

What about medicine? A report last month, on nearly every network I saw, claimed that 50 percent of all children born in developed countries today could expect to live to be 100 years old. This is great news! We all want inexpensive and effective drugs to treat disease so we can have long and healthy lives.

However, with an understanding of evolution and natural selection, we can see how and why we now have bacterial infections like MRSA, immune to all but the very strongest antibiotics. If only we had thought about it before we used penicillin for a cold or the flu! We set the ball rolling ourselves for selecting immune bacteria, and we failed to get rid of our flu to boot!

People need beliefs. However, as a growing population on a tiny planet, we need to do good science and let the results of supported science take us wherever they lead. Understanding the nature of science is imperative for us to benefit from the outcomes of research in all areas that make our lives easier. Understanding evolution will allow us to make sure that medical breakthroughs remain helpful. If we do not, then we risk actually selecting for dangerous pathogens, immune to our drugs.

Science if done properly can provide us with benefits that our own grandparents would find astonishing. However, we cannot pick and choose what we like. I think the final word on biology has to be given to the great American biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense unless considered in the light of evolution”.


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7 Responses to “Guest post: Now is not the time to sell science short”

  1. 1 Nathan Myers 06/11/2009 at 5:22 am

    It continually astonishes me: practically all scientists (Neil included) are unable to express what a theory is, or what it’s for. It’s no wonder everybody else is confused about it. Imagine librarians talking about shelves as the central feature of their work.

    • 2 David Hone 06/11/2009 at 8:07 am

      I left a comment only yesterday asking that you stop leaving endless highly critical comments. In fact I rather strongly suggested that you stop leaving comments at all on here. I can’t be the only one who is bored and tired of it all. And on the subject in hand, this was obviously written for a very basic (even potentially hostile) audience and with a wide variety of topics to be covered briefly, it may not be prefect, but I think it is pretty good. Please stop this endless parade of hyper-criticism.

    • 3 Tam 06/11/2009 at 10:04 am

      If you are genuinely interested in understand what is meant by a scientific theory, read some of Karl Popper’s works. There is a good introduction to his life and work on the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which will also give you a bibliography of his work.

      More generally a scientific theory is a repeatedly-tested set of principals that express relationships between observed phenomena.

      In contrast a law generalises a body of observations, but does not attempt describe them and a hypothesis is an as-yet insufficiently tested suggestion of what may be causing a particular phenomena.

      However, if you are not genuinely interested you should take your issues somewhere else. This is not an appropriate fora.

    • 4 Nathan Myers 06/11/2009 at 12:54 pm

      Dave: I posted that before I saw your request. This is my last posting.

      I’m amused, though, that Tam’s explanation of “theory” is no better than anyone else’s. I suppose expecting a scientist to explain it is like expecting a sprinter to explain glycogen reactions, or a pilot to explain lift. Pilots are actually taught a known-to-be false explanation of lift, apparently to avoid distracting them from things they really do need to know. It’s funny, though, that scientists very evidently don’t really need to know what a theory is, in order to do science.

      My final remark is that if you think my postings are critical, it can only be because you have re-interpreted them that way. I have found your blog very interesting and worthy of discussion.


      • 5 David Hone 06/11/2009 at 2:34 pm

        I do think your postings are critical, highly critical in fact and I know form outside conversations that I am far from the only one. I am sorry in a way that it has come to this, but I also do feel it’s a straw that broke the back. I’m glad you do like the blog, but I have also found you comments little but argumentative and frustrating.

  2. 6 Neil J. Gostling 08/11/2009 at 8:27 am

    Dave first thanks for posting the article. Well now, I don’t want to be left out of this. I was not going to comment, but I seem to have been found wanting when it comes to my description of a scientific theory. It was aimed at a non-specialist audience and so far seems to have struck a positive chord. However, just to try and clear up on this whole ‘explanation of a theory thing’, I shall quote from the Oxford English Dictionary, as a far more distinguished scientist than myself chose to do in his recent book ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

    As follows from the OED as found in Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth:

    Theory, Sense 1: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has neen confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.

    I think that just about does it. I hope that people are happy and can see through the prose to what I was getting at.

    Thanks again,


  1. 1 One last thing on science and the public « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 06/11/2009 at 7:56 am
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