Moby famously sang that we are all made of stars. And yesterday evening at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor John Wormersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, echoed Moby’s mantra (okay, maybe that’s a bit of stretch). Professor Wormersley spoke about how the search for black holes and the higgs boson impacts society and the economy.
Professor Wormersley’s talk was engrossing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he emphasised the link between ‘big science’ (think of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year) and the implications for our daily lives, society and the economy.
While for many people (me included), our knowledge of theoretical physics may come mostly from reruns of The Big Bang Theory on E4, Professor Wormersley noted that we rely on the numerous outcomes and chain reaction results from ‘big science’ in our daily lives: the internet (originally Tim Berners-Lee’s method for information management for scientists at CERN), wifi (which was enabled through Hawking radiation), and MRI scanning (which comes from knowledge of superconductors). In short, we need theoretical physics to help develop and improve our economy, our health, and the environment.
Yet ‘big science’ is often viewed as a risk because it is in an investment in the unknown, the unexpected and can often fail. But, as Professor Wormersley pointed out, we must be willing to take that risk.
So, Professor Wormersley’s thesis got me thinking about design. Just as Wormersley emphasised the need for and the link between theoretical and applied science, I think we need both theoretical and applied design.
But how can we teach and understand and then reap the benefits of theoretical design?
We can interrogate the design brief. Instead of just applying our knowledge of design and the design process (observing, analysing, prototyping, etc. ), we should use design to question our motives and why things are the way they are, without necessarily expecting a certain outcome.
This is where projects like The Great Recovery come in. The RSA’s Great Recovery project is about how we can promote and foster a circular economy and for now, we’re focusing on making connections between science, design, manufacturing and policy. But, we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be – though there actually is some ‘small, medium and big science’ going on in our workshops related to the project) as we don’t know necessarily what the end result will be.
You might even call it ‘big design.’
Oxytocin Man is Paul Zak, and the quick answer to the title question seems to be ‘no’.
I came across the partly endearing and partly ridiculing nickname through a tweet by Ben Goldacre: “I met the Oxytocin man when I spoke at TED. He said “I guess you’d probably say my schtick is Bad Science” “Why’s that?” I asked.”
So far, so intriguing, but I had to investigate further when I noticed Goldacre attacked Guardian writer and author Oliver Burkeman on Twitter:
I enjoyed chairing an RSA event with Oliver last year, loved his previous book ‘Help!’, and generally like his columns, so I was intrigued to see what he had done wrong in Goldacre’s eyes.
Zak believes that Oxytocin is THE ‘moral molecule’ that creates trust, social bonds and so forth, and that we should do what we can to bring more of it into the world, for instance by hugging each other more than we currently do. In the Guardian article we learn that:
“Oxytocin emerges from Zak’s research as something much more all-embracing: the “moral molecule” behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, “a social glue”, as he puts it, “that keeps society together”.”
Burkeman’s perceived mistake was to entertain Paul Zak’s ideas without robustly checking and challenging the scientific evidence behind them. In the article he does fall short of endorsing Zak wholesale, but perhaps could have expressed his implicit reservations more explicitly.
Part of the challenge is that Paul Zak is apparently ‘charm personified’, he spoke at the RSA and, for what it’s worth, he was he was named by Wired magazine as one of the 10 Sexiest Geeks in 2005.
Also, I suppose it’s hard to get angry with a man who advocates that we hug each other more often.
it’s hard to get angry with a man who advocates that we hug each other more often.
So from the level of civility, I sympathise with Burkeman, but intellectually I can see where Goldacre is coming from. Much of Zak’s work does strike me as pseudoscientific, in that it appears to ask too much from one molecule, and goes way beyond the evidence base when describing the role of Oxytocin. In the language of Ray Tallis, he is guilty of the worst excesses of ‘Neuromania‘.
