What is science

Dr Kristian Harder

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https://www.linkedin.com/in/kristian-harder-09894563?originalSubdomain=uk

https://www.ppd.stfc.ac.uk/Pages/Kristian-Harder.aspx

kristian.harder@stfc.ac.uk

https://twitter.com/harderkristian?lang=en

https://particlen13.imascientist.org.uk/profile/kristianharder/

Kristian Harder is an expert in electronics infrastructure, developing firmware and software for system integration and testing.

He is the work package co-manager of the CMS-UK Phase 2 upgrade common technology platform, and a member of the CMS-UK upgrade project office.

He is a particle physicist at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. His current project is the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_Muon_Solenoid

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment is one of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland and France. The goal of CMS experiment is to investigate a wide range of physics, including the search for the Higgs boson, extra dimensions, and particles that could make up dark matter.

CMS is 21 metres long, 15 m in diameter, and weighs about 14,000 tonnes. Over 4,000 people, representing 206 scientific institutes and 47 countries, form the CMS collaboration who built and now operate the detector. It is located in a cavern at Cessy in France, just across the border from Geneva. In July 2012, along with ATLAS, CMS tentatively discovered the Higgs boson. By March 2013 its existence was confirmed

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View of the CMS endcap through the barrel sections. The ladder to the lower right gives an impression of scale.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutherford_Appleton_Laboratory

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The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is one of the national scientific research laboratories in the UK operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It began as the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, merged with the Atlas Computer Laboratory in 1975 to create the Rutherford Lab; then in 1979 with the Appleton Laboratory to form the current laboratory.

It is located on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus at Chilton near Didcot in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. It has a staff of approximately 1,200 people who support the work of over 10,000 scientists and engineers, chiefly from the university research community. The laboratory’s programme is designed to deliver trained manpower and economic growth for the UK as the result of achievements in science.

RAL is a world leading scientific research laboratory where scientists study everything from the very, very small in the particle physics department through to the astronomically larger and studying space and the mysteries of the universe.

Introduction

Our lives are dominated by the application of knowledge gained by science and yet many people are not familiar with the process by which science works with its strength and its limitations. Can you even trust science?

Why do you sometimes hear contradictory information from the experts can scientists be wrong? What’s behind all those conspiracy theories that we keep hearing about? let’s find out.

Talk

Dr Harder began his talk by outlining his background.

His first degree was in physics and he studied at the University of Hamburg.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Hamburg

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The University of Hamburg (German: Universität Hamburg, also referred to as UHH) is a university in Hamburg, Germany. It was founded on 28 March 1919 by combining the previous General Lecture System (Allgemeines Vorlesungswesen), the Colonial Institute of Hamburg (Hamburgisches Kolonialinstitut), and the Academic College (Akademisches Gymnasium). The main campus is located in the central district of Rotherbaum, with affiliated institutes and research centres distributed around the city-state.

Dr. Harder’s degree included particle physics and analytic philosophy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particle_physics

Particle physics (also known as high energy physics) is a branch of physics that studies the nature of the particles that constitute matter and radiation. Although the word particle can refer to various types of very small objects (e.g. protons, gas particles, or even household dust), particle physics usually investigates the irreducibly smallest detectable particles and the fundamental interactions necessary to explain their behaviour. In current understanding, these elementary particles are excitations of the quantum fields that also govern their interactions. The currently dominant theory explaining these fundamental particles and fields, along with their dynamics, is called the Standard Model. Thus, modern particle physics generally investigates the Standard Model and its various possible extensions, e.g. to the newest “known” particle, the Higgs boson, or even to the oldest known force field, gravity.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytic_philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a branch and tradition of philosophy using analysis which is popular in the Western World and particularly the Anglosphere, which began around the turn of the 20th century in the contemporary era and continues today. In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia, the majority of university philosophy departments today identify themselves as “analytic” departments.

In the philosophy module Dr Harder examined the theory of truth and the theory of science which is why he is interested in the discussion of “what is science”, Science communication is very important to him.

After his first degree Dr. Harder did a PhD at Hamburg University which involved him spending time at DESY. His PhD included the analysis of collider experiment data and simulation studies of future experiments

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DESY

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The Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (English German Electron Synchrotron) commonly referred to by the abbreviation DESY, is a national research centre in Germany that operates particle accelerators used to investigate the structure of matter. It conducts a broad spectrum of inter-disciplinary scientific research in three main areas: particle and high energy physics; photon science; and the development, construction and operation of particle accelerators. Its name refers to its first project, an electron synchrotron. DESY is publicly financed by the Federal Republic of Germany, the States of Germany, and the German Research Foundation (DFG). DESY is a member of the Helmholtz Association and operates at sites in Hamburg and Zeuthen.

Dr Harder also spent time at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Here he took part in the operation and upgrades of the collider experiments and was involved with precision data analysis.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermilab

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), located just outside Batavia, Illinois, near Chicago, is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics. Since 2007, Fermilab has been operated by the Fermi Research Alliance, a joint venture of the University of Chicago, and the Universities Research Association (URA). Fermilab is a part of the Illinois Technology and Research Corridor.

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Since 2006 Dr Harder has been based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory where he has been involved with technical things such as electronics for and building experiments. He also carries out data analysis. He has been a regular contributor to the particle physics masterclasses which RAL hold for A level physics students every year (when Covid-19 allows). He is very good and very funny,

He regards himself as a particle physicist, which is the discipline dealing with the Higgs boson and the LHC.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higgs_boson

The Higgs boson is an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics produced by the quantum excitation of the Higgs field, one of the fields in particle physics theory. The Higgs mechanism explains why some particles have mass.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider and the largest machine in the world. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) between 1998 and 2008 in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and hundreds of universities and laboratories, as well as more than 100 countries. It lies in a tunnel 27 kilometres in circumference and as deep as 175 metres beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva.

Dr Harder emphasised that his talk was his own personal take on the subjects covered, as he is not an expert philosopher, and all opinions are his (and I’ve thrown in some of mine). However, as he is a physicist a lot about physics will be discussed.

Usually, Dr Harder’s talks are about the Higgs boson discovery at the LHC. This is a very complex scientific topic and a major concern of his is that the general public would not know if what he was saying made sense. Would they think he was making it up.

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Candidate Higgs boson events from collisions between protons in the LHC. The top event in the CMS experiment shows a decay into two photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). The lower event in the ATLAS experiment shows a decay into four muons (red tracks).

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LHC Collides protons or heavy ions; ATLAS = A Toroidal LHC Apparatus; CMS Compact Muon Solenoid; LHCb = LHC-beauty; ALICE = A Large Ion Collider Experiment.

Trust the scientists?

Dr Harder’s view is that as a particle physicist he is lucky as people tend to trust particle physics experts. The reasons for this are that particle physicists don’t tend to have strong commercial or political interests in their branch of science. They have a rather long and consistent history over decades. They have produced results that have furthered our knowledge of the atom. A story that has evolved over time without much in the way of sudden changes.

