Tag Archives: Brian Cox

Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists

This great Sidney Harris cartoon reminds me of the Big Bang Theory scene where Sheldon and Leonard end up wrestling during a conference presentation by Leonard. It’s also a handy antidote for anyone with an idealistic picture of scientists and how science is done.

The human, but real, behaviour of scientists seems to be a current theme in recent discussions of the nature of science by historians and sociologists. That’s not a bad thing in itself – much of the old history may have given an unrealistic and idealistic picture of science as it was done in the past. Let alone now.

I enjoy reading about the history of science and am really pleased that biographies of famous scientists are no longer hagiographies. These days we often learn about the personal foibles and character flaws as well as the great discoveries. It doesn’t in any way destroy my picture of science to learn about Newton’s or Einstein’s character or personality defects, or about the affairs, professional jealousies and outright bad behaviour of science icons. And my own professional experience has certainly taught me about the social and political influences on science and science funding.

Given that current science history tends to be a “warts and all” coverage, and that modern scientists also experience the real sociology of science day-to-day I am a bit surprised that some UK historians and sociologists recently took it upon themselves to lecture us about this (see Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science) As if scientists had a naive, idealistic picture of how they do science!

Keeping us honest?

Mind you – it did start me thinking. These historians and sociologists are assuring us that they perform an important function. Revealing, and reminding us, of the social and political influences on science. And of the real non-algorithmic nature of the scientific process. Of the real scientific method. These historians think they play a key role in keeping scientists honest – perhaps they do.

But who plays this role when it comes to history and sociology? Who has described the social, political and ideological influences on the history and sociology of science? And has anybody been reminding the students and practitioners in these fields of those influences on their ideas and teachings?

Personally I think history and sociology should be subjected to the same sort of realism that these historians and sociologists have given science. This might then help overcome an attitude which comes across as “Believe me, I am a historian/sociologist and what I say represents intensive research and consensus in my profession.”

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that historians and sociologists are just as human as scientists. They also are prone to personal emotions and vanities. They are exposed to social, political and ideological influences. And they probably have less opportunity to validate their ideas against reality than do their scientist colleagues.

Where claims of consensus are false

Two areas where historians who have attempted to claim they represent a consensus view really annoy me:

Galileo is of course a key figure in the history of science – but one whose history and significance is contested among historians (although scientists generally accept his important contributions to scientific method and astronomy). Some historians really seem to hate the guy. They downplay his contributions, often appearing to argue against them. They will concentrate on his mistakes (all scientists make mistakes), set impossibly high standards of proof for his ideas and even now seem to favour alternative discredited ideas.

Paula E. Findlen, Stanford University describes “the trial and condemnation of Galileo” as having been “debated, and reinterpreted for over three and a half centuries. We are not yet done with this contentious story.” So true. The historian of science Maurice Finocchiaro has detailed this debate in his book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. A shorter version is in his chapter of Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

I am sure much of the controversy could be sheeted back to ideological motivations and that would be a fascinating study. But the persistent controversy among historians about the “Galileo Affair” underlines the fact that one should not take on faith the history presented by a single historian.

Some historians of sciences adamantly promote the myth that Christianity gave birth to modern science. The ideological bias is pretty obvious here but again this is an area where one should not just take the word of a single historian – no matter how much they assure you their view represents a consensus of their profession.

For an overview of that particular myth Noah J. Efron has a good chapter, That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science, in Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Efron chairs the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and serves as President of the Israeli Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

Just imagine that we had an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – but for history and sociobiology instead of climate science. Maybe then historical and sociological controversies could be resolved and the consumer may really get a consensus view.

But I am sure there would still be sceptics/contrarians, deniers!

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Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science

Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.


Robin Ince, comedian, actor and writer, and Brian Cox, particle physicist and Professor at the University of Manchester.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the scientific process which even some supporters of science are not completely aware of, let alone critics. So it’s worth bringing out these points.

