Episode 161 – 9th November 2012

We speak to Pirate Party leader Loz Kaye about his party and author Stephen Trombley about his new book looking at the key figures in western philosophy. We also tackle censorship and law, dodgy Ofsted inspections, communicating the scientific method and how to make the perfect cheese toastie.

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The Pirate Party (2:18) by James O’Malley (ft party leader Loz Kaye!)
Ofsted & ACE (18:42) by Jonny Scaramanga
Censorship & UK Law (23:40) by Alex Fitch
50 Thinkers (34:16) by Liz Lutgendorff (ft Stephen Trombley)
The Scientific Method (50:01) by Paul Hopwood
The Perfect Cheese Toastie (56:40) by Sarah Castor-Perry
The inbetween bits were researched by Blakeley Nixon & recorded by Alex Foster
The sketch at the end is by David Lovesy & Brian Two

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One thought on “Episode 161 – 9th November 2012

  1. Paul Hopwood asks us if he’s missing something with his use of the idea of “the best quality of evidence” when he’s doing pro-science apologetics. Well, the concept is an initially seductive one, seemingly pitting the careful and dispassionate gathering of factual evidence against the rash and careless use of fallacious arguments and unchecked facts. There are practical problems, of course, with deciding what counts as science opr as good-quality evidence. Scientists may do science badly (so being science doesn’t automatically make the evidence high quality), and lay people might find it hard to distinguish real science from hokey science – after all, even Nature has occasionally made embarrassing mistakes in this regard.

    Another point that Paul makes is that the evident success of scientific methods in predicting phenomena is evidence for the validity of those methods. But how would you assess the quality of that evidence? There are all sorts of cognitive biases, fallacies and self-serving prejudices that will prevent people accepting the evidence – and no way of combating those without first establishing the value of scientific methods.

    Still, as a sort of heuristic, the “quality of evidence” test sounds pretty good.

    But I think the reason I wouldn’t use it (I’m not speaking for anyone else here) is that it involves a circular definition of “quality”. If you look at NICE guidelines, for example,you’ll see that they rate the various studies on which they base their conclusions in terms of their quality (here’s an example). So they might review a large number of research studies, but they give greater weight to the ones with higher quality. And which are they? The ones that have a broad sample base, large sample size, random allocation to treatment condition, adequate blinding, and comparison against an existing, well-evidenced, treatment – among other criteria. But these criteria are derived from the scientific method. If I try to argue that the scientific method is the best because it produces the best quality of evidence; and then, when asked “what counts as quality in evidence” I reply that it’s evidence that meets the canons of scientific method; well, I shouldn’t be surprised if my listeners remain skeptical. In fact, they damn well ought to remain skeptical! I ought to be encouraging them to remain skeptical!

    Indeed, in non-scientific fora, such as courts of law, the quality of evidence may be judged, in part, on the basis of whether someone is a ‘credible witness’ or not. Which enshrines the very principle that Paul hates – the one that says that who is making a claim is as important as the content of their evidence. How would you debunk such a principle without first establishing the superiority scientific method?

    For my money, Feynman’s argument is better; we follow scientific method because it’s the best way we’ve found to minimise the chance that we’re fooling ourselves. This argument has the virtue of not introducing novel, undefined (or circularly-defined) concepts such as ‘quality’. The quality of a study can be considered later, after people have bought-in to scientific methods. But if ‘quality’ can only be defined in terms of adherence to the method, then it can’t be used to justify that method.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is philosophy.

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