26 june 2018






school photos







           All original writing

           2014, 2015, 2016, 2017,            2018        Ian McLauchlin



Something new has happened. The internet has allowed ANYBODY to publicise their opinion. This presents the world with a huge number of opinions BUT they're all presented as of equal worth. Expert and non-expert are contributing to the discourse with seemingly equal validity. And that's the problem. An expert's views are based on a lifetime of experience, study, research and understanding, but the ordinary guy's views are often based on nothing much at all. At worst they're based on what the tabloid press tells them to think, on prejudice, on faulty or no understanding, and even simply on a mischievous desire to muddy the water. We even have senior politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and who really should know better, declaring that expert's views are worth nothing.

Here's an example. Reading various comments on newspaper articles, it really does appear that a large number of people think that scientific conclusions are simply a matter of opinion. One person’s view against another's. These people clearly know nothing about science but they think it's alright to present their ignorance as fact. Unfortunately there are a lot of undereducated people who'll believe them. Moreover, they WANT to believe them because that then confirms their own view and they then have no need to tax their brain by trying to understand. Unfathomably, they're also PROUD that they don't understand.

So what is science and why isn't it just a compilation of current opinion as presented by the ill-informed on the internet?

Science represents the sum of our knowledge of how the natural world works. It derives from observation, careful measurement and the ruthless and rigorous application of logic and reason. Such a body of knowledge isn't derived by one person in a given field of expertise but by a whole range of scientists checking and reproducing the findings of each other. It's the result of critical examination of data, methodology, and reproducibility of results, among other things, by others equally expert in that field. That's what's called Peer Review. It's only a matter of opinion in the sense that nothing's accepted, or acceptable, unless the world's experts agree that there is no flaw whatsoever in the logic of the collection and interpretation of results. The conclusions must be supported by the findings and must be compatible with the rest of current knowledge.

Specifically, one can have an idea and try to test that idea by a properly designed experiment. If the experiment shows that the idea is wrong, then something else must be happening and it's the scientist's job to find out what it is.

Something not at all obvious here is that mere opinion wouldn't allow the prediction and extrapolation of results and understanding into the unknown. There are very many examples in which a detailed understanding of phenomena allows prediction of something new. This then provides a lead as to what might be possible or what field exists for further study. On numerous occasions such predictions have been proved correct, thereby confirming that the original understanding was also correct. A simple example is that the understanding of the behaviour of atoms allowed construction of the Periodic Table. As a consequence it was possible to predict the existence of further elements, unknown at the time, and throw light on the structure of atoms themselves. There are many more.

It can take a long time for a prediction to be able to be tested, sometimes because the equipment necessary to test doesn't yet exist. That doesn't mean the prediction is wrong, just that it hasn't yet been confirmed by the amassing of evidence. Examples are the theory and confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves and the Higg's Boson. Sometimes the scope and end product of research is not even intially understood by the researchers themselves. Tim Berners-Lee originally intended his internet to be a tool for connecting Research Departments in Universities whereas it now connects the whole world and has given rise to totally new ways of doing things.

So science is not  simply a collection of empirical observations. A framework exists, invisible to the non-scientist, which connects the way the world works, often in a quantitative way, with mathematical relationships allowing an even deeper understanding of the world, nature, materials, engineering, chemistry, physics, statistics, electronics and the rest. All these disciplines have provided the basis for the devices and services everybody is pleased to use today - mobile phones, computers, the internet itself, TV and radio, CT and MRI scanners which have revolutionised diagnostic medicine, weather forecasting, air travel, GPS, vaccines, clean water. The list is endless. Science has changed the world and continues to do so. Scientific understanding is increased by continued examination of the world around us using the processes outlined above. These are known collectively as 'the scientific method'. It would help mankind enormously if this was taught in schools

But the internet often misrepresents all of this by not distinguishing between the statements of the ordinary and ill-educated contributor and those of the lifetime expert. And politicians do a great disservice to the people they represent, and consequently to the world, by aiding and abetting this misunderstanding.

Ian McLauchlin 29 Sept 2017