Particle physicists are quite open about the fact that their results are incomplete and sometimes they get conflicting results. But, probably, most importantly, there is not that much at stake for the general public when it comes to particle physics. It’s just some science going on in the background for most people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particle_physics

Particle physics (also known as high energy physics) is a branch of physics that studies the nature of the particles that constitute matter and radiation. Although the word particle can refer to various types of very small objects (e.g. protons, gas particles, or even household dust), particle physics usually investigates the irreducibly smallest detectable particles and the fundamental interactions necessary to explain their behaviour. In current understanding, these elementary particles are excitations of the quantum fields that also govern their interactions. The currently dominant theory explaining these fundamental particles and fields, along with their dynamics, is called the Standard Model. Thus, modern particle physics generally investigates the Standard Model and its various possible extensions, e.g. to the newest “known” particle, the Higgs boson, or even to the oldest known force field, gravity

However, this relatively modest and benign science, which has given the public some useful things like the world wide web has had its share of conspiracy theories about the work being done.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Wide_Web

The World Wide Web (WWW), commonly known as the Web, is an information system where documents and other web resources are identified by Uniform Resource Locators (URLs, such as https://example.com/), which may be interlinked by hypertext, and are accessible over the Internet.

English scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. He wrote the first web browser in 1990 while employed at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee

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Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS (born 8 June 1955), also known as TimBL, is an English computer scientist best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Some people think the LHC ring is actually a stargate, a portal into a different dimension and that it is run by the illuminati (I’m afraid I had a student who believed in the illuminati).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminati

The Illuminati (plural of Latin illuminatus, ‘enlightened’) is a name given to several groups, both real and fictitious.

Central to some of the more widely known and elaborate conspiracy theories, the Illuminati have been depicted as lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings and levers of power in dozens of novels, films, television shows, comics, video games, and music videos.

Some people think that the LHC will open a gateway for Satan to come down to Earth and run amok. Others believe the LHC is deliberately trying to create black holes, which will destroy the Universe.

There is a lot of rubbish posted and printed in the media

https://scienceline.org/2016/01/debunking-doomsday-at-cern-again/

https://metro.co.uk/2015/08/03/is-the-large-hadron-collider-going-to-summon-the-antichrist-next-month-5324776/

https://mkaku.org/home/tag/conspiracies/

The situation is a lot worse for scientists working on areas that have very high impacts on society, which conjure more general interest and have higher political and commercial stakes.

The Pew Research Centre found big discrepancies between what scientists say and public opinion when they carried out a survey in 2014. They polled scientists across all disciplines. So, not all of them were actually experts on the question being asked and their responses were compared to the opinion of the general US population.

Below are a few examples of what they found.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pew_Research_Center

The Pew Research Centre is a nonpartisan American think tank (referring to itself as a “fact tank”) based in Washington, D.C. It provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends shaping the United States and the world. It also conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research. The Pew Research Centre does not take policy positions, and is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

https://www.pewresearch.org/

https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

Despite broadly similar views about the overall place of science in America, citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes. There are large differences in their views across a host of issues.

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There are huge discrepancies. For example, in the assessment of how safe it is to eat genetically modified foods that scientists almost unanimously say it’s okay. The general public doesn’t believe them. Similarly, the general public don’t think it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides but scientists think it is okay.

In some respects, you can’t blame the public as some of the early pesticides were dangerous and I regard myself as a scientist, but as a vegan I am certainly not in favour of using animals in research.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change

Climate change includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century, humans have had unprecedented impact on Earth’s climate system and caused change on a global scale

Climate change is another controversial topic even though the science is very clear. It isn’t helped by some political interference, for instance at the time I am writing up my notes from Dr Harder’s talk, the outgoing President of the United States, Donald Trump has consistently denied climate change and one of the last things he intends doing before he leaves office is to allow drilling for oil in Alaska.

https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/arctic-refuge-drilling/?utm_source=Weekly+Newsletter+List&utm_campaign=a8e8bcb82d-NEWSLETTER_2018_01_08_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_10d8eab927-a8e8bcb82d-55036134.

Political interference on climate change has meant that the general population doesn’t know who to believe. This is a big problem. It shows that people either don’t trust scientists or don’t really understand what they’re saying. 00:07:35Them and I don’t understand why because we’re just sitting in meetings and doing our things well.

So, who or what are scientists?

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No, they are not like the people depicted in the above image. They are not the illuminati. However, some people seem to think that scientists are part of some secretive elite society with access to undisclosed sources of information. This is not the case. There are some areas in science connected to the military which have to be kept secret but the majority of science is done by actual normal people who just happened to be trained for a specific task to uncover new knowledge using specific methods.

Scientists are scrupulous in scrutinising both their own work and the work of other scientists thoroughly. They take a great deal of time to obtain and check results and form a consensus, making sure that nothing is published until all scientists in that particular field accept the findings (occasionally some naughty scientists do publish stuff that hasn’t been peer reviewed, but this is very rare and sometimes mistakes are made).

Probably the most famous example of scientific consensus was the discovery of the Higgs boson.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CugLD9HF94

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Of course, scientists also need time to obtain those results, check them and form a consensus. Sometimes, in an evolving situation like with the coronavirus virus, results are published too soon, but the process allows us to witness how science works in producing the proper results.

The Covid-19 vaccine is a wonderful example of how collaboration and consensus gave us a vaccine in less than a year.

Science is an on-going process so some of the things that are announced at one time are not the final answers. But these are things that will settle over time.

Scientists, at the end of the day, are normal friendly people. They even have hobbies. My PhD supervisor like to go canoeing !!!!!!!!!!!. They don’t have secret meetings with aliens.

There are definitely issues that scientists face.

The great majority of scientists are very honourable people, who follow rigorous procedures and try to make their results as reliable as possible, whether they like the results or not.

But not everything claiming to be science is trustworthy.

Pseudoscience pretends to produce scientific results, but it has not followed the right procedures to ensure a valid outcome. It means that the public wouldn’t know if the results were valid at all.

https://www.facebook.com/ThisWeekInPseudoscience/

https://twipscience.org/?fbclid=IwAR3G1rNMwslYtanqpR1nY-c3Pq898t-rpVlbfp7yA8HPR7hXewIN92uAFo0

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Science is not trustworthy if its findings are used for political or personal gain, An, example of this is climate science. This is a very good example of people influencing science for political gain or sometimes personal gain.

In the very worse cases science can even be used fraudulently

https://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1678

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The above is a very famous example of fraudulent science

Wakefield is now a former doctor (he was struck off the general medical register, which means he can’t practise medicine anymore). When he was practising medicine, he published a link that certain vaccines caused autism. Which was rubbish. It’s been clearly proven to be rubbish. There is no such connection whatsoever. But somehow, even though he has been thoroughly discredited. This story has developed a life of its own. And there is now a huge problem, especially in the US with people being hesitant to vaccinate because of this old story. And this is an actual health risk for children and others.

The problem is particularly relevant now with the Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out.

True scientists will do their best to help everyone be able to distinguish between what is real science and what is not real science, and the reason why they have to do this is because if they don’t, then trust in real experts, the actual scientists will be undermined. So that’s why the public need to learn the difference.

