What is science and why does it matter?


What is science?

I would hazard a guess that someone randomly accosted on the street and asked for a working definition of science would flounder a little. They may mumble something about white coats, test tubes and impenetrable maths. That is sometimes the response I get from my non-science undergraduate students. So it was with real interest that I began reading Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s How our botched understanding of ‘science’ ruins everything  as I hoped to learn how he proposed shedding some light on this matter. Gobry gives the following working definition of science:

“Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.”

That sounds quite narrow, but then scientists predict things and they do experiments right? But he continues with:

Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something.

No scientist would claim that an experiment “proves” a theory, only that the theory proposed has not be shown to be false. It’s a “put it up and try to knock it down” version of science in which all scientific models are wrong, but some are more useful than others. However, it’s Gorby’s view of statistics which leads us to very strange territory: Continue reading

Sustainable development must be doughnut-shaped

Sustainable development must be doughnut-shaped

By James Dyke, University of Southampton; John Dearing, University of Southampton, and Peter Langdon, University of Southampton

Is it possible for humans to fulfil their needs without also destroying the environment? It’s a question we need to find an answer to soon, as the world’s poorer regions demand the same perks that come with development.

On one hand, people need to consume some of a region’s resources so that those living there can drink clean water, grow nutritious food and get access to health services and education. But such consumption comes with unavoidable impacts. If these impacts increase beyond a region’s ability to continue to provide services such as water, pollination, soil stabilisation and climate regulation then the process of development can actually hinder rather than improve people’s welfare and well-being.

Striking the right balance is tricky and requires a new way of defining places that are both environmentally safe and socially just. Over the past two years, working with an international group of scientists, we have developed such a definition of safe and just operating spaces.

In doing so we have tackled the tension that often exists in low-income regions between raising standards of living and keeping environmental impacts within bounds that allow the environment to supply vital services. The findings of our research have been published this month in the journal Global Environmental Change. Continue reading

New PhD on regime shifts in ecosystems

Would you like to help increase our understanding of how ecosystems can suddenly collapse? I’m a member of a team of University of Southampton and Natural History Museum researchers who are looking to recruit a talented PhD student. Details here.

If you are interestd in applying, or would like to talk about the project and its aims more generally, then please either drop me a line, or email Steve Brooks at s.brooks AT nhm.ac.uk