Oxytocin cannot be meaningfully thought of as the sole cause or consequence of anything, and in so far as it can, it has a dark side. While it may lead us to feel warmer towards our in-group, it can also make us feel more hostile towards out-groups, as this New Scientist piece explains.
Ed Yong gives an informed and sophisticated account of the evidence base more generally. I would encourage you to read the entire Slate article, but the main idea is that Oxytocin is part of a wider adaptive system for social behaviour that acts against the background of our histories and emotions. The paragraph that pulls the rug from under Oxytocin Man is the following:
“The problem with oxytocin research is that too many people have been focusing on cataloging what it does (at least in some situations), rather than how it works. Say I’m new to computers and install my first Web browser. Suddenly, I can talk to friends, check train times, and buy books. Web browsers look like a pretty sweet thing. Then I discover Chatroulette and things are not sweet any longer. And none of this tells me anything about the existence of the internet, servers, code, and so on. I know what Web browsers can do, but not how they work.”
So although I can’t share the outrage and ire expressed in the name of Science, the balance of evidence does seem to question the magical powers of Oxytocin Man. However, fear not, for following from Yong’s trenchant critique, two new twitter accounts appeared online: Oxytocin Hulk and Oxytocin Batman.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on some of the Creative Intersections work that’s beginning here at the RSA, in collaboration with Kings College London. The last session I took part in involved artists forming self-selecting relationships with academic specialists, with a view to future collaboration. One thing was immediately obvious (and quite interesting): the overwhelming majority of academics who elected to take part were scientists – in popular imagination, virtually as remote a discipline from art as you could imagine. The call-out had crossed all academic disciplines, but it was clearly scientists who saw a strong benefit in taking part – and scientists of all kinds, from healthcare to physics.
Why would this happen? There’s an obvious answer: Scientists, who sometimes find it hard to reach beyond the academic environment, are excited about the idea of working with someone who seeks, above all, to communicate, and whose traditional audience can be radically different from their own. Parallel to that, many artists see a benefit in this radical difference in discipline – they’re fascinated by new ways to explore and find meaning in the world around them, and jump at the chance to spend time with people who are at the cutting-edge of knowledge about what that world actually is. The Wellcome Trust’s Arts Awards aim to capture these mutual benefits in the sphere of biomedical science, and Ignite! use creative practice to facilitate science education in much the same spirit.
What really fascinates me, though, is the idea that collaboration between artists and scientists might move to the level where it actually affects working practice. Scientific breakthroughs radically overhauling art are everywhere (the effect of photographic film on painting is a good example), but this relationship is largely seen as a one-way street. Imagine, instead, a scientific breakthrough that happened because of art. This might sound silly to some people, but I’d like to elaborate with a personal experience:
I was taught that science and religion were fundamentally at odds – that science was no more compatible with religion than it was with the idea that Uri Geller could bend spoons with the power of his mind, or a belief in flying spaghetti monsters. These were all just wacky ideas, and fundamentally incompatible with scientific reason. I don’t want to get into that debate (I’ve heard a rumour that discussing the benefits of science vs. religion on the internet is unwise) but it contains a (perhaps unexpected) hidden premise: that ‘wacky ideas’ have no place in science too.
This is plainly wrong. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been told by scientists, with a straight face, that “the universe is actually shaped like a huge doughnut”, or “all points in time co-exist” or “space is like a balloon where all surface points are in contact”, or something equally, to any sane person, ludicrous. This sort of creative thinking is essential, and not just in order to convey theories to non-scientists like myself. When faced with a seemingly intractable problem, and an impenetrable dataset, starting from any wacky premise is a reasonable problem-solving strategy. It’s also what’s commonly referred to as ‘thinking outside the box’ – strategies that mitigate the kind of epistemological path dependency that increasingly complex scientific fields suffer from. The scientist who told me that the universe was “sort of shaped like a doughnut” did so because a few years ago, faced with a complex space-time conundrum, a scientist thought “what if it was shaped… you know, like… a doughnut?”, modelled it, and realised it (sort of) worked. It was a case of creative experimentation, and fitting the figures to the model ex post.
