Thinking like a scientist: Explaining falsification and why creationism is not a viable alternative to evolution

This post is a guest contribution by Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, Assistant Professor/Curator of Fishes at Louisiana State University. Prosanta studies the systematics and evolution of both marine and freshwater fishes worldwide. His research has been featured in Science, NPR and the BBC. You can follow him on Twitter.

We live in a rapidly changing world. There is a great deal of information available to us, most of it at our fingertips through computers, smartphones and the like. It is easy to think that having the internet at our reach means that we are all on an equal playing field in terms of knowledge: everything we don’t know we can find the answer to with a quick Google search. I’ve written this post because I think this view is flawed.

Figure 1

It may be true that we can find a great many answers on the internet, the problem is that there are many wrong answers out there as well (Fig. 1). Knowing right from wrong has never been harder. Thinking like a scientist is the best way to sort through the mess.

So how does a scientist think? As a scientist I should know better than to speak for all scientists, but I’m going to do so anyway. When presented with a problem a scientist attempts to solve it without bias. (Although we may want a certain outcome, influencing a test or experiment to get that result is not science.) One common way scientists tackle a problem is through falsification (also called the hypothetico-deductive method). Using falsification, we construct hypotheses and conduct tests that are capable, in theory, of proving those hypotheses are incorrect. (Hypotheses are essentially answers to a question.) Following those tests, the hypothesis that is not falsified lives to fight another day but we can soundly reject the one that was demonstrated false. The next time we can refine the hypotheses and make the tests stricter. Will we then find the truth? Potentially. The truth is out there but we will never know for sure if we’ve found it. Truth, is unknowable. All we have done through falsification is proven what isn’t true, or at least, what is least true.

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Herd Immunity

vaccination

Over the past several years there has been a growing trend of parents that are terrified of vaccinating their kids citing reasons such as the debunked link to autism or that it just isn’t “natural.”   A healthcare blog run by several infectious disease doctors called Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention has run frequent stories reporting on the declining vaccination rates as well as problems that ensue because of that, most recently about the whooping cough epidemic in Washington and wondering why Jenny McCarthy has so much influence on national views on vaccinations.

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Carnival of Evolution: We’re hosting!

Evolution

Step right up, step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to submit your fine evolution-related blog posts to the 58th edition of the Carnival of Evolution, the one and only community-assembled, community-supported, community-hosted aggregation of the finest online writing on the illustrious topic of Descent With Modification and all its manifold modified descendents.

On the first day of March, this glorious Carnival will be found right here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, the better to showcase the work of everyone from students to scientists to great fans of science, everyone and anyone, ladies and gentlemen, who believes and can demonstrate in mellifluous prose, captivating videos, eye-catching infographics, or hilarious LOLcats that bedrock principle of the modern life sciences, that nothing—no, ladies and gentlemen, not a gosh-darned thing—in the whole of biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.

Think you’ve got what it takes to join this revolutionary celebration of evolutionary science? Send us links to your blog posts, essays, videos, and webcomics at this elegant and convenient form (it requires a log-in, but then what doesn’t these days?) or simply e-mail them direct to Jeremy Yoder, our local curator of carnivalian content. Please do send’em before the 26th of February, though, to ensure proper packaging and adequate care of all your delightful and illuminating work.

We thank you humbly and vociferously for your contributions, one and all—and we look forward to seeing you right here, at this very URL, for the Carnival of Evolution, in less than the span of one short month!

Friday Coffee Break:

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

snow-coffee

Concerned about coyotes getting your cats? Sarah is concerned that the cat may be a greater threat to nature more than nature is to the cat. “The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.”

Sarah is also rethinking some assumptions she’s been making after reading about “why birds sing?” Finding mates? Fending off predators? Or simply because, like people singing in the shower, they love a good tune.

How to catch an insect? Noah says “Send a fly!” This predatory fly can apparently take down all shapes and sizes of insects and will do so before your very eyes.

Jeremy is reading Jerry Coyne rant on epigenetics (by his own admission, “puffery about epigenetics, and my usual role as go-to curmudgen”). Thinking a lot about epigenetics these days Jeremy?

Devin wants NSF to show him the money! More specifically he’s looking at a new take on how the government might distribute the cash for scientific research. Michael Eisen writes up an imaginary NIH which he believes will solve current shortcomings.

Jonathan notes that Twitter may allow us to track where we’ve been and announce it to the world (or Twitterverse as the case may be) but it may also be able to locate potential disease outbreaks!

Amy is reading about scientists from Scotland and the Czech Republic boldly go where no science has gone before! Although it is small, they have developed a tractor beam similar to those seen in StarTrek.

Finally for your viewing delight, Noah brings us the dating life of anglerfish.