The best way for everyone to be able to distinguish real science from pseudoscience is not to look at individual results. You can’t really tell from individual results on their own whether they will give the right conclusions. You need to understand the scientific method. As a secondary school teacher (and I’m sure my primary colleagues do it too) I would spend time drilling into my students the importance of fair testing. That you only change one factor (sometimes this isn’t possible in biology type experiments) to see the effect. For instance, if you wanted to see which material heats up more quickly you would need to make sure you were using the same mass of the different materials and that you were starting from the same temperature.

Not following the scientific method correctly could mean getting different results each time you did the same investigation.

Another problem is that not everything is actually science but policy that pretends to be based on science, or picks bits of science and ignores the science that disagrees with it.

The current Covid crises is full of them. At the start of the pandemic the government refused to have a lockdown because they were following “the science”. In a recent documentary some of the scientists involved had had enough of the blame been thrown at them and explained that the government only picked the bits of information they wanted (at the time they were more worried about the economy).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus_disease_2019

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first case was identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It has since spread worldwide, leading to an ongoing pandemic

Another Covid example involved wearing masks.

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When it comes to protecting yourself from viruses like coronavirus the science is clear, wearing a mask helps. Nevertheless, we were told in the beginning, not to wear a mask. But that was not a science issue that was a policy issue because resources, at the time, were limited. The priority was to limit mask use for people who really needed them.

The public need to realise that this was not a scientific decision but a policy decision.

What Dr Harder was trying to do in his talk was to give his audience some tools to help them distinguish which claims can be trusted and which ones can’t and similarly to distinguish between the science and what politicians and lobbyists and policymakers tell them. An interesting point to note is that the current Tory government don’t seem to anyone with a science background in it.

Why should we care?

Because science is very important for all of us,

It helps us survive as individuals. A very good example of medical research is the fact that we have a covid-19 vaccine in less than a year.

Material science research makes sure that the materials used in buildings mean they won’t fall down. Of course, events like Grenfell, occur because research is ignored, or not used properly, or because the manufacturer of the building materials don’t want to pay for proper research. Governments also have a share of the blame by setting weak planning rules. Scientists are not to blame if their work isn’t used properly.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grenfell_Tower_fire

On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London, at 00:54 BST; it caused 72 deaths, including those of two victims who later died in hospital. More than 70 others were injured and 223 people escaped. It was the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War.

Science can help civilisations survive by coming up with solutions to our climate change problems (of course governments need to listen).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change

Climate change includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century, humans have had unprecedented impact on Earth’s climate system and caused change on a global scale.

Science can help civilisations survive with planetary exploration. By learning about other planets, scientists can learn more about our home, the Earth. Their work could help us prepare for future disasters (like the meteor that helped wipe out the dinosaurs) by finding another planet to live on (aliens be afraid, be very afraid).

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/how-an-asteroid-caused-extinction-of-dinosaurs.html

Science can make our lives better. It is giving us greener energy sources to reduce carbon emissions. Science is improving IT by developing better semiconductors and integrate circuits. Science is improving transportation as petrol and diesel cars are being replaced by electricity and perhaps hydrogen.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_technology

Information technology (IT) is the use of computers to store, retrieve, transmit, and manipulate data or information. IT is typically used within the context of business operations as opposed to personal or entertainment technologies.

Science is improving how we access media and entertainment and it is created. As I write this my husband is streaming an opera a day (yawn) because Covid-19 means the Royal Opera House is closed (yay – although I am sad for all who work there).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_(communication)

Media is the communication outlets or tools used to store and deliver information or data.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entertainment

Entertainment is a form of activity that holds the attention and interest of an audience or gives pleasure and delight.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Opera_House

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The Royal Opera House (ROH) is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Royal_Opera

The Royal Opera is an opera company based in central London, resident at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Royal_Ballet

The Royal Ballet is an internationally renowned classical ballet company, based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, England.

Science is improving agriculture and food production. Our ancestors would be amazed at the abundance and variety of food available to most of us, although it is appalling that people are still going hungry in the 21st century. But this is not the fault of scientists.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture

Agriculture is the science and art of cultivating plants and livestock.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_industry

The food industry is a complex, global network of diverse businesses that supplies most of the food consumed by the world’s population.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_science

Food science is the basic science and applied science of food; its scope starts at overlap with agricultural science and nutrition and leads through the scientific aspects of food safety and food processing, informing the development of food technology.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroponics

Hydroponics is an example of science changing the way some food is produced.

http://www.rocagallery.com/growing-up-hydroponics-cultivates-food-without-soil

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Science can make our lives better by affecting economics and politics, provided economists and politicians are prepared to listen.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics

Economics is the social science that studies how people interact with value; in particular, the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics

Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. The academic study of politics is referred to as political science.

In order for these effects to really affect us positively, good and valid science needs to be identified and strengthened. Science needs to push forward the positive things and enable us to distinguish between the good and the bad.

The fact that you are reading this means that you care.

One of the sad things for me as a teacher was to hear my students say, during science lessons, “when am I going to need this is when I grow up. I’m going to be a hairdresser” (or other careers). Science in school is important because the students need to have a grasp of what is true. Some of the daft things I have heard is that the Covid-19 vaccine is going to put a chip in our bodies and 5G is killing birds.

https://www.boredpanda.com/covid-vaccine-jokes/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

https://www.audubon.org/news/no-5g-radio-waves-do-not-kill-birds

How science works

https://www.britannica.com/science/science

“Science, any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.”

“Observing the natural world and paying attention to its patterns has been part of human history from the very beginning. However, studying nature to understand it purely for its own sake seems to have had its start among the pre-Socratic philosophers of the 6th century BCE, such as Thales and Anaximander.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thales_of_Miletus (below left)

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Thales of Miletus (. 624/623 – c. 548/545 BC) was a Greek mathematician, astronomer and pre-Socratic philosopher from Miletus in Ionia, Asia Minor. He was one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Many regarded him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, and he is otherwise historically recognized as the first individual in Western civilization known to have entertained and engaged in scientific philosophy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaximander (above right)

Anaximander (; c. 610 – c. 546 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia (in modern-day Turkey). He belonged to the Milesian school and learned the teachings of his master Thales.

The core part of the science definition is that science is a system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and what that entails. At its core are unbiased observations and systematic experimentation.

Scientists are trying to gain knowledge covering general truth and fundamental laws. They are trying to be independent of certain values and so on, in order to acquire knowledge using unbiased and systematic procedures.

Generally, science, to some level, has always been done. People have always been interested in understanding some science. Our ancestors studied the season so they would know when to plant the crops and harvest them, in order to survive. They used the stars to navigate and unfortunately used science to improve weapons for defence.

But for the last two and a half thousand years, or so, science has developed a life of its own where people have just started appreciating and developing it, as a formal procedure of acquiring knowledge.

The core of what science is about: “Unbiased observations and systematic experimentation”

This has become increasingly formalised over time with various steps being taken starting in ancient Egypt, Greece and Arabia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous scepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. These are principles of the scientific method, as distinguished from a definitive series of steps applicable to all scientific enterprises.

