Any Colour You Like; defining the terms of modern science

This week a joint post from us!

Recently I have noticed an increasing trend towards generalization in much student work, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and have some concerns this represents a gradual shift in terms of the level of scholarship and academic discrimination. Overall this seems to have been more evident over the last 10 years of so with the advent of postmodern approaches in my discipline. In the worst instances initial proposals for thesis work basically take form of “This is a problem, so I am going to talk to a bunch of people to see what they think and find out some stuff.” The latest trend of this I seem to be seeing in student writing seems to be “To explain this I call upon …” and I have to admit I have struggled to resist the temptation to add “…the power of Grey Skull.”

I was always a Thundercat man myself! However, in a similar vein, one thing that is increasingly happening here is that students are ‘retrofitting’ their work to theory. They carry out their research and then come up with statements such as “Vygotsky agrees with this” to which I normally write something like “That’s a bit of luck then!” (we’re far  more brutal with our feedback comments here in the UK…)

This isn’t a fault on our students side as we seem to have got across the idea that different theoretical perspectives must be acknowledged and no perspective is value free, but then also the principle that they are all equally valid, and you can choose any one that suits you. Students have been indoctrinated to always identify a specific theoretical perspective. Indeed, faculty incessantly ask them, “yes but what theoretical perspective are you going to use?” However, students often write “I  am going to use the XYZ lens” but do so to satisfy their professor, and then proceed without any attempt to explain why this is a  useful approach, give any justification, or consideration of alternatives. It actually reminds me a bit of the old BBC Play School TV show of my childhood where the story teller would say “today, children,  we are going to look through the round window.” Now, I know many postmodern scholars would nod sagely, and say “yes, exactly so!” but I must admit from an epistemological stance find this somewhat exasperating. In taking this approach what we are effectively doing is dumbing down the nature of scientific enquiry into a generalized descriptive melange, rather than a consideration of competing explanations, and discriminating arguments.

Allied to this, particularly at doctoral level, I have noticed a trend for students to write biographical pieces about themselves so you can see ‘where they are coming from’. This may have some validity if it actually related to any adopted theoretical stance , e.g. “Growing up in a working class area of the inner city forged my radicalism etc” but it rarely ever seems to. I agree with Bernie, you can’t just put ideas out like vegetables on a market stall. Sometimes,  I get the distinct impression that we have made students afraid to nail their colours to the mast, either because they don’t feel sufficiently confident with their approach or that they actually feel that they don’t have the depth of understanding to defend it. Increasingly students fall to citing another study that used their selected  approach or that the results justified the means. ironically this is even harder to defend academically.

Now in the dark and distant past of our undergraduate studies in Portsmouth, Roger and I had rather an eccentric lecturer who used to wear academic dress to lecture in (most of us thought he had either been sent down from Oxford/Cambridge, or was a big Batman fan, as no one else in the institution did so).

Yes, I remember him describing some environmental issue on the Yellow River, but doing so in Cantonese as he felt the local concerns didn’t translate well into English! We all thought he was, well, a little more than eccentric Bern, but looking back perhaps he was just ahead of the curve – sorry I digress…

Anyhow, I recall once him reprimanding me when I asked a question saying “”Define your terms young man, define your terms!”  Well, he did have a point, as if we are not specific we run the risk of obfuscating our meaning. Lets take the specific example of the use of the terms concept, construct and variable. These are not really interchangeable terms, which we can choose at will to describe phenomena but have specific meanings in the process of theory development.

Concepts are mental representations of things that allow us to share experiences and draw conclusions about the world. Concepts are also sometimes construed as abstract entities. They are expressions of an abstract form derived from generalization from particulars. For example, the concept of pain can be inferred from the observation of specific instances and records using inductive and abductive reasoning. Pain is a good example, as it remains a highly active area of research today.

To develop our concept into a form that can be explored further we need to describe it in some terms that can be analysed in detail. This leads us to the development of a construct or representative framework to describe the phenomena in measurable terms.  In science a construct is really a concept that has been deliberately adopted for a special scientific purpose. It has identified elements that can be measured (as the theoretical element itself cannot be directly observed or measured). The neuromatrix theory of pain, or intelligence is both good examples of constructs.  The actual elements of the construct are defined in specific terms that can be measured and these elements are known as variables. E.g. nociceptor potentials, or intelligence quotient (IQ). Once we have a construct with variables our theory can be tested though hypothesis generation and deductive reasoning to develop a theory that is substantiated by evidence.

