Tag Archives: Science

Australian science making some progress amid the march of ministers

The Conversation

John Rice, University of Adelaide

The appointment of Senator Arthur Sinodinos as the new Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science means there have now been four ministers responsible for science in Australia in the little more than three years since the Coalition won government in 2013.

Five, if you were to count nobody as a minister for the period from September 2013 to December 2014 when there was no minister for science. In fact, nobody would be the longest serving of them.

This kind of churn reflects poorly on government. It is ripe for a few episodes of the ABC satirical comedy Utopia, and given the National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA), we are talking about nation building.

More order, less chaos

Despite the constant change the government seems now to be generating order in the science and industry portfolio rather than chaos.

Whether it is individual ministers or their departments is not easy to tell. But the government seems much clearer on its approach to and support for science, industry and innovation.

The previous Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, was the most vocal and energetic advocate for a strategic approach to science and innovation, for better government co-ordination and for holistic policies that would engage science and industry in the national interest.

It would appear that ministers and departments have got behind this agenda, and by working with it have avoided the potential incoherence that multiple changes of minister might bring.

As Science Minister, Greg Hunt engaged the sector energetically, and sought to evolve the science and innovation system with better structures and better support.

Challenges for the new minister

Sinodinos has a good opportunity to maintain this sense of direction.

The announcement of the latest round of Cooperative Research Centres before February would be a good start. The review of R&D tax concessions is on the minister’s desk awaiting a response.

It was understood that Hunt intended to make a statement on science and industry in the next few months. It would be a great thing if Sinodinos could see that through.

Sinodinos is on record in parliament advocating the path to increased productivity through more investment in technology and innovation, and better commercialisation mechanisms. He appears to embrace the general ideas of NISA.

But it is clear that at the last election voters were not persuaded that science and innovation would deliver them the much promised “jobs and growth”.

Therefore the biggest political challenge for Industry, Innovation and Science is to negotiate a climate in which research, education and industry demonstrate collectively to the voting public that they do.

It is worth repeating over and over that an economy capable of generating and implementing commercialisable ideas doesn’t arise by having research done somewhere, the ideas picked up by someone else, and the magical appearance of a workforce with the skills to develop them.

An innovation based economy works through an evolving interplay between research, innovation and education.

More than two thirds of Australia’s scientific research occurs in its universities. The funding arrangements for research in universities are one of the biggest impediments to a productive Australian innovation system.

The funding

The underfunding of research creates significant distortions to the whole system of research, education and industry engagement.

The government missed a huge opportunity just before Christmas with its plan to take the A$3.7bn Education Investment Fund away from the university sector to pay down debt and fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Properly designed, a research infrastructure fund built on this money could have a massive influence on the university research system. The Clark Infrastructure Review and the Go8 both proposed such use of the Fund.

Perhaps Sinodinos could consider it both a challenge and an opportunity to turn this decision around, if only in part, and bring in a new force to support the growth of Australian science and the development of its innovation system.

The ConversationJohn Rice, Adjunct Professor, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission).  Read the original article.

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Why do irrational beliefs mimic science?

Footnotes to Plato

Creationism debateEarlier this year I co-published a paper, together with my collaborators Stefaan Blancke and Maarten Boudry, entitled “Why Do Irrational Beliefs Mimic Science? The Cultural Evolution of Pseudoscience,” that I think readers of this blog will find interesting.

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The Folly of Scientism

By Austin L. Hughes
The New Atlantis

‘When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable.

The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

‘The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers—for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

‘Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.’

Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

Excerpts reblogged with permission from The New AtlantisView original post


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Chief Scientist’s address to the National Press Club: The voyage of science and innovation

The Conversation

Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

Below is a transcript of the speech given by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, at the National Press Club on 2nd March 2016.

Lessons from a lost ship

Let me start with a story about a small nation with middle-power ambitions.

It’s a nation in transition. Its population is growing. Its commodity-based economy is booming, on metals and minerals and grain.

That growth is supported by a strong financial sector and a sizeable migrant workforce. It is underpinned by landmark tax reform bedded down a few decades ago.

But this small nation is well aware of its uncertain place in a strategic region at a volatile time.

So it embarks on a bold exercise in next generation defence procurement: a flagship for its navy and a statement about its place in the world. The construction and financing is a public-private partnership.

The work is outsourced to a foreign company. That company subcontracts in turn to an international consortium of SMEs.

And then they head into an old-growth forest to source the materials. A forest – because this ship will be built of oak.

The setting is Sweden, four hundred year ago, in 1625.

Big dreams, epic failure

Now this was no ordinary ship that the Swedes contracted the Dutch, who subcontracted the Germans, Danes and Finns, to build.

This was something that no-one in Sweden had ever attempted before: a 135 foot warship with two decks, each bearing 36 cannons. And it had to be built on the keel of the 110 foot, one-deck warship the contractors were initially instructed to build.

That ship was half done when the King changed his mind – inspired by the thought of an extra deck, with extra cannons.

So the builders set to work, and they did their best to adapt the keel, while the King went off to fight his war with Poland.

By August 1628 the ship was ready.

All of Stockholm gathered at the harbour for the launch of this mighty symbol of Swedish pride. And all of Stockholm was still there when, 20 minutes after the launch, tilted by the gentle nudge of a light sea breeze, it sank – less than one nautical mile from dock.

This ship – the Vasa – has sailed into business school history: as the textbook case in innovation done wrong.

