Human Nature in science


There is “an old important – and unresolved – debate about how to regard scientific discoveries. There are two main camps in this debate: scientific realism and anti-realism.” Scientific realism the idea of electrons is so useful and has lead to so much progress it must be true. “the world described by science is the “real” world. Our theories are too successful to have happened by chance: somehow we have latched onto the blueprint of the universe.” “Anti-realists accept the progress made by science but stop short of taking the additional leap of faith of believing in the materiality of things they cannot actually see.”

“The anti-realists typically present a counter-argument along these lines: so many past theories and theorised entities have come and gone (remember ether or phlogiston?), why should we ever regard any of them as “real”? It is difficult to say how many scientists belong to each camp.”

“Anti-realists also argue that their approach places them in a better position to adapt to change when a particular entity or theory becomes redundant. Not investing belief in a particular theory, they claim, allows them to move on to alternatives more easily.”

“The worry is that anti-realism could lead to a view that all theories are relative, and thus could threaten the very notion of scientific progress…crucially important to how scientists present themselves and to how everybody else views the status of science.”

John Worrall 1989 “Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?” “For Worrall, what survives when scientific theories change is not so much the content (entities) as the underlying mathematical structure (form).”

“Structural realism goes further by removing attention from any form of entity. And in 2007, Ladyman and others published a provocative book entitles Every Thing Must Go. In it, they argued for abandoning a scientific ontology based on “things” such as particles, and for concentrating only on the fundamental mathematical structure.”

“Worrall’s structural realism is on the right track – not just with physics, but chemistry and biology too. If I am right, he and his colleagues deserve real credit for offering a way out of this longstanding, bitterly fought over, utterly fundamental question.”

(Eric Scerri ‘Is it time to get real?’ p30-31 New Sci 24 Nov 2012 University of California, Los Angeles)


“Meanwhile those who take religion to be an art or ethos should refrain from using facts about the world as evidence for their mythological intuitions, or abandoning their artistic post to squabble with scientists. In turn, scientists should acknowledge that there are many different  kinds of religion. A faith that purely seeks to find meaning in the world is presumably just as important, and just as subjective, as art, music, literature and mythology. It is also dangerous and as Cornwell points out, perhaps even mathematically untenable, for Dawkins and others to assume that science is ultimately capable of explaining everything about the universe. Such an assumption is itself surely based on faith.”

(Amanda Gefter ‘It depends on what you mean by God’ p53 New Sci 22 Sept 2007 review of ‘Darwin’s Angel: An angelic riposte to the God Delusion by John Cornwell)


“Religiously motivated authors also have a bad habit of linking the cultural implications of a theory to the truth-value of that theory.” [A saying within the interfaith groups is “don’t judge other peoples practices by your ideals”.] “It is crucial to the public’s intellectual health to know when science really is science. Those with religious agendas will continue to disguise their true views in their effort to win supporters, so please read between the lines.” [Dawkins at least does not hide his bias.]

(Amanda Gefter ‘Hidden religious agendas and how to spot them’ p23 New Sci 21 February 2009)


NEGATIVE EVIDENCE IS NOT PROOF – the null hypothesis

“What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide.”

“Science begins with the null hypothesis, which assumes that the claim under investigation is not true until demonstrated otherwise. The statistical standards of evidence needed to reject the null hypothesis are substantial. Ideally, in a controlled experiment, we would like to be 95 to 99 percent confident that the results were not caused by chance before we offer our provisional assent that the effect may be real. Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not make the claim false, and, conversely, rejecting the null hypothesis is not a warranty on truth. Nevertheless, the scientific method is the best tool ever devised to discriminate between true and false patterns, to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and to detect baloney.”

“The null hypothesis means that the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim, not on the sceptics to disprove it.”

Many claims are made based on negative evidence. “That is, if science cannot explain X, then your explanation for X is necessarily true.” Also science is often happy to not currently have an answer.

“To be fair, not all claims are subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Many historical and inferential sciences require nuanced analysis of data and a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that point to an unmistakable conclusion.”

“For creationists to disprove evolution, for example, they need to unravel all these independent lines of evidence as well as construct a rival theory that can explain them better than the theory of evolution. They have not, instead employing only negative evidence in the form of “if evolutionary biologists cannot present a natural explanation of X, then a supernatural explanation of X must be true.”

“Show me, and I’ll believe you.” [Though they operate from the position of “Believe and you’ll see things.” But cognitive bias shows that we see the evidence that fits our beliefs.]