Indeed I would agree with that, certainly distinguishing the terms ‘concept’, ‘construct’ and ‘variable’ and that these lead to generating hypotheses and then to testing (in what ever way is deemed appropriate).

In this way we can see the focus of empirical scientific work is really to generate and establish theories that can explain phenomena, and be used to support predictions of future events, or do other useful things. If we don’t define our terms carefully, consider arguments for the best explanation or choose a theoretical framework that we find appealing or fashionable without considering alternatives or justification, my concern is we move away from doing anything practically useful and into the realms of intellectualization for its own sake.

I agree,  justifying your stance  and terms carefully supports systematic and rigorous interrogation of the collected data. Data is only as robust as the methods used to collect it and the conclusions to any work are only as strong as the analytical processes that are used. Every step in the chain of rationale should work. If we employ an “I’m going to talk to a few people and find stuff out approach” as Bernie called it earlier, we really throw out any justification for how we might practically use those data, and what meaningful conclusions can be drawn. Also, foraging through a mass of interview transcripts and pulling out quotes to support a preconceived particular view is not systematic analysis. I fear that students often opt for such methods, not for any deep allegiance to post-modernism, or to any specific qualitative approach,  but rather that its perceived by some as an easier option, primarily because they don’t consider the complexity of the analytical methods that this requires. When students come to me with such project ideas I always asked them “How are you going to analyse this?” and most times the response is a blank expression. Perhaps in future I’ll add “…by the power of Grey Skull?”

To be fair to our esteemed students the blame lies with us, as it is our fault if, as academics, if we have taught them this sort of thing is acceptable. We only have our selves to blame, after all we shape our students behaviours in our own practices. Define your terms (although preferably not in a foreign language)!

Bernie and Roger

Savita Halappanavar: why we need science based health policies

Sadly last week was not a good week for women’s reproductive rights. Savita Happenavar died in Ireland though what we be regarded as medical negligence in many countries. Cases of medical malpractice  are unfortunately, not that uncommon, and physicians and nurses do sometimes make mistakes that result in fatalities. This is the reality of modern medical practice, and these events are a favourite item for the media; only to be trumped by news of the outbreak of war, political sex scandals, or such items as “gorilla runs amok at zoo” it seems (try googling the latter and you will find it occurs unnervingly frequently).

However, the well publicized tragic case of Ms Happenavar appears to be the direct result of an archaic belief based policy, and resulting medical indifference to the mothers rights compared to those of the unborn child. Although the exact details are unclear the following events seem substantiated:

1) The 17 weeks pregnant Ms Happenavar was admitted at University Hospital Galway on 21 October

2) She complained of back pan was found to be miscarrying her baby.

3) As her condition deteriorated she asked medical staff several times over a three-day period to terminate the pregnancy, and was advised this was not possible as Ireland “is a catholic country” and the foetal heart was still beating. Halappanavar objected that she was neither Irish nor a Catholic, but to no avail.

4) She died of septicaemia on Sunday 28 October. due to complications which seem to have arisen directly from the ongoing miscarriage.

University Hospital Galway is to carry out an internal investigation, and the Health & Safety Executive  has launched a separate investigation. Also, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny indicated there could also be an external inquiry into the death.

As Roger noted a few months back, science generally has little to say about what is right and wrong in the world, as that falls under the domain of human ethics. However, here we have a case where there was a known diagnosis, clear evidence of the likely outcome, denial of the patients wishes, and her eventual death on the basis of religious argument. At the very least this case seems a clear breach of the hippocratic principle of “do no harm” as the obvious outcome of death of both the mother and unborn child without intervention would have seemed inevitable to any physician with experience in this area.

What is interesting is how how Irish catholic physicians have interpreted the scientific evidence to suit their own beliefs. The absurdity of the Irish anti-abortion law is well documented and includes such nonsense as technically not considering ectopic pregnancies as abortion (as the foetus has not implanted in the womb). This is, presumably, because if they did they would have 1% of all pregnant women regularly dying which would probably be beyond even the catholic public’s tolerance. In 2010 the European court of human rights ruled against the Irish state in favour of a woman who had to travel to the UK to terminate a pregnancy while undergoing chemotherapy, and in 1992 the supreme court ruled that a suicidal teenage rape victim did have the right to an abortion. Recently Irish medical experts speaking at a major International Symposium on Excellence in Maternal Healthcare held in Dublin concluded that ‘direct abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a mother.’ This was based on the argument that such occurrences are incredibly rare. Well, even if they are exceedingly rare (excluding ectopic pregnancy) there would still be the odd case where the only option to save the mother’s life would be termination of the foetus. Anyone who has worked in an acute care area and cared for septic patients would understand the risk. If in Ms. Happenavar‘s case a termination was unnecessary, we have to ask then what medical treatment should she have had in order to save her, and why didn’t the doctors do these life-saving procedures; as termination was “unnecessary?”

