As soon as you say the word feminism a lot of people get defensive. I’ll bet some of you are already feeling anxious just from the title. Generally I don’t want my blogs to get political, but the way I see it, feminism isn’t a socio-political stance you take, it’s just being sensible.
It’s a shame we need to have such a concept as feminism – it’s like having a word for “I believe everyone should be allowed to drink water”; it’s something we should just assume everyone automatically thinks. But, unfortunately, we do need feminism. Badly. So yes, I am a feminist.
Rest assured though, I’m not attacking men. Let’s just state the obvious here: I am a man. Obviously I’m pro-men…I’m just pro-women as well.
The majority of men (I’d like to believe) recognise that a society where women have equal rights, representation and treatment is for the benefit of everyone. So why is feminism needed? Well, the problem is women aren’t equal citizens of the Earth yet.
Sometimes I’ve heard men saying things like “women are equal in today’s world, what more do they want? They just hate men.” If you think women are treated equally in our society, you need to take a closer look at it. It’s true society has come a long way in the last hundred years. Women are allowed to vote, study at University and get high-paying jobs, which is fantastic. But this is still not enough. The numbers vary depending on where you source them, but the picture is much the same anywhere:
29% of MPs in the UK are women
70% of minimum wage earners in the UK are women
4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women
30% of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films are women
29% of female actors in the top 500 grossing films wear revealing clothes (only 7% of men do)
22% of U.S. parliamentarians are women
24 states have never elected a female governor.
98% of teenage girls feel under pressure to look a certain way (for boys it’s 30%)
92% of teenage girls feel they ought to lose weight.
So yeah, we do need feminism. Until those numbers have changed.
To be clear, I don’t think there are groups of men sitting in dimly lit halls cackling and deciding “how can we suppress women today?” In fact, all the men I show these numbers to are shocked by them. It’s a very skewed and worrying picture.
What we’re seeing in those numbers isn’t a society devaluing women, I think it’s a hangover from an older society that did devalue women (or rather, only valued women for their looks), and we just haven’t fixed it yet. So this is the first key message:
Feminists are not trying to upset a balance, they’re trying to establish one.
I should also point out that the issues I’m talking about here are fairly domesticated compared to how women are treated in other parts of the world. I want my blog to be thought-provoking but not too dark. I’ll try to keep it light but we all know about the atrocities some women have to suffer.
It’s true that women’s rights are worse elsewhere and there are bigger issues to tackle than how women are represented in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM). I’m lucky to live in a country where women have the freedoms they do. But that isn’t an excuse to stop striving to make things better!
I’m also conscious of the fact that I’ll probably receive a backlash for this blog post. Some people will think I’m overreacting to the issues, some will think I’m not reacting enough. Some people will think I’m only saying it to impress women, some will think I’m writing the whole thing sarcastically to attack women.
I will say it clearly and emphatically here: I feel very strongly about this. I mean the things I say sincerely. I am saying them because I want to say them, not to provoke any reaction or response. We need feminists and I consider myself one of them.
What the problem is, briefly
13% of STEM jobs in the UK are held by women.
49% of schools in the UK send no female students on to study Physics at University.
39% of year 13 Maths students are female.
8.5% of year 13 Computing Science students are female.
Physics is the 19th most popular degree choice for girls (for boys it's 4th)
There are 1.8 times as many men studying Maths at university (i.e. almost twice as many)
And the numbers go on like that. Whichever country you look at, whatever level of education and whichever STEM subject you chose, the story always comes out roughly the same. STEM subjects are not widely taken by women.
It has to be said that in the UK, Biology manages a better male to female ratio, but the overall picture is still very male-heavy. The most optimistic number I could find anywhere is women working in chemical engineering: 39%.
I’m very fortunate at my school. We have an even split of male/female STEM teachers, so our numbers compare favourably with the rest of the country. But the fact remains that STEM subjects are more often taken by boys.
Why this is a problem
Some people might argue that by highlighting women as missing from Science I am, indirectly, being anti-feminist. After all, if men and women are equal then a workforce of men is equal to a workforce of women. Why am I singling women out?