The place of science

Brian Cox and Robin Ince are clear that science cannot dictate to politics. Decisions in this and similar fields inevitably also involve non-scientific considerations. Considering the climate change issue they say:

“The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”

Decision making on politics and many other areas of society involves far more than just facts. Of course science can provide the facts, it can help inform the discussion, but social decisions also involve tradition, culture, emotions and feelings. And yes, prevailing social prejudices.

Unfortunately some critics do not see the difference between science, on the one hand, and politics or social decision-making, on the other. They slip too easily into the mistake of denying the science and/or slandering the scientists, and not debating the political, social and moral issues which really concern them. The mistake is really obvious among the climate change and evolutionary science sceptics/contrarians/deniers. And it can take really nasty forms (see, for example, discussion at Climate change deniers don’t understand expertise).

Scientific knowledge provisional but best we can do

Scientific knowledge is not absolute – we don’t make extravagant claims of Truth (with a capital T). There is humility in the scientific approach. Cox and Ince say:

“Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.”


“The wonderful thing about nature is that opinion can be tested against it.”

And just in case critics choose to interpret these descriptions naively – yes, scientists are human. Yes, individual scientists or groups are not as sceptical of their own ideas as an idealist might hope. But the nature of scientific knowledge, the checking against an objective reality and the social character of research helps overcome these very human prejudices.

Most working scientists have experienced more than once the horrible disappointment of their beautiful hypothesis being destroyed by an ugly fact. Maybe even finding the real fact mercilessly drummed into them by colleagues. But then picking themselves up and getting on with investigating a modified hypothesis or even new ideas. Being wrong is actually an important part of the scientific process.

It might take some time but, in the end, science has an inbuilt self-correcting process.

Scientific knowledge not just another opinion or belief

This validation against reality, the self-correcting and social nature of research and the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, makes it far more than just “another opinion.” Cox and Ince:

“Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.”

Those critics who attempt to equate simple belief, faith or opinion with scientific knowledge, who try to bring that knowledge down to the level of opinion of belief, have their own agenda. They wish to promote their own beliefs, not by checking them against reality, but by denigrating the scientific process that does check against reality.

Criticism of the editorial by Cox and Ince came mainly in two guardian articles and a blog post. These, and many of the comments attending the articles, reveal  misunderstanding of the points I made above.

Science and politics

Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist at University College of London, chose to interpret Cox and Ince’s description of the different roles of science and politics as a call for separation of the two (see Science and politics needs counselling not separation”). The misinterpretation seems to be a mechanism for repeating criticism of real or imagined influence of politics within science. And a chance to disapprove of scientists who criticise attacks on science, as on the issue of climate change. He charges that:

“Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.”

It seems to me that those who are attacking and misrepresenting climate science and scientists are the ones who are intending destruction of its “political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.” Stilgoe is surely blaming the victim here.

Rebekah Higgitt, a curator and historian at the Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum, is more explicit claiming a common influence of politics in science (see Science, the public and the history of science):

“Scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.”

Here she is just trying to teach Cox and Ince to suck eggs. Scientists are well aware of all these frameworks and influences (current science funding regimes quickly bring this home to us). That is why they consider that evidence and the validation of ideas and theories against reality is so important. It’s fundamental to science and helps reduce the distorting influence of influences, frameworks and opinions.

I just wish that some sociologists and historians could understand that.

As for “different kinds of evidence.” Reference to scientific evidence in no way inhibits Higgitt’s opportunities of presenting alternative “kinds of evidence” and arguing for them. I am curious to know what they are. Her inability, or unwillingness, to present them seems to me the real reason such discussion is inhibited.

Denying the special role of science

The blogger Haralambos Dayantis finds Cox and Ince, and indeed all “geeks,” “arrogant” (see Why the Geek movement is bad for science). To him their description of science as “the only way we have of exploring nature” is a “fundamentally close-minded attitude” which “will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.”