What we think of science today was mostly formed in the 17th century ultimately by philosophers like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and the famous scientists Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon (below left)

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Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, Kt PC QC (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626), also known as Lord Verulam, was an English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. His works are credited with developing the scientific method and remained influential through the scientific revolution

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Descartes (above right)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei (below left)

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Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) was an Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer, sometimes described as a polymath, from Pisa. Galileo has been called the “father of observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, the “father of the scientific method”, and the “father of modern science”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton (above right)

Sir Isaac Newton PRS (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726/27) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author (described in his own day as a “natural philosopher”) who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), first published in 1687, established classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus.

They defined the version of the scientific method.

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The above image gives an idea of how the scientific method works.

It starts with making an observation or asking a question like, “why does this apple fall down?” “Is this always going to happen?”

A hypothesis is then formed about what could be happening.

Predictions are derived from this hypothesis.

Experiments are designed to test the hypothesis.

Data is collected and analysed to see whether the hypothesis was correct or not.

If the data didn’t support the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is revised to come up with a better idea of what is actually happening.

If the data did support the hypothesis then the experiment is repeated several times, and often it is repeated by other people to make sure they get the same results that were seen initially.

In all cases, no matter what the outcome the results are communicated. Scientific communication is an essential part of the scientific method.

Probably the most famous recent example of the scientific method in action is the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The question that was being asked was why some particles have mass and others don’t.

Peter Higgs, along with colleagues, produced a hypothesis.

It took until 2008, because of the high energies required, to look for the Higgs boson. Two separate experiments were carried out at CERN. One at CMS and the other at ATLAS.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Higgs

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Peter Ware Higgs CH FRS FRSE FInstP (born 29 May 1929) is a British theoretical physicist, Emeritus Professor in the University of Edinburgh, and Nobel Prize laureate for his work on the mass of subatomic particles.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ATLAS_experiment

ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) is the largest, general-purpose particle detector experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. The experiment is designed to take advantage of the unprecedented energy available at the LHC and observe phenomena that involve highly massive particles which were not observable using earlier lower-energy accelerators. ATLAS was one of the two LHC experiments involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson in July 2012. It was also designed to search for evidence of theories of particle physics beyond the Standard Model.

After a great deal of experimentation and data analysis CERN announced in 2012 that a version of the Higgs boson had been found. Work was then continued to decide if it was THE Higgs boson.

The scientific method has several crucial aspects:

It needs to produce testable predictions. Without things that can be checked the science is pretty useless. Any statements made need to be verified or proved to be false;

It isn’t enough to do the experiment once. Results can’t just be taken once. Replicability needs to happen. The same results need to happen consistently and they need to be reproduced by other people to make them convincing;

Another important aspect of the scientific method is peer review. Scientists don’t always believe each other. They’re always sceptical about results, whether it’s their own or other scientists. It is a well-established procedure to check whatever is about to be published by people who are not necessarily friendly towards that particular result and make sure it’s actually watertight.

The main point is that science is actually predominantly defined through its methods, not through a particular set of results. It’s the method that counts.

The theory of science

The theory of science is an entire discipline of philosophy.

If you ask a proper philosopher, they’re going to tell you that there are several versions of the scientific method. There are a lot of questions connected with this that Dr Harden didn’t have time to discuss but one of the questions that philosophers pose is “How do we actually define what is true”.

That in itself is a whole field of philosophy. So, “is what I see, true”. “Is it the same as what everyone else sees”. “Is there such a thing as objective truth at all”, “Does it depend on perception”.

It does all depend on our perception, to some extent, but in reality, we can be quite pragmatic, we know by experience that we all seem to see the same universe (although because of how our brain interprets signals we won’t see it exactly the same way) and so we just assume whatever it is, is reproducible. If one scientist does an experiment and gets results and someone else does the same experiment and gets the same results everything seems to be consistent.

The very pragmatic approach: it is true if it is reproducible.

It is something that, in practice, we do not worry about too much. But if researchers really want to get deeply into their area of science there is a whole lot of very, very deep questions that need to be answered.

This particularly true of theoretical and quantum physicists and perhaps even astrophysicists. Areas which don’t, yet, have access to experimentation as such

The justification of the scientific method

Pragmatism is the reason why we think the scientific method works but there is no fundamental reason why it works or needs to be done in that way

There are alternative realities imaginable, perhaps in alternative universes where experiments never give the same result when they repeated.

This is a bit daft. It would be impossible to do any science and come up with scientific laws etc. But it’s just imagery. We’re lucky that our Universe works in the way it does.

Perhaps scientists have to negotiate with a higher intelligence with greater knowledge to impact their result, but that is not what they see. Even scientists who are religious don’t believe that their results are affected by a higher intelligence.

Science is not just a belief system in that scientists think this is how things should be. And so that’s why they do it this way.

The scientific method is actually based on thousands of years of experience. We know from this experience that the same experiment usually gives the same result.

Items whose designs are based on scientific principles such as computers, antibiotics, cars etc. work incredibly reliably and predictably. Of course, there have been occasional glitches but these can be explained (usually human error is the reason).

There is very powerful empirical evidence that the scientific method actually works, but there is no logical underlying reason for it to work.

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Theories

The most important part of the scientific methods is theories.

So far, the talk dealt with the topic of testing individual hypotheses. There are specific questions that scientists are trying to find answers for.

Individual measurements or experiments are rarely done without context. Scientists tend to complete sets of experiments and attempt to derive general principles that provide consistent results and underlying explanations for what they observe.

And this consistent and underlying explanation is what in science is called a theory.

There are several ways of coming up with a theory and verifying it.

The ideal, and sometimes slightly naïve, approach is to just make observations first and then construct a theory framework that explains them all. That’s the inductive method.

But in practice, what happens more often is that scientists already have some kind of preconceived theory of how things work. And then they just try to confirm it.

If might not go swell, but hopefully the results confirm predictions that are derived from that theory. So that’s the deductive method.

Both the inductive and deductive approaches are valid. They both work

They form the basis for scientists to form underlying explanations, but usually there is more than one possible explanation for a result that they’re seeing. So, there is not just one theory that explains everything. There could be several that account for all observations. Some more simple than others but what is simple?

Occam’s razor

One of the principles that scientists try to follow in order to pick the best theories and explanations is to keep them as simple as possible. This approach is known as Occam’s Razor.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam’s_razor

Occam’s razor, or law of parsimony, is the problem-solving principle that “entities should not be multiplied without necessity”, or more simply, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. The idea is attributed to English Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), a scholastic philosopher and theologian who used a preference for simplicity to defend the idea of divine miracles. This philosophical razor advocates that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions, and that this is not meant to be a way of choosing between hypotheses that make different predictions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Ockham

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William of Ockham (c. 1287 – 1347) was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century. He is commonly known for Occam’s razor, the methodological principle that bears his name, and also produced significant works on logic, physics, and theology. In the Church of England, his day of commemoration is 10 April.

An example of applying Occam’s razor is flipping coins. Doing this many times you would expect to get a similar number of heads and tails. Does this happen because (a) the motion is random, and the coin symmetric or (b) that there are hidden magnets all over Earth that monitor and control coin motion and force the coins to have this outcome, Both, are possible, in principle, but it’s a pretty good guess that it’s probably (a) and not (b) here.