Well here’s the thing. If you don’t have women doing Science you really are missing something important. Women and men are equal but they aren’t identical – and it’s an important distinction. Men and women are anatomically, hormonally and neurologically different to each other. Treating both sexes identically is a recipe for disaster – obviously – but giving both sexes the same opportunities (treating them equally) leads to good things.
If you look up differences between men and women’s brains you tend to get one of two approaches. Either you hear that men are from Mars and women from Venus (i.e. utterly different) or you hear men and women are the same in every respect. The reality is closer to the latter; men and women’s brains are, on the whole, the same. But there are subtle differences.
These differences don’t affect key aspects of thinking like memory, working memory, pattern recognition, synthesis, puzzle solving etc. but they do present some minor variations in how men and women approach things and what they notice.
This isn’t to undervalue the great work men have done over the past centuries, mind you. The men involved in Science have made remarkable progress in understanding the world. But think how much more progress we could be making if we had everyone working on the same problems. So here’s the second key message:
Men are awesome, women are awesome too.
Let’s get together and make Science doubly awesome!
I also think we need more women in Science because it will be good for civilization in general. When people are better educated, they make better decisions about how to live their lives. In some countries women aren’t even educated properly about pregnancy and female anatomy! The tragedy is that these women end up not knowing anything different. If they learnt the reality (that women aren't inferior to men) they might start objecting to oppression, and that has to be a good thing.
And more. If young girls see women changing the world, inventing new technologies, curing diseases and teaching about the universe, it might help them become more aspirational about what they can do. If we’re lucky they might feel better about themselves and their potential. They might become less likely to accept second-rate positions in society and everyone benefits. The more people in a species pushing it forward, the better that species does! The more women do Science the more other women see them doing Science!
What if women just don’t want to study STEM?
I understand this objection, I really do. Perhaps the reason so few women choose STEM is simply because they aren’t interested. If that’s genuinely the case then fine, we’ll soldier on with the gender divide. Women should have the right to choose not to go into the STEM subjects. I suppose what I’m interested in is the fact that very few women go into STEM subjects when they are allowed to!
I should mention that a female student of mine recently told me a story about an exchange she had with an engineer. She expressed an interest in engineering and he responded “You can’t do engineering because you’re a girl.”
I was a bit speechless when I heard this. Mainly I was curious how this guy had managed to survive the meteor impact which got rid of all the other dinosaurs. I really don’t see how the fact she’s a woman could in any way impact her ability to do engineering, like…seriously, what was his thinking?
Apparently rampant sexism does still exist in the STEM community, but I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naïve) that it’s not usually as blatant as this. I would like to believe that most women aren’t told “you can’t study this subject” and that if they are, they don’t believe it.
But I have to be honest: I’m not sure I'd want to go into an area if everyone in it thought I was unworthy of being there. That's the kind of thing which might put me off. I wonder how many women avoid STEM because they know they'd be an outsider in the field?
I think the problem is usually more subtle than what that troglodyte told my student. It’s an unintentional message our society parrots that boys do STEM and girls do not. Unfortunately this makes it harder to combat because it’s harder to pin it down, but I can give examples. For instance, do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is campaigning against Malibu Stacy dolls promoting gender stereotypes? Did you know that’s based on a true story?
In 1992, Mattel released Teen-Talk Barbie. Two of the messages some Teen-Talk Barbie dolls said were: “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is tough.” That’s a lot of little girls whose toys – allegedly representing how teenagers talk – saying girls value clothes and find math difficult.
I’m sure some girls really did grow up to hate maths and love clothes on their own. But how many, do you suppose, got it in their heads “that’s what a teenage girl is supposed to say and think” STEM is not for you, go and buy clothes. I should point out that Mattel did recall the dolls, but it’s the fact that nobody found a problem with the messages before release which worries me.
I think part of the problem might be a lack of confidence some girls have in STEM, rather than a lack of interest. Tell little girls they aren’t suited to STEM and it might be harder to persuade them otherwise when they’re in high school. Even the US department of education found that girls who have a strong “self concept” of themselves in Science are more likely to choose it as a career. So what happens if we tell little girls that STEM is a boy’s subject?
If we were to put a huge push on getting girls into STEM we might find most of them don’t like it after all. Fine. At least then we’d know for sure.
How do we solve it?
