Category Archives: Reason

The Process of Science: Does It Work?

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything—new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.

—Carl Sagan (1990)

Last week’s New York Times Sunday Review section featured a first-rate opinion piece by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the earth and environmental sciences, with an emphasis on understanding scientific consensus and dissent. The article, entitled “Playing Dumb on Climate Change,” is posted on the NYT website here.

The article’s title suggests the context—climate science and scientific communication. Oreskes summarizes important features of scientific inquiry and, in doing so, identifies a key aspect of science that could mean the threat of climate warming has been “underpredicted” by scientists and, therefore, understated by the media. I highly recommend a careful reading of her opinion piece, not only for its implication about climate warming but for its concise explanation of the scientific method.

Here are the key points made or implied by Oreskes, about good science.

  • Scientific appraisals are conservative, highly qualified, and provisional.
  • New scientific claims or denials of established theories are met with skepticism. The burden of proof rests on the person making the new claim. If one seeks to replace or deny a successful theory, then the alternative must be shown to explain a similarly full range of phenomena.
  • Science demands rigor (a lot of evidence and statistical significance).
  • A scientific claim must be falsifiable. Typically, a result or hypothesis is rejected when it fails to meet or exceed a 95 percent confidence limit. In other words, a claim is thrown out when the chance of it being a coincidence or false is shown to exceed 1 in 20.
  • The 95 percent confidence level is a value judgment based on an aversion to bias and making a mistake in claiming a phenomenon is real when it is not. In the jargon of statistics, this mistake is known as a Type 1 error.
  • Ideally, science requires a researcher to avoid the “method of the ruling theory” (or pet theory) and instead apply the “method of multiple working hypotheses.” See T. C. Chamberlain’s classic paper (Science 1890) for much more commentary on these methods.
  • Similarly, science requires a researcher to avoid the mistake of being too conservative or rejecting a phenomenon that is actually real (Type 2 error).

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

—Carl Sagan (1987)

Science deniers often point to the process of inductive reasoning as laden with subjectivity and  uncertainty. Yes, science can never prove anything with 100 percent certainty; however, good science uses a very effective systematic approach that often identifies the most parsimonious explanation. The process consists of (1) devising alternative and competing hypotheses; (2) devising a clever experiment with alternative possible results, which enable the researcher to reject one or more of the alternative results; (4) performing the experiment to get meaningful results; and (5) repeating steps 1 – 4 to refine the remaining explanations or hypotheses. See the highly cited paper by J. R. Platt (Science 1964) for more on “strong inference.”

The preceding approach might suggest that the scientific method is an immutable, linear series of steps that always yields a clear result. On the contrary, the process of science (i.e., methods, data analysis, and findings) undergoes critical interactions with the scientific community through debate, peer review, and replication of experimental results.

To close, I reproduce below three brilliant and eloquent quotes from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, that offer insights into the process of science, specifically experimenter bias, experimentation, and scientific uncertainty, respectively.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.

It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.


The Cheshire Cat of Educational Curricula

A recent post by a Twitter follower, Adriano Mannino (@Adriano_Mannino), an academic philosopher and author, reminded me of the great value in teaching students how to think critically in preparing future leaders to tackle rapidly escalating social problems. mannino_tweet

Mannino links to a brief but potent post authored by Peter Ellerton, Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project. It summarizes the meaning of critical thinking, which according to Ellerton, is “the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula—it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.” The article’s effectiveness is enhanced with a couple Monty Python videos that help drive home two of the key aspects of critical thinking—argumentation and logic.

I have reproduced the entire article below. It is posted on the IFL Science website here. It was originally published on The Conversation website, on December 17, 2014. In addition, I would like to briefly weigh in on the discussion. Critical thinking frameworks have broad application in everyday decisions (or contexts*), as well as professional problem solving. Here is an example of some key prerequisites proposed by a critical thinking framework used at the graduate school I attended:

  1. Identify and summarize the problem/question at issue (and/or the source’s position). 
  2. Identify and present your OWN hypothesis, perspective, and position as it relates to the analysis of the issue. 
  3. Identify and consider OTHER salient perspectives and positions that are important to the analysis. 
  4. Identify and assess the key assumptions. 
  5. Identify and assess the quality of supporting data/evidence and provide additional data/evidence related to the issue. 
  6. Identify and consider the influence of the context* on the issue. 
  7. Identify and assess conclusions, implications and consequences. 

