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TOK: “Just a Theory?”

Here’s a good clip from Friends where Ross (a paleontologist) is defending the scientific evidence for evolution against Phoebe.

Grade 11 Students, the Evolution Core content is here: 5.4 Evolution (Core)

Now do some research: what is the linguistic distinction between theory and fact? How can different meanings of the word theory lead to confusion in non-scientists?

When you watch the clip, think about the use of language: from a scientific point of view, what is the difference between a fact and a theory?

Here is the definition of a scientific fact:

“any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted”

In contrast, here’s the definition of a theory from the Science Dictionary:

“A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena. Most theories that are accepted by scientists have been repeatedly tested by experiments and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.See Note at hypothesis.”

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Look at these resources that outline why evolution is considered both a fact (that it happens, and its evidence) and a theory (the processes by which it happens):

Evolution: Fact & Theory, from ActionBioscience

Evolution as Fact and Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould

Evolution as Fact and Theory from Wikipedia

Fact or Theory? by John Pratt

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So now we’ve cleared up the issue of fact vs theory, we can move on. Think about how the scientific method works. If you need to, look at these resources:

Science as Falsification, by Karl Popper

Falsifiability (testability), via Wikipedia

Why is the the theory of evolution scientific?

Why was Ross right, from a scientist’s point of view, when he said “just a teeny-tiny bit,” at the end of the video clip?

What about the following theories – why do people have no trouble accepting that they are true based on scientific evidence, that they are empirical theories?

Gravity – Special Theory of Relativity – Plate Tectonics – Cell Theory

Why, then, are alternative creation theories considered unscientific?

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Evolution is one of those hot topics that seems to sit right in the space where science and religion don’t get along. It doesn’t need to. Science is about understanding the world we live in through reason, evidence and observation. Religion is an entirely different area of knowledge based on entirely different ways of knowing (emotion).

So can you believe in God and accept that evolution is true? Of course you can. And many religious leaders agree (here are more statements).

To finish off, here is Sir David Attenborough talking about the fact of evolution and how scientific progress is made through empiricism and falsification, and also how we as humans have abused our supposed position of ‘dominion’ to massively detrimental consequences:

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Extension: hunt out The Genius of Darwin on YouTube for more evidence and explanation. Here is a clip from the first episode:

It is one of the simplest ideas anyone ever had

Find out more about the term Occam’s Razor. How does it apply to the scientific method and reasoning as a way of knowing?

Snake Oil? Cool infographic on health supplements

One of my favourite blogs is Information Is Beautiful, and here is a lovely example of how a large dataset can be turned into something visual and easily interpreted: The Scientific Evidence for Popular Health Supplements.

What does it represent?

– size of bubbles represents Google search popularity

– height of bubbles represents strength of scientific evidence for its efficacy in the specific health use

By making use of the systematic reviews of double-blind clinical studies, IIB have made sure that we are looking only at reliable, scientifically sound data. You can even see the data here.

I am looking forward to seeing David McCandless’ TED Talk in the upcoming TED Global 2010 at Oxford. Of course, I’ll be watching on the web. Check out more of their infographics here.

Michael Specter – The Danger of Science Denialism

Why do otherwise rational, sensible people choose to reject good science in some cases and believe unfounded claims in others?

With apparently eroding trust in government and authority, people are looking to less reliable sources of information – which is particularly dangerous when it comes to health. On the one hand, they believe stories such as ‘Facebook causes cancer‘, or in the unproven alt-meds of homeopathy and vitamin supplements, yet they reject solid scientific evidence with regard to vaccine safety, anti-retroviral drugs or GM crops.

As Michael Specter says in this TED 2010 talk, “We hate BigPharma… and we run from it into the arms of Big Placebo*.”

“The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we are afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”

From a TOK perspective, how does this talk highlight the clash between emotion and reason in the ways of knowing? (Or as Specter says, “You have the right to your own beliefs- but not your own facts.”)

*The industry in non-proven remedies and vitamin supplements runs to billions of dollars a year.

The Greenhouse Effect

Here is the class presentation – shadowed images are links. I’ve included the slides from G3 on the ozone layer. Make sure you understand that the greenhouse effect itself is a natural phenomenon, enhanced by human activity. Be sure also to distinguish between the greenhouse gases in the troposphere and ozone layer – they are in different positions, with different functions.

Essential Biology 5.2 and G3: The Greenhouse Effect and Impacts of Humans on Ecosystems.

Click4Biology:The Greenhouse Effect

More decent resources from Cutting Edge

Use these CO2 data to plot trends and annual cycles with a spreadhseet.

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Facebook gives you cancer and infantilises the population. Ahem.

“There is no evidence because it would be hard to prove…” Aduh.

BadScience hero Ben Goldacre and Jeremy Paxman take on Baroness Greenfield, The Daily Mail (always a good target) and Aric Sigman in this interview from Newsnight. For a bit of background this is all a response to this story from the Daily Mail:

If you’re in my class, the page you need to comment on is here.

The Daily Mail reports  Sigman is claiming (without any real evidence) that time on the computer takes you away from real people. This makes you isolated and lonely and means you are not producing the right hormones and your genes will act up – potentially leading to cancer, immune problems and impaired mental function. That’s a far reach for a newspaper article to be making, but these kind of shock headlines sell papers, or get more traffic on their website.

In this debate we see the importance of peer-reviewed research before making public claims. We see that correlation does not necessarily imply causality and we see that poor reporting of sensitive issues can lead to gross misunderstandings. If we remember, the Daily Mail was central in the reporting of the MMR vaccine scare.

When you watch this interview and read the article, can you think of responses to these questions?

– Are there parts of Sigman and Greenfield’s claims that might sound plausible?

– What kind of evidence would you want to see to support these claims?

– What is the significance of Goldacre’s comment “… you can make anything look dangerous if you are selective in which evidence you quote” ?

– Sigman makes a comment “The paper weas supposed to be a one-sided provocative feature article for The Biologist to make people think more carefully about where society is going.” How does he feel about the media attention that his words have attracted outside this publication?

– Central to Sigman’s claims were that internet use increases social isolation. He had no peer-reviewed work after 1998 to support this, yet Goldacre pointed out all these references that suggest otherwise.

– Sigman tries to re-state ‘social networking’ as a phrase meant for real-life interactions between people rather than internet-based interactions. How has his interpretation of the term led to confusion in the wider public? Who do you think is responsible for this confusion and how could it be rectified?

– Sigman tries to distance himself from the headlines and the conjectures of Greenfield and returns to his concern that internet use is having a direct and negative impact ont the lives of children. Take this opportunity to discuss the benefits and potential negative impacts of the internet with regard to childhood use.

– Goldacre makes a comment that it woudl be bad for research to prioritse what research is done based on the headlines in the newspapers. Do you agree/ disagree? Why?

– How do you think the precautionary principle might relate to the decisions parents make based on this issue?

How would you like to see this story develop? What further research would convince you of the harms or otherwise this debate?

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