Complaining about things is necessary, but if you don’t suggest solutions, it’s just a whinge. I also think it’s important to keep an optimistic outlook (when the world looks unpleasant, try to believe it can be better). I’m not claiming I’ll fix the world with my internet blog, but I would like to suggest some practical ideas for your consideration and discussion. These are in no particular order of importance.
Support Primary School Teachers with STEM training
A 2015 report by Brunel University found that a third of Primary school teachers don’t feel confident teaching Science. Primary school teachers are usually children’s first contact with STEM education and around 87% of them are women. That means a significant number of children are seeing a woman who doesn’t feel confident in STEM.
This is not the primary school teachers' fault at all! Primary school teachers are amazing and I couldn’t do their job. But I know if I’m teaching a subject I’m less confident with, it comes across in the lesson, kids pick up on it and the lesson doesn’t go well.
So we need to start offering more training for primary school teachers who don’t feel as confident in STEM. Give them lesson ideas, resources, send them to workshops, train them how to do interesting demos, run practical activities and extend kids’ scientific thinking. Provide primary schools with engaging Science books and make sure girls and boys get access to them. Send the message early on that women can be confident in STEM, the same as boys.
More Programs to support women in STEM and more exposure for those that exist
The Athena Swan Charter (as an example) is a group dedicated to championing and promoting women’s careers in STEM. They defend women who feel they’ve been unfairly treated and reward institutions who are supportive of women’s issues. We need more attention given to such programs.
I’m, not necessarily saying government should fund these programs (although I think it would help) but I think public recognition and acknowledgement would go a long way. These organisations do need more funding and they need more exposure in the media. Give them enough funding to make television adverts maybe? Get some celebrity endorsement to raise the profile. The more people are aware of programs like Athena Swan, the more they are funded and the more capability they have to make changes.
Representation of female Scientists in the media
At the moment, a lot of Scientists depicted in TV and movies are men. The Big Bang Theory has, in fairness, introduced two female characters who are scientists, but only several seasons in…and they aren’t really good depictions of Scientists (just like the guys in fact). Generally Scientists in the media are portrayed as caricatures (boffins/nerds/lunatics) but as such they are usually guys.
There have been some outstanding female Scientist characters in recent sci-fi movies though, Gravity, Interstellar, and Sunshine all feature well written, confident, intelligent female Scientists who aren’t there to look attractive and be romantic foils for the men. It’s definitely a promising sign.
To me one of the best Scientist characters ever (one of the characters who really made me realise what it is to think like a Scientist) was Ellie Arroway from Contact. I saw the film when I was about 13 years old and read the book many years later, both times I found her inspiring. A woman inspiring a boy to think Science is cool? Shock horror.
Arroway is evidence-driven, skeptical, confident and isn’t defined as the romantic interest of a man. She is fierce, brilliant, ingenius and stands up for facts when everyone else is looking for a political angle.
One of these women is a confidently written independent, intelligent scientist, one of them is Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory dressed in a nightie. Good luck telling them apart!
Also, I’ll just say it: a female doctor in Doctor Who would be great. The doctor is often a very Scientifically minded character. He solves problems through thinking, analysing evidence, using prior knowledge and experimenting. At the moment, his companions are female, so let’s try flipping it. Let’s have a female critical-thinker solving her way through adventures. And let’s not worry too much about whether men will find her pretty. Let’s worry about whether men and women will find her inspiring.
Include current Science in our textbooks and syllabuses
We have to teach children the basic laws of Science and they were discovered over the past few centuries – by men. Girls in school hear names of endless dudes doing great things, and might get the unconscious impression that this is a subject built by guys. Usually Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin get a cursory mention but that’s it.
There is a simple fix for this. Start including up-to-date Scientific discoveries in the syllabus and textbooks. Take astronomy for instance. Starting with Annie Jump Cannon, astronomy is full of pioneering female names. Why not teach kids about Dark Matter and (therefore) Vera Rubin? Why not teach them about Carolyn Porco, one of the most widely respected and listened-to Scientists in the world today? Her research is absolutely fascinating and it’s the kind of stuff kids love!
Sure, we have to teach pupils about the genius of Charles Darwin, but let’s extend that to the courageous fieldwork of Jane Goodall. Science is full of inspirational people with inspirational stories and a lot of them are currently happening. Science education does need to include the history and the basics, but there’s a lot of important Science happening right now in our lifetimes. And guess what, a lot of it’s being done by women!