(Michael Shermer [Editor of the Skeptic] ‘I Want to Believe’ p21-22 Scientific American Mind 21 July 2009)



“Science has always been about getting closer to the truth, and anybody who understands it knows that a continual transformation of accepted knowledge along the way is now it works. However, sometimes it can feel random and unsettling.”

“The good news merging from my field of scientometrics – the quantitative study of science – is that in the aggregate there are regularities to the changes, and we can even identify how fast facts will decay over time.”

Thierry Poynard and team at Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, Paris ,France.

“They found something striking: a clear decay in the number of papers that were still valid. Furthermore, it was possible to get a clear measurement for the ‘half-life’ of facts in these fields by looking at where the curve crosses the 50 per cent on this chart”

Shifting baseline syndrome, “in particular, the way that people are blind to slow changes in their environment over many years.” A 2009 survey in the North of England on perceptions of local bird populations showed that “more than a third had completely failed to notice that the most common species had changed (Conservation Letters, Vol 2, p93).”

Hard science articles overturned more rapidly than those in psychology. “This may be because immediate repeated experimentation can be more straightforward in the physical sciences than in the social sciences, where the data can be noisier.” But then books (which have a longer turn around time) on physics are replaced less frequently in libraries compared to books on psychology.

Some facts change are very slowly to change or are constant, whereas others change very quickly, but the tricky ones are the middle range ‘mesofacts’ “their relatively slow rate of change may mean that many people fail to acknowledge their ultimate transience and looming expiry.” [Ideas are tools not rules. The facts can trick us by being useful now but will be proved wrong later.]

(Samuel Arbesman ‘Truth decay’ p37-39 New Sci 22 Sep 2012)



“Scientists have done a particularly poor job of explaining that basing decisions on empirical evidence does not make one immoral.” “Science, however, has an ethical basis in honesty, open-mindedness tempered by healthy scepticism, full disclosure and anti-authoritarianism.”

(Lawrence Krauss, ‘Scientists, show your good side’ p45 New Sci 5 Jan 2008)


Scientists do voluntarily create moral codes, such as the pledge against the use of their techniques in torture created by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

(Curtis Bell, ‘Neurons for Peace’ p24 New Sci 6 Feb 2009)



“The ability to identify the boundaries of one’s ignorance is essential to pushing them back.”

(Jonathan Beard ‘Ignorance 101’ p46 New Sci 14 Apr 2012)


“In the absence of compelling experimental results, deciding what mathematics should be taken seriously is as much art as it is science.”

(Brian Greene ‘Roots of Reality’ p39 New Sci 2 Mar 2013)


“One should never mistake mathematics for reality.” Chris Wilson, ChalmersUniversity of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. (New Sci 18 Feb 2012)


“It’s conceivable that no matter how clever and creative the human mind is, we will come up against a blank wall because there are empirical things that we just can’t find out.”

(Anil Ananthaswamy ‘Full speed ahead’ p30-31 New Sci 16 Feb 2013 interview with Leonard Susskind, director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics in California)


“You can correct for them, or try to make them equal in both groups, so the women being compared differ only in their drinking habits – but shared traits that you are unaware of can still cloud the results. “All epidemiological studies are confounded somehow,” says epidemiologist David Batty at University College London.”

(Debora MacKensie ‘Prenatal choices are just the start’ p8-9 New Sci 24 Nov 2012)


However, many individuals cannot admit to their own biases, including scientists, which is why peer review is so important. Though in some areas of science different camps can entrench views such as the polarisation around quantitative versus qualitative. They are just different approaches, not un-resolvable truths.

(Catherine de Lange ‘One minute with Brooke Magnanti’ p25 New Sci 5 May 2012)



“I get frustrated that it’s culturally acceptable to place opinion on a pedestal that doesn’t seem to relate to information. Science is a structure in place to stop people imposing personality into the pursuit of knowledge.”

“It is entirely appropriate to appeal to authority, in life. For pragmatic reasons, you can’t know everything…..Your job is to figure out what a good authority is.”

“Science is a tool allows us to try and generate a really good authority. Now, there are a whole lot of problems with funding and vested interest and the anthropological principle but pragmatically, it is the only system that even bothers to try to minimise bias. So as an authority it is head and shoulders above the rest.”

(Kat Austen ‘Tim Mitchin uses comedy to open a door to rationalism’ p57 New Sci 19 Nov 2011)


“Are biomedical scientists becoming more dishonest? That’s one way to read a new analysis, which concludes retractions for fraud or suspected fraud have increased tenfold since 1975.” It is “suggesting that the extent of the problem was under estimated in earlier assessments (PNAS,” [But the problem was being identified by their peers.]