  • Project specifications that changed at political whim.
  • A workforce of 400 people, the largest workforce ever engaged in a single project in Sweden, split up into five autonomous project silos.
  • No evidence of design plans.
  • No prototype before the full-scale model was built.
  • No appetite for frank and fearless advice – the giving or the receiving of it.
  • No testing until the very last stage – and then no courage to halt the launch when the tests confirmed the outcome would be catastrophic.
  • Money squandered on vanity projects – including 20 busts of Roman emperors facing off against some ornamental mermaids.
  • And above all – not enough science.

The ship and 53 lives were lost as a result.

When investors say they are risk-averse, here’s the reason: No-one wants to go down with the two-deck ship.

Learning to innovate – intelligently

You might say it’s risky to start a speech with failure. But I’ve never been afraid of risk. And I can tell you that no modern engineering team would build the Vasa today.

I’m assuming, of course, that at least one member of the team would have come within spitting distance of Newton’s Laws of physics in the course of their training.

But the Vasa was about six decades too early for Isaac Newton. The shipmasters did not know about force vectors and how they sum, or the significance of the centre of gravity. So they were effectively blind, where modern science gives us the power to see.

The more we know – thanks to science – the more we can achieve through innovation. And the more efficient the path we take to get there.

Elizabeth and I visited the Vasa museum in Stockholm in January. When I heard the story, I immediately knew that I would have to include it in my maiden voyage as Chief Scientist at the National Press Club.

The first thing that the story of the Vasa says to me is this: if we want bold solutions in this century then we need science – and plenty of it. As important as it is, though, science is not enough. We need to think about interactions, unexpected consequences and the management of risk.

If we were to build nothing new before we were absolutely certain we knew the best way to do it, that would be the end of progress.

And even if we did figure out the quantum world tomorrow – even if we did have a grip on the fantastical complexity of the human brain – even if we did crack nuclear fusion…

There would still be questions about the practical ways our knowledge might be applied.

Take self-driving cars.

Now I’m not drawing a direct parallel here to the Vasa – I know which of the two I’d rather travel in, and it’s not the one with ornamental mermaids. But I will put it to you that we are in our own way launching an untested craft into unknown waters, with consequences that we can only foresee in part.

There are plenty of benefits: mobility for the elderly, fewer accidents, freedom to talk on your mobile phone…

But is it that simple?

  • Say you’re in the city to attend a meeting. Do you pay for the car to park – or do you just send it round and round the block for the duration of your meeting? Congestion would skyrocket.
  • Say it’s 8:00AM on a school day. Do you carpool – or pack the kids off and wait for the car to return… again, and again? More congestion!

But the harder questions for government only proceed from there.

  • How do we deter people who think like me from adding to traffic congestion?
  • Who do we allow to own or direct these cars?
  • What happens to all the people who today drive things like trucks and taxis for a living?
  • Who builds, and then who takes responsibility, for the sophisticated networks of sensors to support the cars?
  • And given that orderly traffic flow depends on the interconnections between the cars and the traffic management software, what happens when a car hits an internet blackspot? Potential catastrophe.

These are but a fraction of the issues attached to one technology in the immediately foreseeable future. To solve them, we need not just science, but research. Where research is the investigatory collaboration between science, technology, sociology, economics and the like.

In all of the complex challenges that technology will bring, the humanities, arts and social sciences are critical to our research endeavour and we neglect them at our cost.

Combine these research elements, and we will reap the benefits:

Gridlock – gone. Crashes – avoided. Carparks – repurposed. Designated drivers – extinct. Backseat drivers – forever silenced.

And if you can imagine that self-driving car – then you can also imagine a low-emissions electricity grid supplying electric vehicles. Connected to fantastic arrays of solar panels in the outback. Travelling through an ever more exciting world.

Perhaps by then we’ve made progress towards bionic eyes for the vision impaired. Or launched trips into space for tourists. We could be living in an Electric Planet. A zero emissions world.

How much progress could your lifetime contain?

We decide – and not just by the scope of our ambition but by the breadth of our research, the quality of our planning and the calibre of our leadership.

So science is vital; and innovation takes hard work – two lessons that a shipwreck can teach.

Learn them, and we will prosper in our own remarkable times. With great science we will create great research outcomes. With clever innovation we will turn those research outcomes into societal and economic benefit.

With great science and clever innovation combined, we can discover how truly remarkable we might be.

Applying the lesson to public policy: the vision and the path

As a student, researcher, innovator and investor, I’ve always tried to keep the doors of opportunity open.

I’ve reflected a great deal recently on what chasing opportunity means for public policy.

After all, Australia has embarked on one of the most ambitious public sector innovation projects we have ever attempted.

Its aim is set out in the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

We are seeking the design specifications for a very different sort of country: a country with the scientific potential, the industrial capacity and the start-up culture to thrive in the decades ahead.

Above all, it’s about thinking and operating at scale.

If you recognise a problem is big, you will be more likely to develop appropriately large-scale solutions.

For example, although Australia has the largest rate of rooftop solar installations in the world, the total contribution to our electricity needs is just 2.1%. Electricity itself only represents about a fifth of our total energy consumption, so the contribution of solar today is still tiny.

We’ve done wonders with solar from a virtual standing start in 2010, but to get to where we want to be we need to move faster, with bigger ambitions. Operating at scale is not just about distributing money. The goal has to be to create an environment that encourages success.

Take red tape. It’s the gift-wrap for opportunity. For example, our existing regulations make it easier to test unmanned aerial drones in Australia than it is for developers to test them in the United States.

So we have an opportunity to be a leader rather than a follower in the use of drones for media, mining, retail and sport.

Our regulations also support an efficient, world class clinical trials industry, a national asset we ought to celebrate. Every year, around 1,000 new clinical trials commence in Australia, capturing a A$1 billion dollar investment.