This is actually a general principle, find the simplest possible explanation that explains the observations.

There are questions, sometimes about what “simple” actually is. “Simple” itself is a difficult topic.

It’s not “just a theory”

A theory is the ultimate outcome of science!

The word “theory” is actually sometimes is a bit problematic because in general language it is often misunderstood.

Professor Dawkins can certainly tell tales about this and won’t hesitate to do so.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins

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Richard Dawkins FRS FRSL (born Clinton Richard Dawkins; 26 March 1941) is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was the University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.

The “theory of evolution”, for example, does not mean that “evolution is just a theory”. In the same way, the “theory of gravity” does not mean “gravity is just a theory”.

So, this word “theory” of something doesn’t put something into question.

Both evolution and gravity are directly observed facts. They are seen in the laboratory and in nature. There’s no question that they exist.

When scientists talk about a theory of evolution or gravity. They’re talking about the best explanations; they have for how evolution and gravity works.

So that is the theory part.

Even if, for example, the theory of gravity still has lots of open questions in that physicists don’t have a theory that they’re entirely happy with. It doesn’t mean that the existence of gravity is doubted. It does not mean that physicists are questioning its existence. It just means they haven’t fully understood the underlying mechanism yet and the same is true for evolution in that sense.

After all Newton’s work was good enough to get astronauts to the Moon

So, this is a communication issue where scientists have to be careful. The word theory and science mean something else to most people in the general population.

Proving a theory

One of the reasons, perhaps, for why people think of things as just a theory is that it’s actually impossible to prove the theory right.

That is just a fundamental limitation of science.

When can scientists actually conclude that the topic is fully understood, and how can they prove that their theory is correct. They can’t. It just doesn’t work.

It is fundamentally impossible to prove a theory right, scientists can only prove it wrong.

Because even if all their experimental tests have worked so far there is always a possibility that the next one could fail.

And even if a particular theory explains everything that can be seen. A completely different theory, that does the same thing, could also explain everything seen, i.e., if one theory explains all observations, so could others.

So, in that sense science is fundamentally never really done. Scientists cannot have a conclusion, where they say, “Okay, this is all proved now and settled.” That’s just logically impossible.

The best scientists can actually do is have a theory that withstands all tests for a long time

Paradigms

There are theories in physics that have been around for a century and scientists have not found a single experiment that contradicts them. So, at that point, even if formally this isn’t proven because scientists never really prove anything. It becomes what scientists call a paradigm. It’s a theory that is assumed correct, unless proven otherwise.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm

In science and philosophy, a paradigm is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field.

So, scientists tend to get attached to them and if there is an experiment that actually contradicts a theory it is met with extra scepticism.

It’s difficult to believe that after hundreds of years. Someone suddenly comes up with an experiment that defies a theory. So, there would need to be very strong evidence in order to actually trigger a paradigm shift.

It has happened.

This happened to Thomas Young in the early 19th century. Isaac Newton has postulated that light was made up of particles. Young said it was made up of waves.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Young_(scientist)

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Thomas Young FRS (13 June 1773 – 10 May 1829) was a British polymath who made notable contributions to the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony, and Egyptology. He “made a number of original and insightful innovations”.

In Young’s own judgment, of his many achievements the most important was to establish the wave theory of light. To do so, he had to overcome the century-old view, expressed in the venerable Newton’s Opticks, that light is a particle. Nevertheless, in the early 19th century Young put forth a number of theoretical reasons supporting the wave theory of light, and he developed two enduring demonstrations to support this viewpoint. With the ripple tank he demonstrated the idea of interference in the context of water waves. With Young’s interference experiment, the predecessor of the double-slit experiment, he demonstrated interference in the context of light as a wave.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young%27s_interference_experiment

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Thomas Young’s sketch of interference based on observations of water waves

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Modern illustration of the double-slit experiment for light

A few more examples from physics are the shift from geocentric cosmology, with the Earth at the centre of the universe to the heliocentric cosmology with the Earth orbiting the sun.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliocentrism

Or the move from classical physics to quantum physics (it should be said here that classical physics still works in most circumstances).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics

Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that provides a description of the physical properties of nature at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. It is the foundation of all quantum physics including quantum chemistry, quantum field theory, quantum technology, and quantum information science.

Those were scientific revolutions, and they were certainly not easy to pull off.

An example of a failed challenge to a paradigm: faster than light neutrinos

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/sep/24/einstein-e-equals-mc2

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A graphic explaining CERN’s neutrino experiment

One of CERN’s particle physics experiments reported that a beam of particles called neutrinos appeared to be traveling faster than light and faster than light travel is something that the science paradigm excludes. It categorically cannot happen.

This caused quite an uproar, and even the people who published this result said they didn’t really believe this could be right, but the scientists running the experiment couldn’t find out what the problem was.

But after a lot of scrutiny, it was traced back to a technical problem. Just a plaque that wasn’t seated properly and so the timing didn’t get measured correctly.

So, this clearly did not produce a paradigm shift, but it does show that if unexpected results occur, they have to be looked at very closely if they seem to refute a theory that has been around for a long time.

How not to get it wrong

Getting science right is just not easy. If scientists want to obtain measurements in advanced science there are so many things that can go wrong. This is really not easy.

The simple example of coin tosses again. If you want to find out whether the tosses are really random you just throw the coin 100 times and count how many times you get heads and how many times or tails. Easy.

But now imagine doing this in darkness and having to feel which side is up. This makes the measurement a lot more complicated. How often do you actually get this right and do you mistake heads for tails as frequently as the other way around because if not, then you are shifting your measurement? Will the errors be random? You, are not getting the right value, which would distort your result.

Your result will be less reliable, but it might still be good enough, maybe a bit less reliable. You need to figure out your measurement precision

This is a simple representation of the kind of conditions that scientists are working on. That they never have complete information and that they have to be very careful. They have to understand their methods and so on.

Figuring out how precise measurements are is a very important part of science.

Measurement precision

Most measurements are actually useless unless their uncertainties are known.

Most measurements have limited precision and their values alone usually don’t say much.

A very simple example from a house move.

If I have a sofa that is about a meter high and I’m trying to get it upstairs through the staircase that according to the drawings is just over a meter wide, will the sofa fit or not? Hmm, how precisely did they measure the width.

Even if it gets stuck. There could be several reasons. If I measure the height several times, I might get slightly different measurements every time. This is an example of a random error. Random errors happen in all measurements. Tape measures have a precision of millimetres, but it is very easy to misalign the thing when you are measuring things.

As well as random uncertainties there can also be systematic uncertainties. For example, in this example, I forgot to take into account that there is a handrail reducing the width of the staircase, that I have to get the sofa around a corner at the top of the stairs, and so on.

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It’s a very simplified example but essentially the same happens in science.

Measurement precision

Determining the uncertainty of a measurement tends to be a lot more difficult than performing the actual measurement.

Below is an example from almost 10 years ago when the Higgs boson was discovered.