(In Brief ‘Fraud finders’ p7 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)


Science cannot say something will never happen, but our demand for answers naturally makes the human scientists overstate the case. “Hume and Popper advocated the use of probability theory to ascribe degrees of belief, instead of searching for scientific certainty.” [The urge for certainty can affect anything humans do, including science or religion.]

(Andrew Baker ‘Uncertainty rules’ p22 New Sci 24 Nov 2007)



The New Age and religious movements are not the real threat to enlightenment reason. “In fact, the institutions that noisily lay claim to the enlightened inheritance – the corporation and the state – pose a much more serious, persuasive threat to reason. In recent years many honest scientists have discovered that their own employers can be far more effectively hostile to science than any of its self-declared enemies.”

Corporations and states will use whatever comes to hand including science and religion to achieve their ends. With science they suppress results “manipulate research to ensure the results fit their marketing needs.” “The pose of trustworthiness, for all its demonstrated falsity, reaps them vast rewards.”

Skepticism of Big Pharma is often conflated with being anti-science. However, they are anti-science too. “Through advertising they ascribe various, entirely fictitious, life-enhancing attributes to the things they sell.” They “denigrate science when the consensus appears to threaten their business model.”

The state “enthusiastically promote unreason”. “Every effort was made to persuade the Americans that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.” When this was not true.

“Self-consciously enlightened commentators often express dismay at the public’s appetite for baseless conspiracy theories. It would be easier to take this dismay seriously if they at least noticed that the most lethal conspiracy theory of recent years was concocted and promoted by the US state.”

“Official secrecy makes it difficult to appreciate the full extent of state efforts to exploit public irrationality and undermine our capacity for reasoned decision-making.”

[Journalists relish their role as protector of the public but that doesn’t contribute to educating them to spot when they are being lied to.]

Western states use fundamentalist sects when it suits them. “None of this stops powerful institutions from claiming that their favoured policies are neutrally scientific and that their opponents are therefore irrational Luddites.”

“The conflicts between faith and reason, and science and the New Age, have a pleasing conceptual clarity. But if defending science from astrology and New Ageism feels urgent and brave, it all too often leads us to ignore or misconstrue more subtle ruinous powers.”

Religious authority does not have the power it once had. [The lying on New Age products is no different that the lies on products in general. The massive effect of advertising and media is far greater than the New Age. And can anyone say advertising and the media encourages rational choice, rather than impulsiveness?]

“We must further acknowledge that they pose a more serious threat to the idea of a rational public than the motley collection of cranks and frauds that so preoccupy Dawkins and others.”

(Dan Hind [author of ‘The threat to reason’] ‘The monster we don’t see’ p46-48 New Scientist 19 January 2008)





Jeremy Howard says, ‘We’ve discovered that creative data scientists can solve problems in every field better than experts in those fields can.”

“People who can just see what that data is actually telling them, without being distracted by industry assumptions or specialist knowledge.”

“The competitive element is important. The more people who take part in these competitions, the better they get at predictive modelling.”

“Winners of Kaggle competitions tend to be curious and creative people. They come up with a dozen totally new ways to think about the problem.”

“Your decades of specialist knowledge are not only useless, they’re actually unhelpful; your sophisticated techniques are worse than generic methods.” One very effective method is the ‘random forest’.

“Some kinds of experts are required early on, for when you’re trying to work out what problem you’re trying to solve. The expertise you need is strategy expertise in answering questions.”

“Some people take the view that you don’t end up with a richer understanding of the problem. But that’s just not true: the algorithms tell you what’s important and what’s not. You might ask why those things are important, but I think that’s less interesting. You end up with a predictive model that works. There’s not too much to argue about there.”

(Peter Aldhous ‘Down with experts’ p28-29 New Sci 1 Dec 2012 interview with Jeremy Howard of Kaggle website)



Author of “Antifragile: How To Live in a World We Don’t Understand.” Allan Lane 2012, says, the rigid/robust is not the opposite of fragile. The “opposite of fragile is something that actually gains from disorder. In the book, I classify things into fragile, robust or antifragile.”

“Trial and error is an antifragile activity.”

“The top down approach blocks antifragility and growth, whereas everything bottom-up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder.”

“The economic class doesn’t realise an economy lives by stressors rather than top-down control.”

