Scientific conspiracies are impossible

9 06 2015

madscientistWe’ve all heard it somewhere before: “It’s all just a big conspiracy and those bloody scientists are just trying to protect their funding sources.”

Whether it’s about climate change, pharmacology, genetically modified organisms or down-to-earth environmentalism, people who don’t want to agree with a particular scientific finding often invoke the conspiracy argument.

There are three main reasons why conspiracies among scientists are impossible. First, most scientists are just not that organised, nor do they have the time to get together to plan such elaborate practical jokes on the public. We can barely keep our own shit together than try to construct a water-tight conspiracy. I’ve never met a scientist who would be capable of doing this, let alone who would want to.

But this doesn’t necessarily prove my claim that it is ‘impossible’. Most importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress — dissension; and bloody hell, can we dissent! The scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. Read the rest of this entry »

Time to put significance out of its misery

28 07 2014

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll be no stranger to my views on what I believe is one of the most abused, and therefore now meaningless, words in scientific writing: ‘significance’ and her adjective sister, ‘significant’. I hold that it should be stricken entirely from the language of science writing.

Most science writing has become burdened with archaic language that perhaps at one time meant something, but now given the ubiquity of certain terms in most walks of life and their subsequent misapplication, many terms no longer have a precise meaning. Given that good scientific writing must ideally strive to employ the language of precision, transparency and simplicity, now-useless terminology should be completely expunged from our vocabulary.

‘Significance’ is just such a term.

Most interviews on radio or television, most lectures by politicians or business leaders, and nearly all presentations by academics at meetings of learned societies invoke ‘significant’ merely to add emphasis to the discourse. Usually it involves some sort of comparison – a ‘significant’ decline, a ‘significant’ change or a ‘significant’ number relative to some other number in the past or in some other place, and so on. Rarely is the word quantified: how much has the trend declined, how much did it change and how many is that ‘number’? What is ‘significant’ to a mouse is rather unimportant to an elephant, so most uses are as entirely subjective qualifiers employed to add some sort of ‘expert’ emphasis to the phenomenon under discussion. To most, ‘significant’ just sounds more authoritative, educated and erudite than ‘a lot’ or ‘big’. This is, of course, complete rubbish because it is the practice of using big words to hide the fact that the speaker isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is.

While I could occasionally forgive non-scientists for not quantifying their use of ‘significance’ because they haven’t necessarily been trained to do so, I utterly condemn scientists who use the word that way. We are specifically trained to quantify, so throwing ‘significant’ around without a very clear quantification (it changed by x amount, it declined by 50 % in two years, etc.) runs counter to the very essence of our discipline. To make matters worse, you can often hear a vocal emphasis placed on the word when uttered, along with a patronising hand gesture, to make that subjectivity even more obvious.

If you are a scientist reading this, then you are surely waiting for my rationale as to why we should also ignore the word’s statistical meaning. While I’ve explained this before, it bears repeating. Read the rest of this entry »

The conservation biologist’s toolbox

31 08 2010

Quite some time ago I blogged about a ‘new’ book published by Oxford University Press and edited by Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich called Conservation Biology for All in which Barry Brook and I wrote a chapter entitled The conservation biologist’s toolbox – principles for the design and analysis of conservation studies.

More recently, I attended the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Bali where I gave a 30-minute talk about the chapter, and I was overwhelmed with positive responses from the audience. The only problem was that 30 minutes wasn’t even remotely long enough to talk about all the topics we covered in the chapter, and I had to skip over a lot of material.

So…, I’ve blogged about the book, and now I thought I’d blog about the chapter.

The topics we cover are varied, but we really only deal with the ‘biological’ part of conservation biology, even though the field incorporates many other disciplines. Indeed, we write:

“Conservation biology” is an integrative branch of biological science in its own right; yet, it borrows from most disciplines in ecology and Earth systems science; it also embraces genetics, dabbles in physiology and links to veterinary science and human medicine. It is also a mathematical science because nearly all measures are quantified and must be analyzed mathematically to tease out pattern from chaos; probability theory is one of the dominant mathematical disciplines conservation biologists regularly use. As rapid human-induced global climate change becomes one of the principal concerns for all biologists charged with securing and restoring biodiversity, climatology is now playing a greater role. Conservation biology is also a social science, touching on everything from anthropology, psychology, sociology, environmental policy, geography, political science, and resource management. Because conservation biology deals primarily with conserving life in the face of anthropogenically induced changes to the biosphere, it also contains an element of economic decision making.”

And we didn’t really cover any issues in the discipline of conservation planning (that is a big topic indeed and a good starting point for this can be found by perusing The Ecology Centre‘s website). So what did we cover? The following main headings give the general flavour: Read the rest of this entry »