Monthly Archives: September 2014
By Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney
UNDERSTANDING RESEARCH: What do we actually mean by research and how does it help inform our understanding of things? Those people looking for proof to come from any research in science will be sadly disappointed.
As an astrophysicist, I live and breathe science. Much of what I read and hear is couched in the language of science which to outsiders can seem little more than jargon and gibberish. But one word is rarely spoken or printed in science and that word is “proof”. In fact, science has little to do with “proving” anything.
These words may have caused a worried expression to creep across your face, especially as the media continually tells us that science proves things, serious things with potential consequences, such as turmeric can apparently replace 14 drugs, and more frivolous things like science has proved that mozzarella is the optimal cheese for pizza.
Surely science has proved these, and many other things. Not so!
The way of the mathematician
Mathematicians prove things, and this means something quite specific. Mathematicians lay out a particular set of ground rules, known as axioms, and determine which statements are true within the framework.
One of best known of these is the ancient geometry of Euclid. With only a handful of rules that define a perfect, flat space, countless children over the last few millenia have sweated to prove Pythagoras’s relation for right-angled triangles, or that a straight line will cross a circle at most at two locations, or a myriad of other statements that are true within Euclid’s rules.
Whereas the world of Euclid is perfect, defined by its straight lines and circles, the universe we inhabit is not. Geometrical figures drawn with paper and pencil are only an approximation of the world of Euclid where statements of truth are absolute.
Over the last few centuries we’ve come to realise that geometry is more complicated than Euclid’s, with mathematical greats such as Gauss, Lobachevsky and Riemann giving us the geometry of curved and warped surfaces.
In this non-Euclidean geometry, we have a new set of axioms and ground-rules, and a new set of statements of absolute truth we can prove.
These rules are extremely useful for navigating around this (almost-)round planet. One of Einstein’s (many) great achievements was to show that curving and warping spacetime itself could explain gravity.
Yet, the mathematical world of non-Euclidean geometry is pure and perfect, and so only an approximation to our messy world.
Just what is science?
But there is mathematics in science, you cry. I just lectured on magnetic fields, line integrals and vector calculus, and I am sure my students would readily agree that there is plenty of maths in science.
And the approach is same as other mathematics: define the axioms, examine the consequences.
But such mathematical proofs are only a part of the story of science.
The important bit, the bit that defines science, is whether such mathematical laws are an accurate description of the universe we see around us.
To do this we must collect data, through observations and experiments of natural phenomena, and then compare them to the mathematical predictions and laws. The word central to this endeavour is “evidence”.
The scientific detective
The mathematical side is pure and clean, whereas the observations and experiments are limited by technologies and uncertainties. Comparing the two is wrapped up in the mathematical fields of statistics and inference.
Many, but not all, rely on a particular approach to this known as Bayesian reasoning to incorporate observational and experimental evidence into what we know and to update our belief in a particular description of the universe.
Here, belief means how confident you are in a particular model being an accurate description of nature, based upon what you know. Think of it a little like the betting odds on a particular outcome.
Our description of gravity appears to be pretty good, so it might be odds-on favourite that an apple will fall from a branch to the ground.
But I have less confidence that electrons are tiny loops of rotating and gyrating string that is proposed by super-string theory, and it might be a thousand to one long-shot that it will provide accurate descriptions of future phenomena.
So, science is like an ongoing courtroom drama, with a continual stream of evidence being presented to the jury. But there is no single suspect and new suspects regularly wheeled in. In light of the growing evidence, the jury is constantly updating its view of who is responsible for the data.
But no verdict of absolute guilt or innocence is ever returned, as evidence is continually gathered and more suspects are paraded in front of the court. All the jury can do is decide that one suspect is more guilty than another.
What has science proved?
In the mathematical sense, despite all the years of researching the way the universe works, science has proved nothing.
Every theoretical model is a good description of the universe around us, at least within some range of scales that it is useful.
But exploring into new territories reveals deficiencies that lower our belief in whether a particular description continues to accurately represent our experiments, while our belief in alternatives can grown.
Will we ultimately know the truth and hold the laws that truly govern the workings of the cosmos within our hands?
While our degree of belief in some mathematical models may get stronger and stronger, without an infinite amount of testing, how can we ever be sure they are reality?
I think it is best to leave the last word to one of the greatest physicists, Richard Feynman, on what being a scientist is all about:
“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.”
This article is part of a series on Understanding Research.
