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


Understanding transitions may be critical to our survival

Understanding transitions may be critical to our survival

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

Big jobs. Sisyphus by Shutterstock

Next time you have a bad day at work, consider Sisyphus. His annual appraisal by the ancient Greek gods was so bad (over the previous 12 months he demonstrated deceitfulness, greed, malice and homicide) that he was reassigned to rolling a massive boulder up a steep hill only to find that when he neared the top, the boulder would somehow always slip through his grasp and return back to the bottom. This was a job not just for life, but for eternity.

If Sisyphus had somehow been able to crest the hill, then at least he would have been able to demonstrate the important mathematical concept of critical transitions, abrupt and often momentous changes. Continue reading

Battle for hearts and minds on climate change will be fought across generations

Battle for hearts and minds on climate change will be fought across generations

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

Winston Churchill, not a man concerned about making enemies.
Cecil Beaton

Last week there was a bit of a hullabaloo when it was discovered that the international programme director for Greenpeace, Pascal Husting, was flying to work from Luxembourg to Amsterdam a few times a month. Sensible arguments could be made for this arrangement and in the bigger picture this cannot be considered an important issue. And on some level, it just didn’t seem fair to single out Husting in this way.

It wasn’t fair. But politics and campaigning isn’t fair.

You cannot have a senior member of an organisation taking regular short haul flights for a group that has in the past asked its members to break the law and risk limb and even life to protest exactly against that. At some point someone should have paused for thought and asked: “I wonder what this would look like if it became common knowledge?” If they had, then Husting would have done much earlier what he has now committed to do: take the train, and acknowledge that this was a lapse of judgement.

So now we can all move on.

Except some won’t because this incident will be used to further sharpen the axes wielded against Greenpeace. Greenpeace is by its nature a controversial organisation. If nothing else it confronts power, and power typically never cedes an argument lightly. Nor does it play fair. Continue reading

The devil is in the detail of attempts to log Tasmanian forests

Tasmania, Australia © M & G Therin-Weise

What do the following have in common?

  • Easter Island
  • Grand Canyon
  • Great Barrier Reef
  • Serengeti National Park
  • Tasmanian Wilderness

They are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In order to be listed, a site must fulfil at least one of ten criteria. For example:

to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals

There are currently 981 World Heritage Sites. If the Australian Government gets its way then by the end of this Sunday there will be 980. Continue reading

Clouds in my coffee

It was an interesting chat over a cuppa. I had managed to grab half an hour with a previous vice chairman of the IPCC. Topics of discussion roamed far and wide but with an understandable focus on climate change. As I sat at my desk this morning, blearily staring into the clouds of my coffee, I thought about that meeting in the light of yesterday’s UK council elections. The results for the European Parliament will not be known until Sunday, but I would hazard a guess that they will bring with some a few key messages. Continue reading