Posts filed under ‘SSK’

Moon Water, Evidence, and Theory

Water was discovered on the moon! At least it was in tiny, trapped particles in the moon rocks that the Apollo mission brought back decades ago. Technology has apparently advanced sufficiently so that geologists are now able to search for water particles in rock on the scale of five parts per million. Don’t get too excited, now, but up to 46 parts per million were found. That’s around 1500 times more than the legal amount of mercury allowed in sewage, so… it’s still not very much.

It’s enough, however, to require the need for adjustment in the theory of how the moon came to exist and orbit earth. Before this discovery, it was thought that the heat of the moon’s initial collision with earth vaporized every bit of water on the rock. Now that even a little water has been discovered, the heat of the two planets at the time of collision is called into question.

But why not pose an alternate hypothesis? It’s been put forward that whatever water discovered on the moon might be due to smaller impacts from comets or meteors. This seems unlikely, however, as the water particles were found trapped within rock formed by a volcanic explosion. If the water was brought up from deep within or under the moon’s crust, then the idea that it was brought by an impact seems more extraordinary than that of a slight revision of the lunar origin theory.

It’s an interesting story, but beyond that a good example of new evidence prompting theory revision. It’s a simple example that covers fairly well (especially with the mention of an alternate hypothesis) the basics of theory adjustment. New evidence surfaces, in this case because of technological improvement. This new evidence calls into question parts of a previously accepted theory. The response of the scientific (in this case, geologic) community is to consider how to adjust the theory, or whether they can fit the new evidence into the previous theory by proposing an alternate hypothesis. Props to National Geographic for framing this example of good science well—and know that I’ll be looking to check out the study in more detail in today’s edition of Nature.

P.S. This might be a stick in the eye for some lunar hoax people, too. Is the government just making up new information now, perpetuating the hoax 40 years down the road? Or perhaps they were just holding out on the technological development of the 1960s, where they were able to create authentic bits of trapped water in rock on the order of parts per million we were hitherto unable to detect? I wonder what they conspiracy nuts are saying…

July 10, 2008 at 12:10 pm 1 comment

How does the study of science and religion fit with the study of science?

The way I’m thinking about the relationship of science and religion right now is through the lens of a nesting metaphor. I’m a little wary of this: it could be that nesting is too oblique, and that it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the relationship. Right now, however, I think of the study of science and religion as one that’s half in, and half out of, the study of science nest. It’s not that the religion part hangs over the side, only that the study of science doesn’t fully contain the study of science and religion. I want to talk about the particulars of how science and religion debates fall within the realm of the study of science, and how one can inform the other.

Why not? That question leads back to my previous conception of my summer project on the development of biological thought in Pakistan. When I started it, I was vaguely connecting the idea of science and religion with questions about the process of theory choice in science. I read a lot of Kuhn and Kitcher at the end of my semester in Edinburgh, and so theory choice literature was at the forefront of my mind. Only recently did I realize that thinking about science and religion in terms of theory choice was an impoverished line of thought. Whatever PZ Myers might have to say, the relationship between science and religion doesn’t boil down to theory choice. It boils down to interaction and development.

Looking at the Pakistani educational system, it’s hard not to consider science as a cultural force. The institution of science is a cultural force here in the USA, make no mistake, but it’s easier to see such a force when it is perceived as a foreign one. I have a lot of questions relating to the degree to which science is perceived as a foreign culture in Pakistan, but that strays from the topic. I feel like science is a less recognizable cultural force here than in Pakistan, but that might be due to my involvement in the academic community. There are certainly people in the USA who perceive science as something foreign, as well.

Religion, on the other hand, is an obvious cultural force. Christianity is here, and Islam is in Pakistan. There is ostensible separation of church and state in the USA, but Islam is integrated into seemingly every aspect of governance and education in Pakistan. Science, generally speaking, is not nearly so pervasive. So one reason why it doesn’t make sense to characterize the relationship between science and religion as analogous to theory choice is that the two are very different cultural animals.

There are many other reasons why it doesn’t click to put science and religion on par with one another, but this one seems very important for my work. Since science and religion are so different in cultural force, how can the study of religion inform the study of science? Sure, we’ll find something out about science by looking at how people link it to religion, but isn’t this a diminished, diluted kind of study? Why not just study science as science and leave it at that?

To think that way is to think of science and religion as two fried eggs. It’s to think they only touch along the whites, but what we really should be looking at are the unadulterated yolks. It’s to think that somehow only the religious half of science and religion is hanging out the side of the science studies nest. But the study of science and religion is more accurately described as a batch of scrambled eggs where even the yolks have run together.

To study science and religion is not to study an example of theory choice. It is to study an example of belief interaction. Sometimes a person’s religious beliefs supervene on scientific ones, and sometimes it’s the other way around. For my part, I don’t have much in the way of religious beliefs. It isn’t that I see science as supervening on religion, but that I don’t have any religious eggs to scramble with my scientific ones. Most people do, however, and this has an impact on science. Religion has an impact on how science is taught, how science is learned, how the public perceives science, and how science is practiced. So do politics, economics, and a host of other cultural forces. The difference, I think, is that neither politics nor economics engage questions of biology, physics, and cosmology. My seventh grade earth science course didn’t cover how the mining industry influences the direction of geological research, but there weren’t any parents that demanded such material. There are, however, plenty of parents in the USA that demand the teaching of creationism alongside biology.

Just because I don’t have any religious eggs in my scramble doesn’t mean that there aren’t any in the larger pan. The cultural force of religion affects our understanding science. Because of this, an investigation of science and religion is an investigation of the impact of a significant cultural force on science. The interaction flows in the other direction as well, but the mechanics of that interaction is a question for religious studies.