Geraint Lewis receives funding from the Australian Research Council, including a Future Fellowship.
by BRIAN DUNNING, Nov 08 2012
It’s my favorite new logical fallacy, the “Appeal to Monsanto”, the world’s largest producer of biotech agriculture seeds. This is the logic that compels many anti-GMO activists to reply to any argument in support of biotech crops with “So you love Monsanto?”
It’s so wonderful because it combines many other logical fallacies into one, and is thus a great time saver. For example:
- It poisons the well (cloaks a viewpoint with negative weasel words) by associating the scary, evil word Monsanto.
- It’s a non-sequitur (a logical association that does not follow). IF (a) THEREFORE (b). IF (genes can be used to confer traits such as drought resistance) THEREFORE (I love Monsanto).
- It’s a straw man (misrepresenting what I said into something that’s easy to argue against). If I had actually said “I love Monsanto”, then plenty of rational arguments are available to show that’s a bad idea.
- It’s an ad hominem attack on my argument (the argument is wrong because of who the person is that made it). Whatever I said about biotech must be wrong since “I love Monsanto”.
- It’s a red herring (an irrelevancy to distract from the subject under discussion). Monsanto does not necessarily have anything to do with any given science-based discussion of the merits of what can and should be done with direct genetic manipulation.
Also, the Appeal to Monsanto comes in many different forms. Here are some Appeals to Monsanto from my first episode on organic food (skep.us/4019), which did not mention Monsanto at all:
Brian is basically an uninformed apologist for big agro-business. I would not be surprised if he is pulling a salary from Monsanto or Cargill.
G William Shea, 2/2/2008
well, actually [Brian] is very very very uninformed on a lot of subjects, including the scientific method! anyway, another one to see about GM and a real eye-opener in my eye 😉 “The world according to Monsanto”
check out the documentary, “The World According to Monsanto” you can find it on the popular video sites out there for free.
But the problem is not to justify the status quo; the problem is dealing with the implications of monoculture, the ownership of biological processes, the desertification or sterility of fertile land, the multifarious effects of carbon-intensive cultivation, and the implications of unfair government subsidies for certain crops (which hurt the farmer, especially the corn farmer, the most, and help Cargill, Coca Cola, and Monsanto, the most).
I will gladly pay more for organic food if it means I’m not a lab rat for Monsanto.
Its not a matter of IF but WHEN it hurts [Brian] and his family will something be done. I’d try to see his point of view but I just cant put my head that far up my A**! I wonder if he is being paid by Monsanto.
i dont know what you are trying to accomplish by this blog but you seem to have all ur facts skewed. who do you work for monsanto?
Claiming that organic foods are less healthy is the most obvious farce in your article as well as your blind belief that pesticides and herbicides are healthy and biodegradable. They might biodegrade, but not within a million years. If you are a “skeptic” then why would you believe monsanto funded studies.
Tyler K., 12/12/2010
You don’t work for someone like Monsanto do you?
I have heard that often farmers who buy genetically modified seeds enter into a contract with Monsanto and are only allowed to use Roundup products.
If genetically modified foods are that much better than why has just recently been articles about the fact that the corn that Monsanto has produced having problems with the very pests that it was modified to not be affected by.
“To feed a growing population …” This is an argument used by corporations such as Monsanto.
Eric B, 10/27/2011
Couldn’t have written a more obviously emotionally biased article if Monsanto covered your expenses.
Monsanto is owned by the zionist jews
Cam, I like how you say [Brian] is promoting “diet” and “water” as if he has some sort of patent on fruits and vegetables (like GE corn from Monsanto) and water which can only be bought from him.
Joe Shmoe, 1/25/2011
Even my episode on genetically modified organisms (http://skep.us/4112) did not mention Monsanto at all, as I was trying to stick with the science and avoid readers’ obvious ideological complications:
My major concern is a legal concern with such giants as Monsanto.
Justin Zimmer, 2/15/2012
A must see, The World according to Monsanto” on you tube. A bit unsettling and disheartening.
Betty Bate, 10/13/2012
An acquaintance of mine who works with a scientific testing company has heard numerous first-hand reports of Monsanto’s threatening to stop funding university agriculture departments [i.e., withhold grant money] if they did any health/safety testing on GMO technology.
Aspartame is poison period. It’s made by the biggest bunch of criminals in the world. Monsanto is determined to rule the world and might be. I get Gout as soon as I use and Aspartame.