Strange then that this blogger didn’t simply describe alternative ways to explore nature – it would have immensely strengthened his argument! Again I am curious. I wish these people would share their secrets.

As for audience appeal – hasn’t he got it exactly back to front? Cox and Ince argued for a special role for science based on its relationship to reality. In this case the close-minded ones are those who refuse to consider, or even misrepresent, the argument presented. And I don’t think this blogger even understood the argument.

Higgit is also is concerned about Cox and Ince’s description of the cognitive advantage science has because of its reference to reality. The validation of its ideas by checking against reality. She objects to the fact that:

“scientific evidence . . . . and ‘the scientific method’ are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion.”

Worse, she implies that evidence relies only on reputation, ignoring the ability to check, reproduce and validate. It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further. To hell with considering the evidence – she claims: “In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us.”

Stilgoe also misrepresents this cognitive advantage as a grab for dominance, even power:

“Churchill was right to have argued that science should be “on tap, not on top”. For Cox and Ince, this won’t do. For policy, they call science an “adjudicator above opinion”.”

By ignoring, even denying, the cognitive advantage its relationship with reality gives science, Stilgoe and Higggit reveal their own agenda – to present science as just “another way of knowing,” and inevitably contaminated by political influence, prejudice and bias.

I am disturbed these particular historians and sociologists of science are unaware of this special cognitive relationship between reality and science. Surely this is key to understanding modern science, its history and its role in society? That aspect of science is just a fact. It’s not a political grab for power.

Scientists sometimes need to remind society and politicians of that basic nature of science – if simply to fight the misunderstanding promoting by those who try to present scientific knowledge as just another opinion. And those who attempt to discredit scientific knowledge when they should be debating the policy and political implications of that knowledge.

Who is really guilty of arrogance?

Often these conflicts between scientists on the one hand and philosophers, historians and sociologists on the other derive from professional sensitivity. Sometimes participants feel their profession is being defamed, or at least under-rated or under-appreciated. I can understand the emotional need to “come out fighting.” Maybe I am doing a bit of that myself.

But in this particular situation scientists have not been misrepresenting philosophy or sociology – just attempting to win understanding for the special role scientific knowledge can play. These critics have responded because they themselves feel their specific professions are neglected in the discussion. Higgett expresses these feeling of neglect with her last demand:

“When scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.”

Well, one can hardly deny participation of these “realms” in the discussion – and of course no one suggests otherwise. Rather, these specific contributions have been welcomed, if not completely accepted. But it is arrogant to claim these realms must have the final word. That sociologists and historian should just have to say “Believe us” and we should blindly follow. Especially as some of the comments may not even represent consensus views of their professions (even if these particular critics assure us they do). Personally I think they derive from basic misunderstandings of the nature of science.

For example, Higgett lectures Cox and Ince’s reference to scientific method by pointing out:

“There are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.”

This response is a trite lesson on sucking eggs again. No working scientist is unaware of the complexity and creativity of research. Of the many ways of interacting with reality. Most of us will, like Richard Feynman, reject naive formulaic or algorithmic descriptions of method and instead describe it as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” And we all accept the need for evidence and validation against reality.

Higgett was challenged to give specific examples of these “many scientific methods”  and was not able to. She resorted instead to differences in specific methodology used in different disciplines:

“There are many methods in science – a field biologist works very differently to a theoretical physicist, works differently to a structural engineer, works differently to an experimental chemist etc. People work with models, with statistics, with exact numbers, with approximations, with theories, without theories – they make observations, develop experiments, crunch numbers, formulate RTCs.”

I think her answer was a diversion as clearly Cox and Ince were talking about the overall scientific approach, not specific methodologies. Her claim is easily interpreted along the lines of the “other methods of knowing” argument used by Sophisticated TheologiansTM and others when they attempt to discredit science. Those people also usually refuse to give specific examples.