But we don’t create the same supportive environment for manufacturers of medical devices. Why not aim to win on all fronts, in the interests of consumers as well as workers and investors?

Beyond regulation, we need a highly educated workforce, and tax regimes that are simple, reasonable and fair. We need to ensure that the Government’s contribution to the innovation system is not too complex.

And when designing an environment to encourage innovation we need to declare in advance how we will measure success. We are capable of creating this environment; and where we succeed, good things happen.

Let me give you some examples from my first month on the job. I do not take credit – but I do take note, as should we all. In basic science, we’ve observed gravitational waves. Easy to say – but so difficult to do that Einstein himself thought we’d never crack it.

To me, this was the most exciting announcement in physics in my lifetime. It rounded out Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The event was observed by an instrument, to which Australia made important contributions, that is the most sensitive combination of physics and engineering ever contemplated.

Most important, we now have a whole new way to observe the universe.

More than 400 years ago Galileo improved the optical telescope so that he could use it to prove that the Earth revolves around the sun. In the 1930s, the radio telescope was invented and eventually used to discover pulsars, quasars and the cosmic microwave background radiation. Now, the optical telescope and the radio telescope have been joined by a gravitational telescope.

With it, we will discover things we never imagined.

Back on Earth, in the marketplace, we’ve seen Australian science in translation, in the form of a A$730 million licensing deal in which the pharmaceutical giant Merck acquired rights to a new drug to treat lymphoma, sickle cell anaemia, lung cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer.

And then Atlassian powers on, after sparking the dreams of a million ambitious young people when it listed on the US stock exchange and reached US$5.8 billion dollars overnight.

It’s a classic story of two Sydney science and IT students who developed planning tools for software developers, a product that was so good that it sold itself without a sales force.

Good news. Good news across the spectrum from scientific discovery to commercial success. Good news that stimulates the imagination.

And if you think we’ve exhausted the tank, if you think we’ve optimised the policy settings, it you think this is as good as we can get – you’re wrong.

How many women give up on promising careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers, but by their mid-30s a serious gender gap starts to appear. We are improving – but we have a long way to go.

And how many businesses don’t engage with universities or research agencies? Enough to rank us at the bottom of the OECD for cross-sector collaboration.

How many researchers were never encouraged to think about working in industry or creating a start-up in the course of their training? Too many – because we still set PhD students’ sights on academic careers, even if for the majority we can’t possibly satisfy the expectations we create.

And how many good ideas might be waiting to be turned into products or processes in our research facilities? We’ve got great universities – but none in the Thomson Reuters list of the Top 100 University Innovators.

We rank 9th in the Global Innovation Index for the calibre of our science institutions – but 72nd for innovation output.

I’m telling you all this bad news because there’s a silver lining. Just think what this country might achieve if we address these issues. Then Australians can get on with bringing the future into the present.

Linking to my agenda

“So what are you doing about it, Alan?” you might ask. “Lots”, is the short answer. “Enough to weigh down a speech like 36 cannons on a seventeenth century ship”, is the longer one.

So let me signpost some of the work to expect from my office in the year ahead.

First, there’s my role at Innovation and Science Australia under chairman Bill Ferris, to help lead the development of a 15 year plan for investment in science, research and innovation. It’s the strategic plan for the country; and it will be critical to coordinate the many moving parts in play.

Second, Bill and I will be joined by John Fraser to undertake a review of the R&D Tax Incentive.

Yes, it’s been reviewed several times. But as we gather more data from the operation of the program there is an opportunity to further refine the incentive to ensure that it is effective at encouraging R&D that would not otherwise take place.

Third, I will be leading the development of a roadmap for our future national research infrastructure. This term “research infrastructure” is a little clunky because when we hear “infrastructure” we usually think of the everyday things – the bridges, ports or railways we know so well.

We don’t think of the infrastructure that maps the cosmos, images the brain, explores the oceans, and archives our history and stories. But we should – because it enlarges our capacity to reach for the future.

If endorsed, the proposed new infrastructure identified in the road mapping exercise will power Australian research in coming decades. And if history is our guide, powering science translates to fuelling industry, and putting Australian innovations out to the world.

Fourth, there’s the work of the Commonwealth Science Council, for which I am the Executive Officer.

We will measure progress against the nine National Science and Research Priorities, so we can answer to the expectations of Australians. We will identify our most transformational research; and we will scope the big future opportunities for Australia.

Finally, a word about education. I came to this role with the experience of creating three ongoing education programs, two in schools and one for early career researchers.

So it makes sense that, building on the Office of the Chief Scientist’s existing capability, I intend to present the data that will help to elevate our ambition for Australian schools. We must reverse the slipping rankings of our students in international tests.

In 2007 we were ranked at around 10th in the world. By 2011, these numbers had deteriorated and Australian students were significantly outperformed by 18 countries in science and 17 countries in maths. Being out of the top ten is bad enough, but being on a downward trajectory is even worse.

What can we do to reverse this trend? Numerous concerned individuals, institutions and companies have created extracurricular activities to try to stimulate interest in science.

My Office has just published a listing of the extracurricular STEM initiatives around the country and during the course of this year we will work to make it available as a dynamic database accessible to all teachers, students and parents.

But this will not be enough. The scale of the challenge is huge. We need to enhance our in-curriculum teaching capacity. We need to ensure that students learn deep content, not just how to learn. And we need to challenge our students and support them to meet those challenges.

All up, a three year term as Chief Scientists doesn’t seem quite long enough. But as a travelling engineer I have learned to pack efficiently.


