Friday, 10 April 2015

The Joy of Science

This post has been provided by Professor Steve Redpath from the University of Aberdeen. He argues the case for the scientific approach and this is a development of the presentation he gave to the Project's Steering Group on 27th February.

Science is a wonderful thing that helps us understand how the world works. A scientific approach means investigating the effects of predation with no pre-conceptions, but openly considering alternative ideas, carefully collecting and analysing the data and testing to see which idea is best supported by the evidence. When done well, the value of such an approach lies in its ability to cut through beliefs and adversarial positions to illuminate what is actually going on.

Often, however, science is criticised for restating the bleeding obvious, when all we need is some good common sense and to trust our instincts. Yet, there are very good reasons why that criticism is unfounded. In his excellent book on science and medicine, Ben Goldacre (Bad Science 2008, Fourth Estate), highlights why we should be careful when relying on our instincts. For one thing, we naturally see patterns where none exist, and erroneously assign causality to those patterns. Humans are thoroughly social creatures, and the way we view the world is coloured not only by our underlying beliefs but by those of the people around us. Lastly, non-scientific investigations are typically biased towards evidence that backs up our ideas, rather than taking the more powerful approach of finding ways to test whether the existing ideas are wrong. So, the danger in just relying on common sense is that it can lead us to the wrong conclusions.

Instead, we should rejoice in clear, objectively collected, robust data that allows us to move towards the right conclusions, rather than fumble around in the darkness. Of course, scientists have a responsibility to be transparent and open about their work, to be clear about their hypotheses, their assumptions and their predictions, and to minimise the risks of these biases creeping into their work. But, when it is done well, science can joyfully guide us towards the right management decisions and, ultimately, force us to reconsider our view of the world.
Steve Redpath
University of Aberdeen

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