Dean Slater, 8/27/2009
You totally miss the point, HFC is made with GMO corn and is helping to eliminate biodiversity. Not to mention the downright evil business practices of Monsanto et al.
I couldn’t afford organic food for the life of me. But what about good old Round-Up Ready crops like Soy and Corn? Monsanto is taking over the bloody world, and they are going to soon OWN our food supply and all patents to it.
I wonder what you would think about our food supply if you had to shut all the windows in your home and flee the area several times a year while the crops are being sprayed with round up and other poisons. I wonder if you would appreciate Monsanto and their schemes to dominate every farmer you know.
we’re all gonna die if this path is follwed much longer, but thankfully many people unlike yourself are waking up to the REALITY of chemical agriculture and not just stupidly DEFENDING it for no reason like you are. thanks for nothing, and thank goodness not everyone blindly defends monsanto and big AG like you and your fellow skeptoids.
Who pays you to be such an idiot? Monsanto?
The vast majority of our food (whether plant or animal) comes from factory farms. This is not healthy and it’s a business model that cannot sustain itself. Thanks to WalMart, Monsanto, and other mega-giants for that debilitating trend!
Joe Boudreault, 7/30/2010
This problem started in 1930 with President FDR signing a treaty allowing the taking of a limited amount of human specimens for research purposes. In exchange the Grey’s gave us the perfected “sonar technology” in exchange. Since that time they have taken over our Dem & Rep parties. They have managed to infiltrate our manufacturing facilities, have bought out Proctor & Gamble and created the Monsanto Company.
David Kaas, 6/19/2011
We live in a messed up world…we all better open our eyes and make a stand…because our health is in the hands of Monsanto and other giants…maybe we should look at Bill S510 but I’m sure everyone here is in favorite of that one lol
Brian, your opening statement on this subject says that “anti semitisim is institutionalized by world super powers” ? ?? Brian you are blind, what would you call Aipac?, ADL? IDF? Mossad? Monsanto? ect ect (all Zionist owned.)
Jim White, 10/13/2012
And finally, the Appeal to Monsanto can even be used to stain the reputation of those who are already stained, like Joe Mercola who was featured in the episode on the 10 worst anti-science websites (http://skep.us/4283):
Have you heard about Mercola’s link to an Indian company that makes pesticides, fertilizers, and bisphenol A and invests in Monsanto seed products? 😉
So, blog commenters, keep this tool handy. The Appeal to Monsanto can apparently be used anytime, anywhere, to argue anything, and it need have no relationship to biotech at all. Enjoy.
The tiny island of Ven (Danish: Hven) lies between Sweden and Denmark, at the northern end of the strait of Oresund. Oddly, it seems to have no strategic value, despite being placed bang in the middle of the only viable exit from the Baltic Sea. There are no fortifications or guns, etc.
We got the ferry from Landskrona for the 30-minute journey. It was the height of summer and there were hordes of tourists. Very soon the island was clearly delineated, and you could see it, too.
This view of the Ven lighthouse, only three kilometres across the water from Landskrona, contrasts the industrial mess of the mainland with the cute holiday mode of the island. We sailed into its little port.
Now. (click on the above picture) You see the green bus coming down the steep hill – the grey roofs directly above that, on the horizon and among…
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By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health, 12 September 2014
Pharmacists are consistently held up as among the most respected and trusted of professionals. They fulfil an important role within the health professions of being the gatekeepers of medication dispensing and the link between the community and their medication use. For more than one hundred years, there has been a very clear and ethical distinction between doctors (who prescribe medications) and pharmacists (who sell them). That way, the argument goes, doctors have no direct financial interest in drugs they prescribe, and pharmacists have no direct financial interest in recommending any of the drugs on their shelves directly to patients. So far, so good.
There has been a bit of role creep over the years, with calls from some doctors to be allowed to sell their own concoctions directly to their patients, as well as a much more concerted push by pharmacists to play a bigger role in health care, including providing immunisations and health checks direct to consumers. Naturally this is of concern to GPs as such proposals have the potential to fragment primary care even further. Not to mention taking the critical role of diagnosis and putting it into the hands of those who are underqualified, underinsured and undersupported to handle it.
What concerns me particularly is not so much that these health checks will take work away from GPs. If anything I suspect they will increase GPs workloads, sorting out the advice already given to patients by wannabe GP enthusiasts like pharmacists and their associated naturopaths. This month’s Skeptic magazine from Australian Skeptics highlights the problem quite well.