I began with the Vasa gunship. I’ll end with its postscript.

It sat on the bottom of the harbour for 333 years. Then it was raised in 1961 – almost perfectly preserved, ornamental mermaids and all. Raising it was a phenomenal feat of ingenuity and engineering.

It was installed in a purpose-built museum, where more than a million people every year line up to see it. To Sweden, the Vasa is now a great source of national pride.

Because Sweden didn’t give up on building ships. They built two-deck gunships. They built three-deck gunships. Gunships that became the pride of the Swedish military for the next thirty years. They helped to usher in the age the Swedes call stormaktstiden – the Great Power Period.

Failure – repurposed as a symbol of success. But we don’t have to get there from the bottom of the harbour. Let’s take the direct path to our own stormaktstiden, our Great Power Period.

Thank you.

The ConversationAlan Finkel, Chief Scientist for Australia, Office of the Chief Scientist

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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We can’t trust common sense but we can trust science

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

When a group of Australians was asked why they believed climate change was not happening, about one in three (36.5%) said it was “common sense”, according to a report published last year by the CSIRO. This was the most popular reason for their opinion, with only 11.3% saying their belief that climate change was not happening was based on scientific research.

Interestingly, the same study found one in four (25.5%) cited “common sense” for their belief that climate change was happening, but was natural. And nearly one in five (18.9%) said it was “common sense” that climate change was happening and it was human-induced.

It seems the greater the rejection of climate science, the greater the reliance on common sense as a guiding principle.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott also appealed to “common sense” when arguing against gay marriage recently.

But what do we mean by an appeal to common sense? Presumably it’s an appeal to rationality of some sort, perhaps a rationality that forms the basis of more complex reasoning. Whatever it is, we might understand it better by considering a few things about our psychology.

It’s only rational

It’s an interesting phenomenon that no one laments his or her lack of rationality. We might complain of having a poor memory, or of being no good at maths, but no one thinks they are irrational.

Worse than this, we all think we’re the exemplar of the rational person (go on, admit it) and, if only everyone could see the world as clearly as we do, then all would be well.

Rather than being thought of as the type of reasoning everyone would converge on after thoughtful reflection, however, common sense too often just means the kind of sense we individually have. And anyone who agrees with us must also, logically, have it.

But more likely, as Albert Einstein supposedly put it:

[…] common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen.

In other words, common sense is indeed very common, it’s just that we all have a different idea of what it is.

Thinking that feels right

The appeal to common sense, therefore, is usually nothing more than an appeal to thinking that just feels right. But what feels right to one person may not feel right to another.

When we say to each other “that sounds right”, or “I like the sound of that”, we are generally not testing someone’s argument for validity and soundness as much as seeing if we simply like their conclusion.

Whether it feels right is usually a reflection of the world view and ideologies we have internalised, and that frame how we interact with new ideas. When new ideas are in accord with what we already believe, they are more readily accepted. When they are not, they, and the arguments that lead to them, are more readily rejected.

We too often mistake this automatic compatibility testing of new ideas with existing beliefs as an application of common sense. But, in reality, it is more about judging than thinking.

As the psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, when we arrive at conclusions in this way, the outcomes also feel true, regardless of whether they are. We are not psychologically well equipped to judge our own thinking.

We are also highly susceptible to a range of cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic that preference the first things that come to mind when making decisions or giving weight to evidence.

One way we can check our internal biases and inconsistencies is through the social verification of knowledge, in which we test our ideas in a rigorous and systematic way to see if they make sense not just to us, but to other people. The outstanding example of this socially shared cognition is science.

Social cognition can be powerful.
Pixabay, CC BY

Science is not common sense

It’s important to realise that science is not about common sense. Nowhere is this more evident than in the worlds of quantum mechanics and relativity, in which our common sense intuitions are hopelessly inadequate to deal with quantum unpredictability and space-time distortions.

But our common sense fails us even in more familiar territory. For centuries, it seemed to people that the Earth could not possibly be moving, and must therefore be at the centre of the universe.

Many students still assume that an object in motion through space must have a constant force acting on it, an idea that contradicts Newton’s first law. Some people think that the Earth has gravity because it spins.

And, to return to my opening comment, some people think that their common sense applied to observations of the weather carries more weight on climate change than the entire body of scientific evidence on the subject.

Science is not the embodiment of individual common sense, it is the exemplar of rational collaboration. These are very different things.

It is not that individual scientists are immune from the cognitive biases and tendencies to fool themselves that we are all subject to. It is rather that the process of science produces the checks and balances that prevent these individual flaws from flourishing as they do in some other areas of human activity.

In science, the highest unit of cognition is not the individual, it is the community of scientific enquiry.

Thinking well is a social skill

That does not mean that individuals are not capable of excellent thinking, nor does it mean no individual is rational. But the extent to which individuals can do this on their own is a function of how well integrated they are with communities of systematic inquiry in the first place. You can’t learn to think well by yourself.

In matters of science at least, those who value their common sense over methodological, collaborative investigation imagine themselves to be more free in their thinking, unbound by involvement with the group, but in reality they are tightly bound by their capabilities and perspectives.

We are smarter together than we are individually, and perhaps that’s just common sense.

Peter Ellerton will be online today, Tuesday February 2, 2016, to answer your questions or comments on common sense. Here are the times for Australia’s states and territories:

  • 2pm and 3pm (Qld)
  • 3pm to 4pm (NSW, Tas, Vic and ACT)
  • 2.30pm to 3.30pm (SA)
  • 1.30pm to 2.30pm (NT)
  • Noon to 1pm (WA)

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Brian Cox on science



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John Cleese on science



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Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

There is currently a fashion for religion/science accommodationism, the idea that there’s room for religious faith within a scientifically informed understanding of the world.