The ATLAS and CMS particle physicists looked at the results of lots of collisions of particles at the Large Hadron Collider.

They were looking for candidates for Higgs bosons

They were looking for the decay products of the Higgs boson.

The graph below shows a broad distribution and essentially random background combinations that have nothing to do with the Higgs boson and have no significant meaning.

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But there is this little peak in the red line in the middle where the CMS physicists observed a few more candidates than expected (greater than the normal background) from these random combinations.

But of course, the measurement values are all subject to uncertainty. There are fluctuations all over the place. So where do you draw the boundary between thinking, is this just statistical fluctuation or an actual effect, the actual observation of the new particle. A bit further to the right there are also rather strong fluctuations. Why are those not associated with the discovery of the particles? This is a very, very detailed procedure with very detailed statistical analysis that is necessary to distinguish cases where the physicists can be sure that there is something there to where they can’t.

Dr Harder picked the particle physics example because that is the area he works in, but there are very similar issues in other disciplines. For example, medical research. How well can scientists actually measure whether some new prototype medication works or not if it’s not having a dramatic effect but maybe a bit effective.

So, this is a universal problem in science. Scientists need to understand the precision in their measurements and that can be a lot more difficult than doing the actual measurements.

Biases and other errors

Biases and other mistakes can mess up an entire experiment completely. An example was the “faster than light” neutrinos mentioned earlier.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igoizIP7f-g&list=PL3mfyNzPPh9tgKdDKDdVOtuD-tN4YaOCF&index=22

The above is a link to a video (Convex Earth) about a flat Earth. There are people who still think that Earth is actually flat and not a spherical planet, despite the images of the Earth taken from space.

Most of these people have very simple arguments that are easy to refute.

Dr Harder has found documentation where people actually tried to apply science to make their point that the Earth was flat and it was a very interesting lesson about how humans can get things wrong.

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Dr Harder’s favourite example is an actually quite a good idea. These people tried to measure the distance between skyscrapers (at top and bottom) in two cities in Brazil thousands of kilometres apart.

The statement is “if you measure the distance at the bottom versus the one at the top for a flat earth you should get the same result for a spherical earth, the distance should be larger at the top”.

What they got was a measurement that was the same at the bottom as at the top and so they concluded Earth was flat.

Dr Harder disagrees. Why?

They actually used GPS to do the measurement and neglected to take into account what coordinate system GPS uses. It uses polar coordinates. Basically, they were always getting their position corrected to a certain height. So, no matter which height they were measuring it. They were given the same position. So naturally, they were getting the same distance between these two points, no matter which height they were measuring and they just didn’t take that into account.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System

The Global Positioning System (GPS), originally Navstar GPS (stylised in capital letters in its logo), is a satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Space Force.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_coordinate_system

In mathematics, the polar coordinate system is a two-dimensional coordinate system in which each point on a plane is determined by a distance from a reference point and an angle from a reference direction.

Anyway, how you can have GPS satellites in a flat earth scenario?

https://www.express.co.uk/videos/6011951069001/Flat-Earth-Antarctica-s-GPS-signal-proves-theory-says-expert

https://opencommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=thmeyer_articles

The above links give some information.

This kind of thing can happen to reputable scientists. They can make mistakes. That’s why they put so much emphasis on peer review and have other people, who may even be from competing research groups, check over what they’ve been doing to try and find mistakes before the scientific papers are published

Pseudoscience – again

Not everything sold as science is actually science.

Pseudoscience is the name used for things that are disguised as science, but do not actually use proper scientific methods.

Which means the results that are produced may still be accidentally correct, but cannot be proved. So, the results and claims are at best questionable or entirely invalid.

And society is dealing with a lot of this and there are many reasons for this happening.

Why is pseudoscience so prevalent?

Cognitive biases. People have traditions they still believe in without ever questioning them.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. People tend to unconsciously select information that supports their views, but ignore non-supportive or contradicting information. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

People have a desire to find a meaning in life. They want something to believe in. They need to make connections and take control. They need hope. To other people these things seem a bit daft.

Some people have a lack of trust in mainstream society. There are certain things that do going wrong in our society and maybe these people just don’t believe that society supports them anymore.

And there is the Dunning Kruger effect.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from people’s inability to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their level of competence.

Basically, it says that the less you know about a subject, the less you are aware of how little you know, so you tend to overestimate your expertise in the subject.

In society a lot of people tend to think that teachers have an easy life because of short days and long holidays etc. Their expertise comes from the fact that they went to school.

Dr Harder found the next example of why belief in actual science is poor from a newspaper article. It was about inverted snobbery which is the attitude of seeming to despise anything associated with wealth, education or social status, while at the same time elevating those things associated with lack of wealth, education and social position.

What it basically means is you have all these academics saying smart things and you’re a bit annoyed by them because you weren’t able to go to university, so you make a point of not accepting what they say and the result is not good, of course, but it is one of the things that’s happening.

I would like to add here that there is snobbery about science in general from the, so called, upper classes (politicians and the aristocracy). If memory serves me right, we have had only one Prime Minister who studied science for their first degree and she rapidly changed direction to law and politics.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Thatcher

The Prime Minister, at time of writing, has a degree in the classics.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Johnson

There is a historic aspect to this in that, with a few exceptions, science was seen as something gentlemen did as a hobby. You didn’t earn your living doing it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cavendish

Henry Cavendish FRS (10 October 1731 – 24 February 1810) was an English natural philosopher, scientist, and an important experimental and theoretical chemist and physicist.

His mother was Lady Anne de Grey, fourth daughter of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, and his father was Lord Charles Cavendish, the third son of William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire.

Even James Clerk Maxwell was landed gentry

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clerk_Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell FRSE FRS (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish scientist in the field of mathematical physics.

Pseudoscience is also prevalent because of a lack of education, maybe some people are just unable to distinguish proper science from the pseudoscience.

My husband tells a story about when he worked at Queen Mary University. His department intended advertising their MSc in astronomy, but a typo. meant it got written as astrology. They were inundated with applicants.

https://www.qmul.ac.uk/

A specific example of pseudoscience is homeopathy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy

Homeopathy or homoeopathy is a pseudoscientific system of alternative medicine.

Homeopathic preparations are termed remedies and are made using homeopathic dilution. In this process, the selected substance is repeatedly diluted until the final product is chemically indistinguishable from the diluent. Often not even a single molecule of the original substance can be expected to remain in the product.

Homeopathy is a representative of alternative medicine. Normally the diluent is water. From a scientific point of view, homeopathy is clearly ineffective. So, the proposed mechanism contradicts scientific principles. And, just in case, there have been clinical studies and these clinical studies consistently demonstrate that there is a lack of effectiveness in this.

But still people who practice homeopathy and the patients who use it claim it works. So how can this happen? Where does this disagreement come from? Dr Harder thinks it is, in part, due to a communication issue. when people in science say it doesn’t work. It means there is no actual intrinsic mechanism to it.

But it could still have a placebo effect, which is this activation of self-healing powers, which is real. We know about that.

So, when scientists say homeopathy “doesn’t work”, what they mean is “it works no better than a placebo”, but it still works as a placebo.

