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Cargo Cult Science: Richard Feynman’s commencement address on how difficult it is to think scientifically

May 18, 2010 1 comment

One of the best explanations of how to do science, by one of the greatest physicists, Richard Feynman. (I happened upon my copy of ‘Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman’ recently).

Superb, witty, unassuming:

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas–which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked–or very little of it did.

and the core of the scientific method (missing from what Feynman called ‘cargo cult‘ science – it has the appearance, but not the substance of science):

…there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The judgement in the Simon Singh said it perfectly too: ‘Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.’

British Chiropractic Association [BCA] drop their case against Simon Singh

April 15, 2010 Leave a comment

***To get in touch with me use Reply-To Address:  slane@senseaboutscience.org***

Dear Friends

The British Chiropractic Association has dropped its libel case against Simon Singh. Read Simon’s, our and some of our supporters’ reactions to the news here: www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/478 Keep an eye out for coverage about this today – there has already been lots, I’ll include a few links below.

We are so pleased for Simon that the BCA has dropped the case but the campaign is far from over. Until we have a public interest defence that can protect discussion and comment about evidence and research, scientists, commentators, bloggers, forum users, authors and NGOs will continue to be bullied into silence, and cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst is still fighting to defend his right to speak out about a medical device clinical trial.

With your support the Coalition for Libel Reform has secured manifesto commitments from all the major parties. But we need to continue to put pressure on politicians to make sure these promises are turned into meaningful reform once the new government is in place. We are organising a Free Speech General Election Hustings where you can come and question politicians on their commitment to libel reform for Wednesday 21st April in London. Check http://www.libelreform.org/ for more details about this soon.

The campaign reached 50,000 signatures of support last night. We really need to double this to keep the pressure up and make sure the politicians are aware of how serious the need for libel reform is. Please do all you can to help us reach our target by encouraging people to sign up at http://www.libelreform.org/

Best

Síle

Times Online Science writer Simon Singh wins bitter libel battle

BBC News Case dropped against Simon Singh

The Guardian Simon Singh libel case dropped

For an updated list of coverage see www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/478

Simon Singh: Parties commit to libel reform, hear more at rally tonight

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

***To get in touch with me use Reply-To Address:  slane@senseaboutscience.org***

Dear friends

Great news – all 3 major political parties in the UK are committed to libel law reform.

Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Justice Minister, told us on Friday that “the Conservative party is committed, if elected, to undertaking a fundamental review of the libel laws with a view to enacting legislation to reform them. This reform could best be done by means of a separate Libel Bill and this is the preferred approach for us.”

The Lib Dems made libel law reform a policy in September 2009 after Professor Richard Dawkins addressed their party conference and Jack Straw committed Labour to reforming English libel law at our mass-lobby of Parliament on 23rd March. The Labour manifesto, released today, pledges “To encourage freedom of speech and access to information, we will bring forward new legislation on libel to protect the right of defendants to speak freely.”

We are delighted that the Government and opposition have been moved by the campaign and by your support but now we have to make sure libel reform doesn’t become a forgotten election promise. Please keep telling your friends and colleagues what a fundamental issue libel reform is and encourage them to sign up to the campaign at http://www.libelreform.org/.

If you are in London this evening come to the libel rally organised by Westminster Skeptics in the Pub to hear about the next steps for the campaign and to celebrate Simon’s recent appeal hearing. More here: http://bit.ly/duUjmH

Best

Síle

Message from Simon Singh: A big step for me, a small step for libel reform, and what you can do to help

***To get in touch with me use Reply-To Address:  slane@senseaboutscience.org***

Message from Simon Singh : “A big step for me, a small step for libel reform, and what you can do to help today.”

Dear friends,

With apologies for cross posting,

Sorry for the silence, but it has been a ridiculously hectic (and happy) time since last week’s victory at the Court of Appeal. However, I urgently wanted to get in touch to update you on the status of my case, the latest news on libel reform and what you can do today to push libel reform up the political agenda.

BCA v Singh

April Fool’s Day 2010 was a day to remember. The Court of Appeal gave a ruling in my libel case with the British Chiropractic Association. The ruling strongly backs my arguments and puts me in a much stronger position when my trial eventually takes place. At last, after two years of defending my article and my right to free speech, I seem to have the upper hand and can breathe a small sigh of relief.

Moreover, the judges made it clear that they did not want to see scientists and science journalists being hauled through the High Court. In particular, they endorsed the view that a so-called comment defence should be adequate for scientific and other articles on matters of public interest. As well as the legal technicalities, the three wise, charming and handsome judges quoted Milton on the persecution of Galileo and directed that the High Court should not become an “Orwellian Ministry of Truth”.

Libel Reform Campaign

This is a small step forward for libel reform, but there is still a huge battle to be fought over the issues of costs, libel tourism, public interest defence, balancing the burden of proof, restricting the ability of powerful corporations to bully individuals (e.g., bloggers, journalists, scientists) and so on.

Read more…