Accommodationism of this kind gains endorsement even from official science organizations such as, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But how well does it withstand scrutiny?

Not too well, according to a new book by distinguished biologist Jerry A. Coyne.

Gould’s magisteria

The most famous, or notorious, rationale for accommodationism was provided by the celebrity palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages. Gould argues that religion and science possess separate and non-overlapping “magisteria”, or domains of teaching authority, and so they can never come into conflict unless one or the other oversteps its domain’s boundaries.

If we accept the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), the magisterium of science relates to “the factual construction of nature”. By contrast, religion has teaching authority in respect of “ultimate meaning and moral value” or “moral issues about the value and meaning of life”.

On this account, religion and science do not overlap, and religion is invulnerable to scientific criticism. Importantly, however, this is because Gould is ruling out many religious claims as being illegitimate from the outset even as religious doctrine. Thus, he does not attack the fundamentalist Christian belief in a young earth merely on the basis that it is incorrect in the light of established scientific knowledge (although it clearly is!). He claims, though with little real argument, that it is illegitimate in principle to hold religious beliefs about matters of empirical fact concerning the space-time world: these simply fall outside the teaching authority of religion.

I hope it’s clear that Gould’s manifesto makes an extraordinarily strong claim about religion’s limited role. Certainly, most actual religions have implicitly disagreed.

The category of “religion” has been defined and explained in numerous ways by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and others with an academic or practical interest. There is much controversy and disagreement. All the same, we can observe that religions have typically been somewhat encyclopedic, or comprehensive, explanatory systems.

Religions usually come complete with ritual observances and standards of conduct, but they are more than mere systems of ritual and morality. They typically make sense of human experience in terms of a transcendent dimension to human life and well-being. Religions relate these to supernatural beings, forces, and the like. But religions also make claims about humanity’s place – usually a strikingly exceptional and significant one – in the space-time universe.

It would be naïve or even dishonest to imagine that this somehow lies outside of religion’s historical role. While Gould wants to avoid conflict, he creates a new source for it, since the principle of NOMA is itself contrary to the teachings of most historical religions. At any rate, leaving aside any other, or more detailed, criticisms of the NOMA principle, there is ample opportunity for religion(s) to overlap with science and come into conflict with it.

Coyne on religion and science

The genuine conflict between religion and science is the theme of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (Viking, 2015). This book’s appearance was long anticipated; it’s a publishing event that prompts reflection.

In pushing back against accommodationism, Coyne portrays religion and science as “engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.” Note, however, that he is concerned with theistic religions that include a personal God who is involved in history. (He is not, for example, dealing with Confucianism, pantheism or austere forms of philosophical deism that postulate a distant, non-interfering God.)

Accommodationism is fashionable, but that has less to do with its intellectual merits than with widespread solicitude toward religion. There are, furthermore, reasons why scientists in the USA (in particular) find it politically expedient to avoid endorsing any “conflict model” of the relationship between religion and science. Even if they are not religious themselves, many scientists welcome the NOMA principle as a tolerable compromise.

Some accommodationists argue for one or another very weak thesis: for example, that this or that finding of science (or perhaps our scientific knowledge base as a whole) does not logically rule out the existence of God (or the truth of specific doctrines such as Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection from the dead). For example, it is logically possible that current evolutionary theory and a traditional kind of monotheism are both true.

But even if we accept such abstract theses, where does it get us? After all, the following may both be true:

  1. There is no strict logical inconsistency between the essentials of current evolutionary theory and the existence of a traditional sort of Creator-God.


  1. Properly understood, current evolutionary theory nonetheless tends to make Christianity as a whole less plausible to a reasonable person.

If 1. and 2. are both true, it’s seriously misleading to talk about religion (specifically Christianity) and science as simply “compatible”, as if science – evolutionary theory in this example – has no rational tendency at all to produce religious doubt. In fact, the cumulative effect of modern science (not least, but not solely, evolutionary theory) has been to make religion far less plausible to well-informed people who employ reasonable standards of evidence.

For his part, Coyne makes clear that he is not talking about a strict logical inconsistency. Rather, incompatibility arises from the radically different methods used by science and religion to seek knowledge and assess truth claims. As a result, purported knowledge obtained from distinctively religious sources (holy books, church traditions, and so on) ends up being at odds with knowledge grounded in science.

Religious doctrines change, of course, as they are subjected over time to various pressures. Faith versus Fact includes a useful account of how they are often altered for reasons of mere expediency. One striking example is the decision by the Mormons (as recently as the 1970s) to admit blacks into its priesthood. This was rationalised as a new revelation from God, which raises an obvious question as to why God didn’t know from the start (and convey to his worshippers at an early time) that racial discrimination in the priesthood was wrong.

It is, of course, true that a system of religious beliefs can be modified in response to scientific discoveries. In principle, therefore, any direct logical contradictions between a specified religion and the discoveries of science can be removed as they arise and are identified. As I’ve elaborated elsewhere (e.g., in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (2012)), religions have seemingly endless resources to avoid outright falsification. In the extreme, almost all of a religion’s stories and doctrines could gradually be reinterpreted as metaphors, moral exhortations, resonant but non-literal cultural myths, and the like, leaving nothing to contradict any facts uncovered by science.

In practice, though, there are usually problems when a particular religion adjusts. Depending on the circumstances, a process of theological adjustment can meet with internal resistance, splintering and mutual anathemas. It can lead to disillusionment and bitterness among the faithful. The theological system as a whole may eventually come to look very different from its original form; it may lose its original integrity and much of what once made it attractive.