All practitioners see is that sometimes homeopathy works really well. They can’t distinguish why it works, whether it’s placebo effect or whether it’s the homeopathy itself, that has an effect.

This is something that only control trials can do, and so again, science can investigate this, but scientists need to communicate exactly what the result is and explain why it seems to differ from what people are experiencing in their daily lives.

One other way to distinguish whether something works or not is to see if it is actually used.

Dr Harder an interesting argument from an online comic (see below)

https://openparachute.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/crazy-ideas-and-supernatural-phenomena/

https://xkcd.com/808/

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A distinction between science and pseudoscience by the economic impact that it has, is another way of looking at things.

One of the statements, for example, is dowsing. If it worked companies would be using it to find oil reserves.

If homeopathy worked it could be used to reduce the cost of the healthcare. But this isn’t seen.

In contrast, at the bottom of the list, some of the theories that sound equally crazy, occur in physics (relativity and quantum electrodynamics) and actually do have enormous economic impact through GPS and computers and so on. So clearly, that is proving that there is something to it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_relativity

The theory of relativity usually encompasses two interrelated theories by Albert Einstein: special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity applies to all physical phenomena in the absence of gravity. General relativity explains the law of gravitation and its relation to other forces of nature. It applies to the cosmological and astrophysical realm, including astronomy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein

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Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_electrodynamics

In particle physics, quantum electrodynamics (QED) is the relativistic quantum field theory of electrodynamics. In essence, it describes how light and matter interact and is the first theory where full agreement between quantum mechanics and special relativity is achieved. QED mathematically describes all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons and represents the quantum counterpart of classical electromagnetism giving a complete account of matter and light interaction.

There are a few more general ways of trying to distinguish proper science from pseudoscience.

https://www.redbubble.com/i/poster/A-Rough-Guide-to-Spotting-Bad-Science-by-compoundchem/11773448.LVTDI

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Above is a poster that you can buy that can help spot pseudoscience. One example on it is sensational headlines that go with articles in the media that misinterpret results.

Often, it’s also worth asking whether the person publishing the article have an interest in a particular outcome of the results.

Correlation versus causation is another typical mistake to make. An example is stating that the number of pirates has declined at the same time that the global temperature has gone up. So does the lack of pirates explain global warming. No, it doesn’t, it’s just a coincidence that both things happened at the same time and these kinds of coincidences happen all the time.

Unsupported conclusions. Sometimes you’re just having a gap in an argument. You make one argument and then you conclude something completely unrelated. This is a typical flaw you find in all sorts of scientific texts, for example, and it causes general problems with scientific methods.

If you want to make a measurement that is statistical somehow, like whether medication works or not, you need a decent sample size. You also need a sample that actually represents what you need in your study. You need a control group. You need blind testing in order to avoid coming to a conclusion that you want to be there and so on. So, these are all trades that proper science employs routinely but pseudoscience does not necessarily and when it comes to reporting of the data science needs to report everything not just the bits that scientists like.

So there certainly were a few years in the last 50 years where the global temperature went down but that does not mean that global warming doesn’t exist. They were just fluctuations in the bigger picture.

Results that cannot be replicated by others are also a big red flag and tell you that something probably went wrong in that measurement.

Peer review is very important. If someone just puts a statement on a web page about a measurement they made. That’s not very trustworthy. You need other people to check that and confirm publicly that they didn’t see an issue with it.

Dr Harder hoped that this information is giving us the tools to distinguish real science from pseudoscience.

But sometimes the pseudoscience examples aren’t the relatively harmless things such as homeopathy but rather serious conspiracy theories such as those around the five g mobile network, which apparently cause all sorts of effects on humans and animals that are not actually there according to science

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And there are long standing conspiracy theories, such as UFOs

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unidentified_flying_object

An unidentified flying object (UFO) is any aerial phenomenon that cannot immediately be identified or explained. Most UFOs are identified on investigation as conventional objects or phenomena. The term is widely used for claimed observations of extra-terrestrial spacecraft.

Some people believe there are systematic government cover ups about alien presence on Earth. These kinds of things are based on very similar background pseudoscience that just tend to be more extreme often arising just from simple misunderstandings of government publications or mistrust of authority,

Sometimes, mistrust is justified but it doesn’t mean that governments are covering up aliens here.

Conspiracy theories can be identified in similar ways as pseudoscience. The most important part is to remember that science is not done in secret by the Illuminati, it is just regular people trying their best, and that alone undermines, a lot of the conspiracy theories.

The limits of science

The reason that scientists are so concerned about pseudoscience is because it infringes on actual science. It reduces the credibility of experts and so on.

There may be an area where science just doesn’t apply that we can leave to other people to do whatever they want with but the scientific method itself is universal. There is no intrinsic limit to it.

And you know that leads many people to speculate about areas where science is just inapplicable. A statement that Dr Harder hears quite often, especially from religious communities as an argument for the limits of sciences, is that you cannot prove love

Except that we can, this is one of the things that science can do. Scientists can investigate emotions happening in our brains and this is all to do with biochemistry.

https://earthlymission.com/the-science-of-falling-in-love-or-the-nerve-growth-factor/?cn-reloaded=1

https://www.medicaldaily.com/what-love-mri-scan-reveals-what-stages-romantic-love-youre-brain-map-326080

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Brain areas with altered regional homogeneity (ReHo) the in-love group (LG) and ended-love group (ELG). Front. Hum. Neurosci.

It doesn’t mean that we should always see love from the perspective of science. It can actually do some harm if we do, but intrinsically, this is something that science can cover.

Is there anything not accessible to science?

Does science have any limits at all?

What is its scope?

All statements about reality have to be accessible to scientific scrutiny in principle. That includes human emotions and religious concepts.

As soon as you say something exists, you’re making a scientific statement that has to be tested. But that does not mean that there are limits to science. There are definitely ethical limits to science, such as medical experiments on humans without consent. Personally, I think experiments on animals is wrong too.

Or things like just values. We shouldn’t assign value judgments to scientific results and so on. This is quite a hotly debated area and the question of whether there is knowledge, for example, that we just should not acquire Dr Harder doesn’t think there is a final answer to that.

Concluding remarks

During his talk, Dr Harder did rush through quite a number of aspects of science and he hopes we agree that science is an exceptionally powerful tool.

So, the scientific method that have developed the principles behind science, have been enormously successful and are very important for everyone.

And yet there is some gap in the understanding of science and the general public. Part of it is due to language with the use of words like “theory” and what we mean by “it works or doesn’t work”, and so on.

Being in science is really about the process. It’s not so much about just blindly accumulating all sorts of knowledge. Scientists are very picky about how this is being done; Science is more about learning to obtain answers using a specific process, making sure the process is robust and trustworthy.

But sometimes mistakes happen (nobody is perfect).

Sometimes it takes time to get to a proper conclusion.

But still, with all that in mind, science is a good thing. What it has achieved is absolutely amazing and it should be celebrate and supported in the future.

Questions and answers

1) What about conspiracy area 51 aliens?