Kuhn and Feyerabend both deal with this, in different ways. But whilst these creative paradigm shifts are easy to understand in hindsight, I for one know very little about how that sort of creative space might be carved out within a typical science environment. Standing in the RSA’s Romney Room and seeing some eminent leaders in their field explaining how their field of study was ‘sort of’ like an object they’d brought in from home, and then afterwards talking excitedly about how they ‘never get to think like that’, I felt like I was on the road to finding out.
There’s not much time for real, far-out, blue-skies creative thinking in science these days, partly because the benefits are so little understood, and partly because the costs (a day spent not doing ‘proper’ research, say) are significant. But if we can tie this sort of thinking up with some of the more tangible, easily-understood benefits of arts-science collaboration, and make space for a bit of research within that, then there’s a good chance we can make the case. The benefits seem almost impossible to measure (how can we show a breakthrough in ten years’ time began in a workshop now?), but they’re certainly felt by scientists. The difficulty isn’t showing that the arts can benefit science – the difficulty is showing how.
Michael Mann‘s hockey stick is arguably the most important hockey stick in the world. While there may be better pieces of sporting kit used to strike pucks into nets, there are few more graphic illustrations of anthropogenic global warming.
Figure one: random but real hockey stick (from letrcorp.com)
Figure two: Mean Northern Hemisphere Temperatures over last thousand years. (from BBC)
The power of the hockey stick image is that you don’t have to look at it for long to infer the message: mean temperatures have always fluctuated, but over the last half century they have sharply accelerated, begging the question: why? And inviting some version of the answer: because of human activity, particularly our over-use of fossil fuels.
There have been many versions of the hockey stick, which featured in Al Gore’s in An Inconvenient Truth and challenged in The Great Global Warming Swindle but the original version can be seen in Mann’s co-authored academic paper from 1999(appendices, figure 3) which is an extended version of a Nature paper in 1998.
You have to be a highly motivated reader and keen on statistics to fully make sense of the argument, but it sounds like there were good reasons to challenge the data and analysis in which the original hockey stick graph was based. That said, the idea that the hockey stick has been shown to be ‘wrong’ appears to be unfounded. Although I am at the edge of my competence on this issue, the following balanced article in the New Scientist indicates that the basic argument indicated by the graph still holds: it was much hotter towards the end of the twentieth century than it has been in the last thousand years, and the increase in mean global temperatures is progressive.
Graphs and statistics aside, today I read a shocking interview with Mann in the Guardian, detailing his prolonged persecution from climate change deniers(it’s not happening at all) and climate change sceptics(it’s not happening as much as the scientific consensus suggests and/or it’s not caused by human action).
I wonder what the future holds for the hockey stick? At a rhetorical level, it is quite powerful because it captures a complex scientific argument in a simple image. However, this particular device has become a bit tainted by critiques, even if they had limited validity, and it also feels somewhat corny, or even lame.
And yet the climate crisis has not been particularly salient in recent weeks, not because it has gone away, but because journalists need angles to write stories. The issue may need some fresh mpetus, and so much better if that can be captured in a clear image that makes sense to people. But if not a hockey stick, then what?
Some extracts I have recently enjoyed, about protecting science from scientism:
“That is the problem about turning secular materialist atheism into a political ideology, as Richard Dawkins and others have done. When you turn Skepticism into a political mass movement, the dogma is what gives the movement its coherence, like a marching band keeping soldiers in step. God forbid anyone who walks out of line. But is that how science has ever progressed? By an orderly march of believers? Isn’t it precisely the mavericks, those out of step with the dominant beat, who reveal new worlds to us?” -Jules Evans
“We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.”
“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” - C.S Lewis.