One more thing: this ramble was concerned with the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, characteristics of the study of science and religion. Included with the many other “topics for another time” are my thoughts on how much, if at all, religion should impact science. I think a good description of the interaction will help me understand how the interaction could be improved.

July 9, 2008 at 12:26 pm 4 comments

Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics? pt. 2

I posted yesterday about a code of ethics created for scientists by Sir David King. My review of the code was pretty negative.

I decided to do some more homework on Sir King’s code today. As part of this, (and I’m kicking myself for publishing before having a more thorough understanding of the topic), I discovered this Letter from the UK Council for Science and Technology. The letter is followed by a draft of the code. While larger than the edition reported by the BBC here, it remains a document about which I am pessimistic.

More interesting than the draft of the code is the letter which the council released prior to the code’s circulation. Both were published in May of 2005 (I was still in High School, so I think it’s forgivable that I missed the announcement). Little seems to have changed between this version and its publication, but it appears that the code went up for a six-month period of something resembling peer review. Institutions were asked for the views on the usefulness of a universal code of ethics for the scientific community.

I wonder if I can dig up the responses (presuming there were any) to the “peer review”? It would be interesting to be able to look inside the guts of a policy paper written by the scientific community in a way that resembles normal scientific discourse. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that soon, in part 3.

September 18, 2007 at 4:32 pm Leave a comment

Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics?

Sir David King does, apparently. In this BBC article, an effort by Sir King (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government) outlines a code of ethics for scientists. The code is constructed out of the following seven points.


Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date

Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest

Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists

Ensure that research is justified and lawful

Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment

Discuss issues science raises for society

Do not mislead; present evidence honestly


Certainly sounds like a good list. It’s full of common sense, and several points seem to already be well incorporated into how the scientific community operates. “Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists”, for example, is already built into the concept of citation and peer review. Both concepts are included for practical reasons, so tacking them on as ethical considerations seems like an easy thing to do. Likewise, there are very practical reasons for conducting lawful research (it’s hard to continue a career following a felony conviction) and keeping skills up to date.

Unfortunately, (as has been pointed out by at Adventures in Ethics and Science) these ethical guidelines probably won’t have much effect. The idea of a universal scientific code of ethics for scientists is a good idea, but one developed in the terms of policy talking points sounds like one doomed to have little practical impact.

Let’s look at King’s example, as quoted in the article:

“Place yourself in the position of a scientist who works for a tobacco company, and the company asks you to counter evidence about the health impacts of tobacco.

“That scientist would be able to look at the code and say, ‘I can’t do that’.”

I’m fairly confident that, as it stands, the scientists employed by tobacco companies can already say that they follow a code of ethics with a straight face. It’s probably included in Phillip-Morris’ mission statement. In fact, let’s take a look at that mission statement:

Our mission is to be the most responsible, effective and respected developer, manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, especially products intended for adults. Our core business is manufacturing and marketing the best quality tobacco products to adults who use them.

Well, damn. It sounds like the tobacco companies already have a code of ethics. Their mission is to be “responsible” and “effective”, and only manufacture and market” tobacco products to adults who use them.” Why would a company like that ask a scientist to blatantly violate a scientific code of ethics like Sir King’s? And why would a scientist who swore up and down to Sir King’s code of ethics agree to do such a thing, if asked?

Probably because, with a certain amount of talking, they could find a justification for doing so. What if (to borrow a banner waived with fervor by the ID movement), the scientist decided to do research about how tobacco might not have some of the harmful effects ascribed to it in the name of intellectual freedom? The public and the scientific community say one thing, but they might be wrong! They might be doing the wrong tests! How sure are people, anyway, about those statistics linking increased probability of lung cancer to cigarette addiction? It’s possible surely, that all these studies have been conducted in a manner unfair to the tobacco industry. Based on this, wouldn’t Phillip-Morris say that they would have a moral mandate to conduct new research? And conduct it until they got the results they wanted?

Seven bullet points does not a compelling code of ethics make. People do not perform unethical research merely because nobody has yet come along and outlined a code of ethics for them. People perform unethical research before, during, and after reading ethical theory with far more universal, convincing, and thorough arguments than “science would be better if someone proposed a universal code of ethics.” And I do not doubt that people with a copy of Sir King’s code on their wall will, before long, do something that violates the spirit of the text.

What, then, would give it some teeth? A better argument for why scientists should follow this particular code (or any code) would be a good start. Unfortunately, arguments like that are difficult to create and generate far less publicity than the announcement of the UK’s Chief Science Adviser

September 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm 3 comments

Results, Conclusions, and Underdetermination

I was reading Longino’s “The Fate of Knowledge” today, and I finally think that I have a good grasp on how to use the term “underdetermination”. It was being used in a comparison between sociologists and philosophers of science. The idea that many people in the SSK field have is that the conclusions scientists draw are underdetermined by the results, meaning that the results alone do not lead towards the conclusions drawn. This is a deceptively controversial statement, I guess, because it opens the door for the number of social factors which sociologists declare affect the conclusions of scientists. If there is any underdetermination at all, then other factors must enter into the equation which produces a conclusion.

This doesn’t seem like a very good term. The problem with “underdetermination” is that it introduces a normative element to its subject. If conclusions are underdetermined by results, it is implied that results should be the only factor involved in the drawing of a conclusion. That doesn’t seem right to me; the results of a given study need a context in order for any conclusion to be drawn. Otherwise, the average scientific paper could skip the “conclusion” or “discussion” or whatever and leave off at the “results” section. The idea behind the word “underdetermination” is sound, but I wish the word had a better frame.

August 2, 2007 at 1:24 am 2 comments

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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