* Contexts for Consideration: Cultural/Social(group, national, ethnic behavior/attitude); Scientific (c
onceptual, basic science, scientific method); Educational (
schooling, formal training); Economic (
trade, business concerns, costs); Technological (
applied science, engineering); Ethical 
(values); Political (
organizational or governmental); and Personal Experience (
personal observation, informal character).

And, here is the full post at the IFL Science website.

How To Teach All Students To Think Critically (December 22, 2014 | by Peter Ellerton)

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills.

The new course would be an elective next year and mandatory in 2016 with the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for education and students Shirley Alexander saying the aim is to give students some maths “critical thinking” skills.

This is a worthwhile goal, but what about critical thinking in general?

Most tertiary institutions have listed among their graduate attributes the ability to think critically. This seems a desirable outcome, but what exactly does it mean to think critically and how do you get students to do it?

The problem is that critical thinking is the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula – it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.

If you ask curriculum designers exactly how critical thinking skills are developed, the answers are often vague and unhelpful for those wanting to teach it.

This is partly because of a lack of clarity about the term itself and because there are some who believe that critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation, that it can only be developed in a discipline context – after all, you have think critically about something.

So what should any mandatory first year course in critical thinking look like? There is no single answer to that, but let me suggest a structure with four key areas:

the nature of science.

I will then explain that these four areas are bound together by a common language of thinking and a set of critical thinking values.

1. Argumentation

The most powerful framework for learning to think well in a manner that is transferable across contexts is argumentation.

Arguing, as opposed to simply disagreeing, is the process of intellectual engagement with an issue and an opponent with the intention of developing a position justified by rational analysis and inference.

Arguing is not just contradiction.

Arguments have premises, those things that we take to be true for the purposes of the argument, and conclusions or end points that are arrived at by inferring from the premises.

Understanding this structure allows us to analyse the strength of an argument by assessing the likelihood that the premises are true or by examining how the conclusion follows from them.

Arguments in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises are said to be valid. Valid arguments with true premises are called sound. The definitions of invalid and unsound follow.

This gives us a language with which to frame our position and the basic structure of why it seems justified.

2. Logic

Logic is fundamental to rationality. It is difficult to see how you could value critical thinking without also embracing logic.

People generally speak of formal logic – basically the logic of deduction – and informal logic – also called induction.

Deduction is most of what goes on in mathematics or Suduko puzzles and induction is usually about generalising or analogising and is integral to the processes of science.

Logic is fundamental to rationality.

Using logic in a flawed way leads to the committing of the fallacies of reasoning, which famously contain such logical errors as circular reasoning, the false cause fallacy or appeal to popular opinion. Learning about this cognitive landscape is central to the development of effective thinking.

3. Psychology

The messy business of our psychology – how our minds actuality work – is another necessary component of a solid critical thinking course.

One of the great insights of psychology over the past few decades is the realisation that thinking is not so much something we do, as something that happens to us. We are not as in control of our decision-making as we think we are.

We are masses of cognitive biases as much as we are rational beings. This does not mean we are flawed, it just means we don’t think in the nice, linear way that educators often like to think we do.

It is a mistake to think of our minds as just running decision-making algorithms – we are much more complicated and idiosyncratic than this.

How we arrive at conclusions, form beliefs and process information is very organic and idiosyncratic. We are not just clinical truth-seeking reasoning machines.

Our thinking is also about our prior beliefs, our values, our biases and our desires.

4. The Nature Of Science

It is useful to equip students with some understanding of the general tools of evaluating information that have become ubiquitous in our society. Two that come to mind are the nature of science and statistics.

Learning about what the differences are between hypotheses, theories and laws, for example, can help people understand why science has credibility without having to teach them what a molecule is, or about Newton’s laws of motion.

Understanding some basic statistics also goes a long way to making students feel more empowered to tackle difficult or complex issues. It’s not about mastering the content, but about understanding the process.