All forms of Christianity – Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise – have had to respond to these practical problems when confronted by science and modernity.

Coyne emphasizes, I think correctly, that the all-too-common refusal by religious thinkers to accept anything as undercutting their claims has a downside for believability. To a neutral outsider, or even to an insider who is susceptible to theological doubts, persistent tactics to avoid falsification will appear suspiciously ad hoc.

To an outsider, or to anyone with doubts, those tactics will suggest that religious thinkers are not engaged in an honest search for truth. Rather, they are preserving their favoured belief systems through dogmatism and contrivance.

How science subverted religion

In principle, as Coyne also points out, the important differences in methodology between religion and science might (in a sense) not have mattered. That is, it could have turned out that the methods of religion, or at least those of the true religion, gave the same results as science. Why didn’t they?

Let’s explore this further. The following few paragraphs are my analysis, drawing on earlier publications, but I believe they’re consistent with Coyne’s approach. (Compare also Susan Haack’s non-accommodationist analysis in her 2007 book, Defending Science – within Reason.)

At the dawn of modern science in Europe – back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – religious worldviews prevailed without serious competition. In such an environment, it should have been expected that honest and rigorous investigation of the natural world would confirm claims that were already found in the holy scriptures and church traditions. If the true religion’s founders had genuinely received knowledge from superior beings such as God or angels, the true religion should have been, in a sense, ahead of science.

There might, accordingly, have been a process through history by which claims about the world made by the true religion (presumably some variety of Christianity) were successively confirmed. The process might, for example, have shown that our planet is only six thousand years old (give or take a little), as implied by the biblical genealogies. It might have identified a global extinction event – just a few thousand years ago – resulting from a worldwide cataclysmic flood. Science could, of course, have added many new details over time, but not anything inconsistent with pre-existing knowledge from religious sources.

Unfortunately for the credibility of religious doctrine, nothing like this turned out to be the case. Instead, as more and more evidence was obtained about the world’s actual structures and causal mechanisms, earlier explanations of the appearances were superseded. As science advances historically, it increasingly reveals religion as premature in its attempts at understanding the world around us.

As a consequence, religion’s claims to intellectual authority have become less and less rationally believable. Science has done much to disenchant the world – once seen as full of spiritual beings and powers – and to expose the pretensions of priests, prophets, religious traditions, and holy books. It has provided an alternative, if incomplete and provisional, image of the world, and has rendered much of religion anomalous or irrelevant.

By now, the balance of evidence has turned decisively against any explanatory role for beings such as gods, ghosts, angels, and demons, and in favour of an atheistic philosophical naturalism. Regardless what other factors were involved, the consolidation and success of science played a crucial role in this. In short, science has shown a historical, psychological, and rational tendency to undermine religious faith.

Not only the sciences!

I need to be add that the damage to religion’s authority has come not only from the sciences, narrowly construed, such as evolutionary biology. It has also come from work in what we usually regard as the humanities. Christianity and other theistic religions have especially been challenged by the efforts of historians, archaeologists, and academic biblical scholars.

Those efforts have cast doubt on the provenance and reliability of the holy books. They have implied that many key events in religious accounts of history never took place, and they’ve left much traditional theology in ruins. In the upshot, the sciences have undermined religion in recent centuries – but so have the humanities.

Coyne would not tend to express it that way, since he favours a concept of “science broadly construed”. He elaborates this as: “the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.” On his approach, history (at least in its less speculative modes) and archaeology are among the branches of “science” that have refuted many traditional religious claims with empirical content.

But what is science? Like most contemporary scientists and philosophers, Coyne emphasizes that there is no single process that constitutes “the scientific method”. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is, admittedly, very important to science. That is, scientists frequently make conjectures (or propose hypotheses) about unseen causal mechanisms, deduce what further observations could be expected if their hypotheses are true, then test to see what is actually observed. However, the process can be untidy. For example, much systematic observation may be needed before meaningful hypotheses can be developed. The precise nature and role of conjecture and testing will vary considerably among scientific fields.

Likewise, experiments are important to science, but not to all of its disciplines and sub-disciplines. Fortunately, experiments are not the only way to test hypotheses (for example, we can sometimes search for traces of past events). Quantification is also important… but not always.

However, Coyne says, a combination of reason, logic and observation will always be involved in scientific investigation. Importantly, some kind of testing, whether by experiment or observation, is important to filter out non-viable hypotheses.

If we take this sort of flexible and realistic approach to the nature of science, the line between the sciences and the humanities becomes blurred. Though they tend to be less mathematical and experimental, for example, and are more likely to involve mastery of languages and other human systems of meaning, the humanities can also be “scientific” in a broad way. (From another viewpoint, of course, the modern-day sciences, and to some extent the humanities, can be seen as branches from the tree of Greek philosophy.)

It follows that I don’t terribly mind Coyne’s expansive understanding of science. If the English language eventually evolves in the direction of employing his construal, nothing serious is lost. In that case, we might need some new terminology – “the cultural sciences” anyone? – but that seems fairly innocuous. We already talk about “the social sciences” and “political science”.

For now, I prefer to avoid confusion by saying that the sciences and humanities are continuous with each other, forming a unity of knowledge. With that terminological point under our belts, we can then state that both the sciences and the humanities have undermined religion during the modern era. I expect they’ll go on doing so.