“I share their idea that people are happier in smaller corporations and in municipal governments. However, I put some science behind these claims. There are some fragilities associated with size, linked to sensitivity, to volatility.”

Your book ‘Fooled By Randoness’ upset Wall Street by suggesting success is largely down to luck, not judgement. Did the financiers forgive you? Are you about to create more upset? “There are plenty of open-minded individuals who weren’t upset by what I said. This coming book will upset bureaucrats and academics – academics because I suggest trail and error is superior to knowledge. The process of discovery, innovation, or technological progress depends on antifragile tinkering and aggressive risk-taking, rather than education. A country’s assets reside in the tinkerers, the hobbyists and the risk takers.”

(Linda Gebbes interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘Lift weights, avoid debt, drink the water’ p30-31 New Sci 17 Nov 2012)


Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution that came up with ‘paradigm shift’ was too simplistic. “History is not like that. But it was precisely Kuhn’s instinct as a physicist that led him to find a simple and insightful structure.” “It also had the merit of being to some extent testable.” The idea of the ‘paradigm shift’ was tested and found not to fit the data.

Before Kuhn, Karl Popper, was the most influential philosopher of science. He experienced many changes in the world of physics  “It taught him that science proceeds by conjectures and refutations (the title of one of his most famous works). We frame bold conjectures, as testable as possible, and inevitably, and find them wanting. They are refuted, and a new conjecture found that fits the facts. Hypotheses count as “scientific” only if falsifiable”.

(Ian Hacking “Revolutionary road” p10 New Sci 20 Oct 2012)


However, the core of science is replication of results researchers are reluctant to do exact copy experiments, funders won’t pay for that either and journals are not so keen to publish.

(Bob Holmes ‘Feeling the future’ p41 New Sci 14 Jan 2012)


“Science may possess an unquenchable desire to discover nature’s secrets and contribute to humanity’s betterment, but it cannot simply assert these values without being responsive to the impacts of its applications…Perhaps we can even conceive of an “anarchist science” that seeks progress towards co-operative and empathetic impulses, decentralised production of life’s essentials, and restoration of the commons to promote collective wealth and environmental sustainability.”

(Randall Amster ‘Terror tactics’ p27 New Sci 7 July 2012)



Clint Witchalls, President of the International Society for the Psychology of Science and Techonology, says “The personality characteristic that really stands out for predicting scientific interest is openness to experience: how willing and interested someone is to try new things, to explore, to break out of their habits. Open people get bored with routine. Another thing I’ve found is that social scientists tend to be higher in extroversion whereas physical scientists tend to be more introverted.”

There is no trend with mental disorders for scientists, “most disorders seem to be screened out to a greater extent in the sciences than in the arts.” [So much for the mad scientist stereotype.]

“Scientists are humans. They’re not perfectly objective and rational, but the scientific method tries to limit that as much as possible by having repeatable, observable, empirical methods to minimise the subjective element. The more we understand about the psychology of scientists the more we can mitigate the effect of cognitive bias.”

(Clint Witchalls ‘One Minute with… Greg Feist’ p29 New Sci 28 Jan 2012)


It is interesting to note that even the former editor in chief of New Scientist mentioned that he uses Tarot cards in an article. But he only did this after he left the post.

(Alun Anderson ‘Sorry, bear, you’re on your own now’ p35-37 New Sci 21 Nov 2009)



“In science, the completion of the Human Genome Project’s first draft in June 2000 offered seemingly definitive evidence that race is not real. As geneticist Craig Venter noted at the HGP announcement, “the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis”.”

“Yet Roberts brilliantly identifies the continuity of thought on biological race that links past, present and, perhaps, future. She points out that the continued acceptance of biological race in science and medicine works, for example, to obscure social and environmental causes of the very disparities thought to necessitate race-specific interventions. This reframes minorities’ poor health outcomes as a function of their ‘bad genes’ rather than the discriminatory social practices that these groups endure. By identifying this historical thread, ‘Fatal Invention’ offers remarkable insight into how persistent claims of racial difference as biological difference retain residual notions of racial hierarchy as poisonous today as at any time before.”

(Osagie K. Obasogie ‘Is race a thing of the past?’ p48-49 New Sci 8 Dec 2012 review of ‘Race in a Bottle: The story of BiDil and racialised medicine in a post-genomic age’ by Jonathan Kahn, Columbia University Press, and ‘Fatal Invention: How science, politics and big business recreate race in the twenty-first century’ by Dorothy Roberts)