Tragically, the results are the death of a healthy young women, and impact on her family. The scientific medical evidence would likely have resulted in the termination of the pregnancy to save the mother in most other western nations, and this seems like another clear example of womens reproductive rights being dictated by a religious minority of mainly men. To my mind this is a prime example of why we need health policies based on scientific evidence based practice, rather than metaphysical belief.








“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?”

Hello again! I’m back (briefly) to add a quick entry.

I’ve deserted Bernie and left him bravely struggling to maintain the blog while I’ve been busy writing a book on science for science teachers.

That’s actually proving much harder than I’d expected and both in search of inspiration and to test some of the key ideas I’m writing about I took myself off to the International Organisation of Science and Technology Education (IOSTE) Congress in Tunisia last week. I like IOSTE a great deal as it has a genuine commitment to Social Justice, Human Rights and Sustainable Development. In other words it sees a role for science in all those things…and so do I.

My paper (which should be online soon) concerned the science of love. Now even for a liberal organisation such as IOSTE I thought that that might be pushing it, but the scientific committee must have see some worth in it as it was accepted for presentation. I never hold out much hope at international conferences, especially when, like this one, you have seven ‘parallel strands’, in other words seven papers being presented at the same time. This usually means you end up talking to about three people, two of whom don’t speak your language and the third is there by mistake. However, this was somewhat (worryingly at the time) well attended.

After the obligatory joke I got going. In schools in the UK at elementary level (known as Key Stage 1) the science involves mainly observation. Children are often asked to observe and draw each other’s faces. These are then stuck on the wall and in some post-modern statement their diversity is ‘celebrated’. Well that’s all fine and dandy, but I’ve begun to think that we need to tread a bit more carefully here on two counts. Recognising diversity is one thing, but stressing it is something else and whatever it is, it isn’t science.

OK when we want to identify something, say a flower, from a guide we may look for individual characteristics depending on how the guide may be set out, but nevertheless, we at least recognise that what we’re holding is a flower. One really important thing about taxonomy is that living things share characteristics. Similarities are far more important biologically than differences. Indeed, taxonomic classifications are often built on that. Stressing differences amongst children always runs the risk of dividing them up by skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, all of which are pretty small fry when compared to our remarkable similarities. Division is only one step away from isolation. I’ve already spoken about this in an earlier blog, but perhaps in relation to science teaching, it’s worth stressing again.

Having argued for similarity to be stressed as a means of combatting partition, I went on to talk about the teaching of evolution in schools. How is it that even now people leave school with scratchy ideas (or none at all) when it comes to understanding evolution as a process? Still it seems that people associate evolutionary success with attributes such as strength and agility and at best large complex brains and opposable thumbs. Well, OK the last two are quite important, but so are love, empathy and compassion. In fact such traits are incredibly important evolutionary behaviours. They become especially so when you consider statements like the UNESCO Seville Statement on Violence (1986) that clearly states that Humans have no genetic predisposition to violence and aggressive behaviour. It is not our ‘nature’ to be aggressive; in fact ecologically we are incredibly social creatures. Aggression and violence are therefore, according to UNESCO at least, learnt behaviours.

This is really important, as we can unlearn such behaviour. I genuinely feel that science therefore, and good science at that, has a great deal to contribute here.

I developed this line a bit further and talked about science and its potential to break down barriers, combat totalitarianism and to be seen as a global process, not just some sort of European invention.

At the end it seemed to go pretty well, most were awake and nobody had stormed out (I must encourage Bernie to do that some day) but I think the real point is that science MUST promote hope. Hope for the future, like it did when I was a kid. If we just see and talk about the science of doom we undermine this. But if we need to inspire hope in the future, a good question would be – what do you hope for…what do you really hope for?

Take a while and think about that and I bet when it’s really stripped down it comes to peace and love, and what’s so funny about that?