A valuable contribution

In challenging the undeserved hegemony of religion/science accommodationism, Coyne has written a book that is notably erudite without being dauntingly technical. The style is clear, and the arguments should be understandable and persuasive to a general audience. The tone is rather moderate and thoughtful, though opponents will inevitably cast it as far more polemical and “strident” than it really is. This seems to be the fate of any popular book, no matter how mild-mannered, that is critical of religion.

Coyne displays a light touch, even while drawing on his deep involvement in scientific practice (not to mention a rather deep immersion in the history and detail of Christian theology). He writes, in fact, with such seeming simplicity that it can sometimes be a jolt to recognize that he’s making subtle philosophical, theological, and scientific points.

In that sense, Faith versus Fact testifies to a worthwhile literary ideal. If an author works at it hard enough, even difficult concepts and arguments can usually be made digestible. It won’t work out in every case, but this is one where it does. That’s all the more reason why Faith versus Fact merits a wide readership. It’s a valuable, accessible contribution to a vital debate.

The ConversationRussell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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The art and beauty of general relativity

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Margaret Wertheim, University of Melbourne

One hundred years ago this month, an obscure German physicist named Albert Einstein presented to the Prussian Academy of Science his General Theory of Relativity. Nothing prior had prepared scientists for such a radical re-envisioning of the foundations of reality.

Encoded in a set of neat compact equations was the idea that our universe is constructed from a sort of magical mesh, now known as “spacetime”. According to the theory, the structure of this mesh would be revealed in the bending of light around distant stars.

To everyone at the time, this seemed implausible, for physicists had long known that light travels in straight lines. Yet in 1919 observations of a solar eclipse revealed that on a cosmic scale light does bend, and overnight Einstein became a superstar.

Einstein is said to have reacted nonchalantly to the news that his theory had been verified. When asked how he’d have reacted if it hadn’t been, he replied: “I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.”

What made him so secure in this judgement was the extreme elegance of his equations: how could something so beautiful not be right?

The quantum theorist Paul Dirac would latter sum up this attitude to physics when he borrowed from poet John Keats, declaring that, vis-à-vis our mathematical descriptions of nature, “beauty is truth, and truth beauty”.

Art of science

A quest for beauty has been a part of the tradition of physics throughout its history. And in this sense, general relativity is the culmination of a specific set of aesthetic concerns. Symmetry, harmony, a sense of unity and wholeness, these are some of the ideals general relativity formalises. Where quantum theory is a jumpy jazzy mash-up, general relativity is a stately waltz.

As we celebrate its centenary, we can applaud the theory not only as a visionary piece of science but also as an artistic triumph.

What do we mean by the word “art”?

Lots of answers have been proposed to this question and many more will be given. A provocative response comes from the poet-painter Merrily Harpur, who has noted that “the duty of artists everywhere is to enchant the conceptual landscape”. Rather than identifying art with any material methods or practices, Harpur allies it with a sociological outcome. Artists, she says, contribute something bewitching to our mental experience.

It may not be the duty of scientists to enchant our conceptual landscape, yet that is one of the goals science can achieve; and no scientific idea has been more enrapturing than Einstein’s. Though he advised there’d never be more than 12 people who’d understand his theory, as with many conceptual artworks, you don’t have to understand all of relativity to be moved by it.

There is a beauty in spacetime. NASA, CC BY-NC

In essence the theory gives us a new understanding of gravity, one that is preternaturally strange. According to general relativity, planets and stars sit within, or withon, a kind of cosmic fabric – spacetime – which is often illustrated by an analogy to a trampoline.

Imagine a bowling ball sitting on a trampoline; it makes a depression on the surface. Relativity says this is what a planet or star does to the web of spacetime. Only you have to think of the surface as having four dimensions rather than two.

Now applying the concept of spacetime to the whole cosmos, and taking into account the gravitational affect of all the stars and galaxies within it, physicists can use Einstein’s equations to determine the structure of the universe itself. It gives us a blueprint of our cosmic architecture.


Einstein began his contemplations with what he called gedunken (or thought) experiments; “what if?” scenarios that opened out his thinking in wildly new directions. He praised the value of such intellective play in his famous comment that “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

The quote continues with an adage many artists might endorse: “Knowledge is finite, imagination encircles the world.”

But imagination alone wouldn’t have produced a set of equations whose accuracy has now been verified to many orders of magnitude, and which today keeps GPS satellites accurate. Thus Einstein also drew upon another wellspring of creative power: mathematics.

As it happened, mathematicians had been developing formidable techniques for describing non-Euclidean surfaces, and Einstein realised he could apply these tools to physical space. Using Riemannian geometry, he developed a description of the world in which spacetime becomes a dynamic membrane, bending, curving and flexing like a vast organism.

Where the Newtonian cosmos was a static featureless void, the Einsteinian universe is a landscape, constantly in flux, riven by titanic forces and populated by monsters. Among them: pulsars shooting out giant jets of x-rays and light-eating black holes, where inside the maw of an “event horizon”, the fabric of spacetime is ripped apart.

One mark of an important artist is the degree to which he or she stimulates other creative thinkers. General relativity has been woven into the DNA of science fiction, giving us the warp drives of Star Trek, the wormhole in Carl Sagan’s Contact, and countless other narrative marvels. Novels, plays, and a Philip Glass symphony have riffed on its themes.

At a time when there is increasing desire to bridge the worlds of art and science, general relativity reminds us there is artistry in science.

Creative leaps here are driven both by playful speculation and by the ludic powers of logic. As the 19th century mathematician John Playfair remarked in response to the bizzarities of non-Euclidean geometry, “we become aware how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may dare to follow”.

In general relativity, reason and imagination combine to synthesise a whole that neither alone could achieve.