The Language Of Thinking

Embedded within all of this is the language of our thinking. The cognitive skills – such as inferring, analysing, evaluating, justifying, categorising and decoding – are all the things that we do with knowledge.

If we can talk to students using these terms, with a full understanding of what they mean and how they are used, then teaching thinking becomes like teaching a physical process such as a sport, in which each element can be identified, polished, refined and optimised.

Critical thinking can be studied and taught in part like physical processes.

In much the same way that a javelin coach can freeze a video and talk to an athlete about their foot positioning or centre of balance, a teacher of critical thinking can use the language of cognition to interrogate a student’s thinking in high resolution.

All of these potential aspects of a critical thinking course can be taught outside any discipline context. General knowledge, topical issues and media provide a mountain of grist for the cognitive mill.

General concepts of argumentation and logic are readily transferable between contexts once students are taught to recognise the deeper structures inherent in these fields and to apply them across a variety of situations.


It’s worth understanding too that a good critical thinking education is also an education in values.

Not all values are ethical in nature. In thinking well we value precision, coherence, simplicity of expression, logical structure, clarity, perseverance, honesty in representation and any number of like qualities. If schools are to teach values, why not teach the values of effective thinking?

So, let’s not assume that students will learn to think critically just by learning the methodology of their subjects. Sure it will help, but it’s not an explicit treatment of thinking and is therefore less transferable.

A course that targets effective thinking need not detract from other subjects – in fact it should enhance performance across the board.

But ideally, such a course should not be needed if teachers of all subjects focused on the thinking of their students as well as the content they have to cover.

Evolution: A Summary of Pew Polls

Today, the Fact Tank—a new real-time platform from the Pew Research Center—published a concise summary of their past polls on the public’s acceptance of evolution. These Pew surveys, by the way, helped shape the basis and goal of this website. The piece is written by David Masci, a Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center. Masci presents 5 facts about evolution gleaned from poll data collected by the non-profit organization within the last two years. I have posted the entire article below, but I suggest the reader check out the original version here, if only for the links to the engaging background information.

The banner graphic of the article, ironically, shows an illustration based on the artist Rudolph Zallinger’s March of Progressthe iconic but false representation of human evolution. Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould (1941—2002) was well-known for his hobby of collecting versions of this cartoon and ridiculing the misguided notion that evolution proceeds in a linear fashion, suggesting progress. Gould’s view of life held that evolution is “not a ladder of predictable progress” but a complex branching bush shaped by the happenstance of extinction.

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As Jerry Coyne says in his most recent piece in yesterday’s New Republic, there is no reason Pope Francis and his flock of sheep should not accept the idea of evolution. “It has been an accepted scientific fact since about 1870, roughly a decade after the theory was proposed by Darwin in 1859.” Just a few days ago on Monday, Pope Francis said the big bang theory was not in conflict with the role of a divine creator (translation: the big bang is consistent with theistic evolution, a form of creationism). He uttered other bizarre statements, including this incomprehensible inanity (with my emphasis in bold font): “God is not a demiurge [Creator of the universe] or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities. Evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” Yo, Pope-ster! Evolution dispelled all arguments for a divine creator when Charles Darwin showed that “entities” could arise from a purely naturalistic process. In his New Republic article, Dr. Coyne dissects Pope Francis’ words with the precision of a serious biologist. He notes that, “…the Vatican’s official stance on evolution is explicitly unscientific: a combination of modern evolutionary theory and Biblical special creationism. The Church hasn’t yet entered the world of modern science.” And, Coyne concludes that, “…creationism of some sort is still an essential part of Francis’s view of life.”

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Since 1982, the public-opinion surveyors Gallup have been tracking American’s attitudes and beliefs about human evolution and the evolutionary process. They asked Americans questions related to, but slightly different from the 2013 Pew survey questions indicated above. The results are embarrassing (refer to the chart below). The 32-year trend is even more unsettling—virtually unchanged, with more than 40% of Americans believing that a divine being created humans, who have remained unchanged through the present day.

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Factoid 5 is only cursory. A single legal group—The Freedom From Religion Foundation—has successfully challenged 75+ instances of religious proselytizing in U.S. schools since December 1, 2013. This statistic alone is mind-boggling. We can do better—we must do better.

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