Perhaps it is not fair to ask more of science. To borrow the words of Merleau-Ponty, the strength of science may lie precisely in the act that it gives up living among things, preferring to manipulate them instead- Francisco Varela
” (Subjectivity) is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” Marilyn Osborne
“There’s a certain kind of scepticism that can’t bear uncertainty.” - Rupert Sheldrake
Before you say it, I know today is NOT, by any reliable measure, the most depressing day of the year. I also agree with the witty insight that insofar as it is, it is mostly because people irritate you by telling you it is.
However, another reason it might be the most depressing day of the year is because you have to endure the diatribes laying into people who hear ‘science’ and automatically think the idea is underpinned by rigorous research. This morning I read tweets by Tim Harford of the FT, Claudia Hammond of the BBC and read the following Guardian piece saying as much. I agreed with them on content, but on balance, I felt troubled by the glee with which these commentators pointed out that there was no good scientific basis for the claim that today is ‘Blue Monday’.
For example Tim Harford Tweeted:
“Thought for the day on Radio 4 began “Scientists have shown that today is the most depressing day of the year”…….which translated means “I don’t know what a scientist is, or what science is, and I never check my facts before appearing on Radio 4″”
Isn’t that just rude? Did the speaker really believe the ‘Scientists’? Does saying they have ‘shown’ something assume they have given proof for something or that it is incontrovertibly true? No, it is just a narrative prop to develop some ideas. It is not supposed to be a scientific axiom, and I doubt that people who refer to Blue Monday think of it as such.
Can’t we relax about this? The one thing I fear more than pseudo-science is zealous para-science of the kind that Jonathan Ree described at the RSA- the kind of language and tone that says: ’science knows best, and we are the best at knowing science’.
Obviously the formula for Blue Monday is pseudoscience…but isn’t it also quite funny? The formula links weather, time since Christmas, debt, failure to follow up on resolutions etc into a recipe for misery…. It’s a kind of joke, but I think a largely benign one. And doesn’t it have some kind of cultural value?
Clearly we need to protect the integrity of science…but is people saying “apparently this is the most depressing day of the year” such a bad thing?
On the one hand you want the public to respect science, and become more familiar with conventional scientific methods and criterion for truth claims. You also want the public to develop a good nose for pseudo-science. But on the other hand you don’t want to make Science sound elitist, or a remote and alien authority that takes itself too seriously.
Overall I would say, on this wonderful day, if you have to lay into something, please leave Blue Monday alone…
Happy new year, everyone!
Rather than fret about an apparently widening gap between the results of rich and poor students, or the confusion regarding diplomas, I thought I’d strike a lighter note and plug the RSA’s excellent lectures programme.
January will see some really interesting lectures on education you might be particularly interested in.
Next week John Denham MP, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be arguing that there is a ‘destructive divide’ between those who have a good grasp of science, and those who do not, and what needs to be done to bridge the gap. This event will take place at the RSA next week on 16 January at 5pm.
Then, on January 30th, in the first of a series of lectures in association with Edge, Michael Young, Professor of Education, Lifelong Learning and International Development at the Institute of Education will tackle the question ‘What are schools for?’. In particular he will think about schools’ ability to ‘Develop the Potential of Every Pupil’, which is the crosscutting theme for the 5 lectures in the series.
These events build on a good 2007 for education lectures at the RSA. Notably we had the Paul Hamlyn Foundation sponsored series ‘Outside In: Rethinking Schooling’. You can download the audio from these lectures in mp3 format here, here, and here.
2008 promises to be a challenging year for the RSA team in regards to education. As well as delivering a great lecture programme, we will be launching the Future Schools Network, and seeking to grow the online community of schools interested in Opening Minds with an improved website and resources.
Ultimately my hope is that this year the RSA will work more closely with you than ever, and respond better to your needs.
To do that, we need to hear from you! I asked in the last post about changing the web site, and what people’s views were on that? Please do comment on that issue, and any of the other work mentioned above, and let us know your thoughts.