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Things I Think About, by Peter Bowditch

Science as she is spoke

Australasian Science - August, 2007During an archaeological dig in my garage I found some relics of my time at university many years before, and I was reminded of what science is and isn’t. As a prerequisite for studying psychology, I also had to do some introductory anthropology and sociology.

As an example of the “science” in sociology, I was told in a lecture that gender was a social construction and that what men and women did in adult life was completely and exclusively determined by the toys that they had as children. With a straight face, I asked the lecturer whether this meant that men could have babies if they were given dolls to play with when they were little. She gave me a puzzled look and said she would have to think about it before giving me a definitive answer. I am not making this up!

Anthropology was no better. The differences between Derrick Freeman and Margaret Mead were solved simply – Mead was a lesbian and was therefore right. Remember, I am not making this up.

Luckily, most of my time was spent in perception and cognitive psychology where it is possible to do something approaching scientific research.

One day we had a guest lecturer who had shown that the sense of smell diminishes with age, and that older people could not smell as well as young people could. His experimental method had been to expose people of various ages to the smell of broccoli and ask them to identify it.

I was the first questioner: “My grandfather, my uncle and my parents were all in the fruit and vegetable business and until I was five I lived over one of the shops. I never saw broccoli until I was about 15. Is it possible that the older folk couldn’t identify broccoli not because they couldn’t smell it but because it was a smell that they had not experienced when young and therefore could not recognise”?

He had never thought of this possibility! It looked like his face was going to fall off. All he could think of was the letters to the editor in the following issue of the journal which was about to publish his work.

It wasn’t all bad, and the final example shows how real science should be and is done. In one course the major assignment was broken into three components. We had to submit an experimental design which described an optical illusion, propose a hypothesis for the origin and mechanism of the illusion, and say how we planned to test this hypothesis. References and citations were not required. The second part was to conduct the experiment and write it up in the format expected by scientific journals. The last part was to give a verbal presentation of the results to the rest of the class, and this had to be done before the mark for the written part would be released.

My design proposal came back with full marks. So far, so good. Into the library, and the first reference I found was the professor’s PhD thesis. This had been his life’s work, and he and his thesis supervisor were the world experts on the phenomenon. My problem was that I had suggested a different mechanism for the illusion. It was too late to pick another topic, so there was no option but to approach the professor and talk things out. Luckily I had been in his classes before so we knew each other, but I was still very nervous when I knocked on his office door.

The first thing he said was that he had been expecting me to call. He then went on to talk in the way a real scientist should. What goes on in cognition and perception cannot be directly observed, and has to be inferred from observation and measurement. At any time the dominant theory is that which offers the best explanation, but that theory is always open to modification or even rejection if new data turns up. He didn’t think that my idea was going to overthrow the dominant paradigm, but he accepted that it might help to explain some unexplained anomalies. He also said that he knew me well enough to know that I would be honest if the actual experimental work didn’t support my hypothesis.

The experiment showed some evidence for my hypothesis and didn’t contradict prior research, but the oral presentation was still a tense affair. After I had spoken one of the tutors told me that she had never seen me look so nervous, although what I said appeared coherent and well thought out. I just said “Look up Rod’s PhD thesis”. And did I get good marks for challenging a scientist’s findings and nudging his thinking in a slightly different direction? Well, modesty forbids me …

(This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the August 2007 edition of Australasian Science)

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One thought on “Science as she is spoke

  • Graham Jackman says:

    Congratulations, Peter, on being a perceptive student. So many of us in the 60s were bewildered by the whole experience. I was fortunate to do my second degree in the USA, where critical discussion of our work was normal and we learned that the best way to prepare for a talk was to try to ask all the difficult questions – and find the answers – before the audience does. It used to be frightening and now it’s fun!