The ConversationMargaret Wertheim, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Science Communication, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Why should we place our faith in science?

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Jonathan Keith, Monash University

Most of us would like to think scientific debate does not operate like the comments section of online news articles. These are frequently characterised by inflexibility, truculence and expostulation. Scientists are generally a little more civil, but sometimes not much so!

There is a more fundamental issue here than politeness, though. Science has a reputation as an arbiter of fact above and beyond just personal opinion or bias. The term “scientific method” suggests there exists an agreed upon procedure for processing evidence which, while not infallible, is at least impartial.

So when even the most respected scientists can arrive at different deeply held convictions when presented with the same evidence, it undermines the perceived impartiality of the scientific method. It demonstrates that science involves an element of subjective or personal judgement.

Yet personal judgements are not mere occasional intruders on science, they are a necessary part of almost every step of reasoning about evidence.

Among the judgements scientists make on a daily basis are: what evidence is relevant to a particular question; what answers are admissible a priori; which answer does the evidence support; what standard of evidence is required (since “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”); and is the evidence sufficient to justify belief?

Another judgement scientists make is whether the predictions of a model are sufficiently reliable to justify committing resources to a course of action.

We do not have universally agreed procedures for making any of these judgements. This should come as no surprise. Evidence is something experienced by persons, and a person is thus essential to relating evidence to the abstractions of a scientific theory.

This is true regardless of how directly the objects of a theory are experienced – whether we observe a bird in flight or its shadow on the ground – ultimately it is the unique neuronal configurations of an individual brain that determine how what we perceive influences what we believe.

Induction, falsification and probability

Nevertheless, we can ask: are there forms of reasoning about evidence that do not depend on personal judgement?

Induction is the act of generalising from particulars. It interprets a pattern observed in specific data in terms of a law governing a wider scope.

But induction, like any form of reasoning about evidence, demands personal judgement. Patterns observed in data invariably admit multiple alternative generalisations. And which generalisation is appropriate, if any, may come down to taste.

Many of the points of contention between Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould can be seen in this light. For example, Gould thought Dawkins too eager to attribute evolved traits to the action of natural selection in cases where contingent survival provides an alternative, and (to Gould) preferable, explanation.

One important statement of the problem of induction was made by 18th-century philosopher David Hume. He noted the only available justification for inductive reasoning is that it works well in practice. But this itself is an inductive argument, and thus “taking that for granted, which is the very point in question”.

Karl Popper wanted science to be based on the deductive reasoning of falsificationism rather than the inductive reasoning of verificationism. Lucinda Douglas-Menzies/Wikimedia

Hume thought we had to accept this circularity, but philosopher of science Karl Popper rejected induction entirely. Popper argued that evidence can only falsify a theory, never verify it. Scientific theories are thus only ever working hypotheses that have withstood attempts at falsification.

This characterisation of science has not prevailed, mainly because science has not historically proceeded in this manner, nor does it today. Thomas Kuhn observed that:

No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification by direct comparison with nature.

Scientists cherish their theories, having invested so much of their personal resources in them. So when a seemingly contradictory datum emerges, they are inclined to make minor adjustments rather than reject core tenets. As physicist Max Planck observed (before Popper or Kuhn):

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Falsification also ignores the relationship between science and engineering. Technology stakes human lives and personal resources on the reliability of scientific theories. We could not do this without strong belief in their adequacy. Engineers thus demand more from science than a working hypothesis.

Some philosophers of science look to probabilistic reasoning to place science above personal judgement. Prominent proponents of such approaches include Elliot Sober and Edwin Thompson Jaynes. By these accounts one can compare competing scientific theories in terms of the likelihood of observed evidence under each.

However, probabilistic reasoning does not remove personal judgement from science. Rather, it channels it into the design of models. A model, in this sense, is a mathematical representation of the probabilistic relationships between theory and evidence.

As someone who designs such models for a living, I can tell you the process relies heavily on personal judgement. There are no universally applicable procedures for model construction. Consequently, the point at issue in scientific controversies may be precisely how to model the relationship between theory and evidence.

What is (and isn’t) special about science

Does acknowledging the role played by personal judgement erode our confidence in science as a special means of acquiring knowledge? It does, if what we thought was special about science is that it removes the personal element from the search for truth.

As scientists – or as defenders of science – we must guard against the desire to dominate our interlocutors by ascribing to science a higher authority than it plausibly possesses. Many of us have experienced the frustration of seeing science ignored or distorted in arguments about climate change or vaccinations to name just two.

But we do science no favours by misrepresenting its claim to authority; instead we create a monster. A misplaced faith in science can and has been used as a political weapon to manipulate populations and impose ideologies.

Instead we need to explain science in terms that non-scientists can understand, so that factors that have influenced our judgements can influence theirs.

It is appropriate that non-scientists subordinate their judgements to that of experts, but this deference must be earned. The reputation of an individual scientist for integrity and quality of research is thus crucial in public discussions of science.

I believe science is special, and deserves the role of arbiter that society accords it. But its specialness does not derive from a unique mode of reasoning.

Rather it is the minutiae of science that make it special: the collection of lab protocols, recording practices, publication and peer review standards and many others. These have evolved over centuries under constant pressure to produce useful and reliable knowledge.

Thus, by a kind of natural selection, science has acquired a remarkable capacity to reveal truth. Science continues to evolve, so that what is special about science today might not be what will be special about it tomorrow.

So how much faith should you put in the conclusions of scientists? Judge for yourself!

The ConversationJonathan Keith, Associate Professor, School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission) . Read the original article.

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