I think it’s time for pharmacists to decide if they want to keep the trust placed in them by the community to give sound advice. If they want to remain a trusted source of advice they need to lift their game and get all the ear candles, homeopathy, magnets, herbs and supplements out of their shops, along with the iridologists and other fairground ‘health professionals’. In short, they need to start acting like they deserve the trust and respect that is accorded them. We have heard nothing of the training and CPD requirements for pharmacists who want to diagnose and treat patients, let alone how they will be insured. I would want to see all this detail before I let my croupy baby or breathless grandmother within a bull’s roar of a pharmacist’s diagnostic skills.
The protectionism involved in the business of running pharmacies is breathtaking. Like dentists, only pharmacists are legally allowed to profit from running pharmacies, and they have defended this with all the bitterness and vitriol you might expect from a group who know they are onto a good thing. Health Minister Peter Dutton seems all for the pharmacists’ ambitions and has been on the media trail vowing not to wind back their protected status.
So it seems the pharmacists will have all they want. I wonder if they deserve it? I hope they take the opportunity to lift their game as a profession and use their protected status to raise standards, not profits. A good place to start would be to stop advertising and selling shonky devices and products that would be considered fraudulent in any other context. Too hard? Then get out of the expanded responsibility game for good.
Michael Vagg does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health, 2 September 2013.
I’ve discussed in an earlier piece the origins of fluoride conspiracy theory in post-war Europe. Other articles on The Conversation have set out the science behind our understanding that optimising levels of fluoride in drinking water is a safe and effective intervention (albeit one with a modest effect size) for the good of public health.
What I didn’t put into that earlier piece was a few personal anecdotes. The SMH article was completely consistent with them, so I might as well add my bit of anecdotal colour to the debate.
The region where I live has been one of the last in Victoria to add fluoride. This has partly been for logistical reasons, but also because the region is home to one of the better organised and more vociferous anti-fluoridation groups. In fact, my Letters to the Editor of the local paper pointing out the numerous factual errors of these groups ended up getting me personal nasty replies from the Editor herself, along with solemn and binding commitments on her behalf never to publish my ill-formed opinions again.
As a Pain Specialist, many of my colleagues are anaesthetists, and they have for years never looked forward to the paediatric dental lists here. So many children getting general anaesthesia for multiple extractions due to decay. The children wake up dazed, in pain, crying, vomiting and bleeding. Even though they bounce back pretty quickly afterwards, it’s not a very rewarding job to do. Anaesthetic trainees rotating down from big city hospitals where they rarely see such lists are about the only ones who benefit from such a cavalcade of needless misery. The risks of general anaesthesia are not to be idly contemplated for children, and far outweigh the virtually nonexistent risk from fluoridation.
Since fluoridation was introduced to Geelong in 2009, my colleagues are much happier, as severe dental abscesses requiring tricky anaesthetic techniques are much less common, and tend to mainly come from areas in the region which still aren’t fluoridated. A quick chat with one of our local dentists confirmed they had the same belief. The rate of kids needing GAs for dental work is approaching that of their metropolitan counterparts, though the list remains disappointingly long.
The other anecdote I wanted to share was that one of my colleagues who had worked in Europe for a few years went away with 3 children under the age of 6, who were the same age and social demographic as our own children. When they returned from living in a non-fluoridated European city 3 years later, 2 of his 3 children had needed dental treatment under GA and all 3 had fillings compared to none of any of their peers in our social circle who stayed in Australia. That’s a nice little case-control study right there, as if any further anecdotal evidence was needed to add to the overwhelming scientific evidence for fluoride optimisation.
So again, please don’t buy into fluoride conspiracy-mongering. Let’s not voluntarily give up the advantages of access to first-world public health measures because of manufactured scare campaigns. Maybe many anti-fluoride activists are sincere and reasonable people at heart. They certainly seem to hold their views with conviction. It’s just that on this issue, they couldn’t be more demonstrably wrong. The consequences of their misguided support for non-fluoridation are causing direct and measurable harm to children who deserve better than wilful ignorance and ersatz health consciousness.
By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University
Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.
Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”
A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.
Firstly, what’s an opinion?
Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.
You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”
Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.
So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?
If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.
But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.
On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.
Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.
The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.
So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.
Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery
Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
 This is a fallacy known as false balance.