So, this is the story that in 1947 a UFO crashed in Roswell, New Mexico US and, I think, dead aliens, and maybe even live aliens were recovered by the US government and this was covered up,

Well, this is an internal issue right because area 51 actually exists, it’s a test area for the US experimental flight system. So, you know, you never know. Maybe they did something that looked like a UFO there with this particular crash. I think it was actually a weather balloon that went down.

So, I think that this is one of the things with conspiracy theories. It’s difficult to prove them wrong because the whole reason they exist is that there is not much information. It is to some extent a part of this Occam’s Razor principle.

By saying it wasn’t a weather balloon, but it was aliens and so on, you’re coming up with a rather complicated explanation and I think one good argument against most of these theories is that there were a lot of people involved in area 51 and this was more than 60 years ago. So, over the period of 60 years nobody felt the need to go public with this. That seems rather unlikely, I mean, they’re all humans working there, even if they’re employed by the military and so on. So, to actually produce a cover up like that without it leaking into the public for such a long time seems very unlikely.

There are things that we observe that we can’t really explain but to assume something like space aliens are visiting us but not showing up ever again is very suspicious.

2) We do have one question here at the moment, which I’m not entirely sure whether we should break down, as it’s around religion. Is there such a thing as God?

Well, yes, that is of course a very controversial question. I don’t want to get into trouble here.

I think, well, this boils down to personal belief, For, me personally, again, I’d apply Occam’s Razor. There is no evidence for this and no verifiable reproducible evidence. We have a few stories from distant past. And so, for me, the conclusion is, I don’t believe in it, but that doesn’t mean that you know, who knows. So, I think this is just a dangerous topic. There’s a lot of culture and tradition involved and it’s a topic very close to the heart of many people, so we’ll just leave it alone. Yeah. Okay. Thank you.

3) You use the words – “I don’t believe in it”. So, could you comment about “belief vs science”.

Yes, so science tries to eliminate beliefs right. So, the approach is not to have any biases or any preconceived notions. You really just look at the data and derive results from them and that works quite well of course. There are boundary areas where the distinction is not so clear anymore but I mean, generally what we’re trying to do is not have beliefs come into it and I mean I’m saying I don’t believe in it. In the sense that I don’t see evidence for it. So, it’s difficult to not use the belief in that case, right. If you don’t have evidence for something at all, strictly speaking, that doesn’t mean you can prove it wrong. But you also don’t have a reason to assume that it is right. So, the correct answer is you cannot make a statement and then it’s beyond that. It really is down to belief right, maybe some expectation based on prior experience.

4) So, are we living in a world which is a simulation, like in the film, The Matrix?

This is actually a possibility that is taken seriously by science. There have been papers scientific papers written that, at least under certain simplified assumptions, come to the conclusion that this might even be more likely than not given how weird the universe is and so on but I don’t know much about that. I think we’ll have to wait for more evidence to see whether that’s the case or not.

5) Okay, are there any theories that are yet to be proven?

Definitely. I mean, first of all, again, as I said, we cannot really prove a theory. We can only prove it is wrong because we never know, even if it explains everything, whether there is something else that this theory predicts to be true and it turns out to be false, or vice versa. So, I think what I take this to mean is that there are theories where we haven’t been able to do enough experiments yet to even make them look reasonable and reliable. So, there are things in physics, for example, such as string theory which explains the way the universe behaves. Fundamentally how matter is made up in a different way than we’re thinking of so far. There are certain mathematical reasons for it.

But it’s complicated to make any predictions that we can actually verify in experiments and so this is something that’s just completely open and I wish I could quickly think of something from a different scientific discipline but, I mean, it’s typically the case that if you have a new idea, even if it sounds reasonable, until you get data that confirms it, which is not proof, it just confirms it at least in certain areas. Until you have that you can’t really do anything with the theory.

6)How do you counter the response that the evidence is in my experience, how do you define evidence? So, it excludes individual personal experience as a basis for arguments. Psychology deals with a lot of individual experience.

Yeah, this is the point that I tried to address earlier on when I was talking about the theory of true. Is there such a thing as an objective true? This is a very long dragged-out centuries old discussion in philosophy and I think the statement that we can make is that it is like the scientific methods.

Just generally the idea that there is something objective out there and that by applying the scientific method we’re actually getting objective results that do not so much depend on personal experience. I think that works well. So, this is something that by experience over thousands of years seems to be the case. Again, I wouldn’t say it’s definitely proven, but the role of personal experience is rather minimal if you apply these rigorous scientific procedures. You can never entirely get rid of it, but it’s clear that if we all follow the same procedures, we should see the same thing and I think that is very good evidence in favour of having some objective truth of that.

7) So, Earth warming is it an actual process?

Well yes, this is one of the classic cases that we’re dealing with right now in science. It is absolutely clear that this is not a natural process anymore. So, if you look at the graphs you can see how the warming has developed. At what point the increase set in. The speed with which the temperature is going up is absolutely unprecedented and we actually have a pretty good understanding right now of what is going on. You can put all the parameters into a simulation and even though simulations have a certain limited precision they are clearly good enough to tell us that the current global warming would not be explainable without human impact. So, there is no question about that.

The reason this is being discussed is that politics interferes. Pseudoscience interferes so this is one of the situations where this harms us because we probably would take a lot more action to counter this effect if we just listened to the science and see that this is an actual problem.

8) Talking of pseudoscience should we name and shame bad science more or would that be counteractive?

This is a very difficult issue of course, but it’s something I personally like to do. I like to laugh about flat earth theories, but this is not going to make Flat Earth theories go away. On the contrary, it will actually increase the perception that there is some kind of scientific elite that doesn’t take you seriously and doesn’t want anything to do with you and it’s probably covering up something important, which is not the case. Right, we’re just trying to spread the truth and openly admit that even though we don’t really know the full truth, we’re doing our best to get to it right and so I think this is a big issue. How do you address pseudoscience? If you get too aggressive over it, you’re not going to help, you’re going to have the opposite effect. You’re actually strengthening their case and so I don’t know. I think the best way is to really remain reasonable and to point to the actual science that has been done, the studies that were done, and so on, but do so in a way that actually takes it seriously. Even if you already know, to some extent, that this is total science from prior studies.

9) I’m just going to end it on a bit of a fun. The conspiracy that you’re making a demonic portal. You mentioned at the start?

Honestly, I have no idea how you would even build a demonic portal, but in particle physics, we’re building these enormous machines and the science is, I hesitate to call it incomprehensible, but it is something that is relatively remote from everyday life and so we’re dealing with the smallest part of matter and in the quantum realm everything is different compared to everyday experience. So that, of course, makes it prone to mysterious theories of what might actually be going on. But how you would even come up with the idea that this is a portal into a different dimension. I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with the fact that we’re actually checking whether there are more than three dimensions. We are looking for higher dimensions, in a sense, but that doesn’t mean that there would be a portal. It is just a scientific investigation for how space really looks and the step from there to demonic portals of course involves beliefs and demons and so on, which is a completely different category. Anyway, so I don’t know how you get there, but to some extent it’s funny, it’s worth looking at some of these videos, but please know that they’re not real.

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