An appeal to some historians and sociologists

Finally, I am responding here to specific arguments proposed by these specific historians and sociologists. I am not attacking the history and sociology of science professions themselves. I recognise that there is plenty of room for different trends and schools of thought within these professions and that the opinions presented in this discussion may only be minority ones (I hope they are). In fact, the whole-hearted endorsement of the criticisms by Steve Fuller, suggests this is the case. (Steve Fuller is a sociologist at the University of Warwick who was used as an expert witness for creationist defendant in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. He writes and lectures in support of Intelligent Design and I find it hard to believe that his views are at all representative of his profession).

I think these specific people show with their criticisms that they don’t understand the fundamental nature of science which gives it a cognitive or epistemological advantage. Its intimate connection with reality. This helps overcome, or at least reduce, biases and social or political influences. This is why scientific knowledge should not be treated as mere opinion. And that is why simply pointing out this fact is not arrogant or a demand for unwarranted power.

To claim that it is avoids the real issues.

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Wonders of Life coming – we hope

Readers of the New Zealand Listener will probably have read the recent interview with Professor Brian Cox (see Interview: Brian Cox). It’s good to see such interviews down in this part of the world – just hope we get to see some of the science TV programmes Brian Cox is currently fronting. (He was a regular on TV7 which we have unfortunately lost this year)

Anyway – here’s hoping we will get to see his new programme Wonders of Life. Eric Idle has rewritten one of his best known songs for the programme – an evolutionary version of the “Galaxy Song” from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life.

Here’s a promo for the programme which includes the song.

Wonders of Life Trailer – BBC Two

Thanks to Why Evolution is True: Wonders of Life by Brian Cox – with added Eric Idle.

Coming up:

An article by Brian Cox and his collaborator Robin Ince* seems to have provoked some controversy in the UK. In particular, some science historians and sociologists have got on their high horses. I will discuss the issues in an upcoming post Historians and sociologists lecture scientists –  about science.

(Cox and Ince current produce a science comedy podcast for the BBC – The Infinite Monkey Cage. Have a listen if you enjoy both science and comedy).

Cultural effect of The Big Bang Theory

I have often thought that we just don’t get enough science in our popular culture. Perhaps people would understand and be more supportive of science, for example, if we had a regular TV soap opera based around the life and work of scientists.

So I feel a little vindicated by the news reports that there is a current resurgence of interest in physics among A-level and university students in the UK. And  The Big Bang Theory, a California-based comedy that follows two young physicists, is being suggested as an important factor (see Big Bang Theory fuels physics boom).

Some students are saying as much:

Tom Whitmore, 15, from Brighton, acknowledged that Big Bang Theory had contributed to his decision, with a number of classmates, to consider physics at A-level, and in causing the subject to be regarded as “cool”. “The Big Bang Theory is a great show and it’s definitely made physics more popular. And disputes between classmates now have a new way of being settled: with a game of rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock,” he said.

And so are some of the experts:

Institute of Physics (IoP) spokesman, Joe Winters, said: “The rise in popularity of physics appears to be due to a range of factors, including Brian’s public success, the might of the Large Hadron Collider and, we’re sure, the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory.”

Alex Cheung, editor of physics.org, said: “There’s no doubt that TV has also played a role. The Big Bang Theory seems to have had a positive effect and the viewing figures for Brian Cox‘s series suggest that millions of people in the UK are happy to welcome a physics professor, with a tutorial plan in hand, into their sitting room on a Sunday evening.”  [Prof. Brian Cox who has been fronting a series of very popular science documentaries Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.]

Brian Cox

Apparently there has been a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissions services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year.

Jim Al-Khalili

I know documentaries of the type presented by popular scientists like Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili (who has made Secret Life of ChaosChemistry: A Volatile History, Science and Islam,  Atom,   Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, and others) are invaluable in motivating and inspiring young people. But there is something special to be said for soap operas. And The Big Bang Theory is a very entertaining and effective soap opera.

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