Men need to make an effort
I’ll be brief on this one. Women can easily promote the message that Science is for women…by being a woman. Men need to work a little harder to emphasise the role of women in Science. I’m not saying male Science teachers need to have the name of some great female pioneer thrown into every lesson at random. I’m just saying be mindful that you’re a man in a male-dominated field, with a high male uptake and a lot of girls automatically lacking confidence in it. Just…be aware of that.
There are other things which could and should be done to solve this problem. I’ve ignored outright sexism in the lab and workplace because that’s easier to spot and other people write about it better. Obviously men shouldn’t make misogynistic comments, harass women sexually or only value them for their looks. Well…durr!
I genuinely believe the best thing for civilization is Scientific education for all. So let’s get more girls into Science because it will be good for Science and, therefore, the human race…which contains both women and men.
Solvay conference recolourised: Sanna Dullaway
What feminism is: Blended with Hope
Angry-looking George Carlin: Pop Matters
Teen-Talk Barbie: Divine Caroline
Ellie Arroway: Reel Life Wisdom
Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory: Worn on TV
Carolyn Porco: TED
Stick figures of people doing math: Randall Munroe
The word ignorance is used as an insult, but it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean stupid, it just means “lacking knowledge”. I’m totally ignorant of the works of Skrillex for instance. I know it's a thing, but I know practically nothing about it. Pointing out when someone is being ignorant doesn’t attack them at all, it reminds them of an important fact:
No matter how much you know, there is always more that you don’t!
A student once asked me an interesting question which turned into a thought-provoking discussion:
Student: Are there parallel universes?
Me: Nobody knows. There are lots of Physicists looking for them but nobody has any idea.
Student: But what do you think?
Me: I think nobody knows.
Student: If you had to guess.
Me: I wouldn’t.
Student: But what do you believe?
Me: I believe I don’t know.
Student: What if I held a gun to your head and forced you to decide.
Me: Why are you holding a gun to my head?
Student: Just say I was and you had to pick.
Me: But my guess would be completely random to stop you pointing a gun at me.
Student: So, go with your gut feeling.
Me: My gut feeling is nobody knows.
Student: You aren’t allowed to say that, now choose.
Me: OK, fine. Let’s say yes, there are parallel universes?
Student: Why did you pick yes?
Me: Because I like the idea of parallel universes and I think that would be cool.
Student: Excellent, thanks, also how come you’re just so awesome?
Me: Well, I’m naturally that kind of guy.
Student: And also, your blogs are really well written.
Me: I know.
It’s an interesting exchange and it highlights a key point. Giving the answer “I don’t know” to a question is never satisfying to either party. If the student had asked which Scientist first suggested the idea of parallel universes that would be different, I would say Hugh Everett. But the question they asked was a speculative one: do parallel universes exist? We have no evidence one way or the other, so nobody knows. At all!
Other speculative questions are things like: Do aliens exist? How did life on Earth originate? and how long will the human species last? The only answer you can give to such questions honestly is “I don’t know”.
You can talk about possibilities and probabilities until your face goes purple. For instance, I think it’s very probable alien life does exist. But evidence always trumps conjecture. If you don’t have any evidence, you don’t know the answer to the question. And it’s ok to be like that.
The problem is, ignorance often looks like weakness, even though it’s actually a healthy state of mind to be in. I was once in a cinema and a woman behind me was mouthing off about something awful and stupid and offensive, so I got involved. She asked me a question at one point and I said “I have absolutely no idea”. Her response was: “And you’re proud of your ignorance are you?”
Well, no...but I’m not ashamed of it either. I’m just honest with myself and others. Obviously I didn’t say anything that cool or collected during the argument. I just snapped back with something caustic and cutting. I’m a grown-up you see.
Ignorance is a good thing, especially for Science. There’s a wonderful scene in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar which illustrates this. The main character is asking the spiritual leader of the Na’avi clan why they haven’t been able to teach humans their ways. The response given sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but it’s actually a brilliant response: “It is hard to fill a cup which is already full.” In other words: you can’t teach someone who thinks they already know the answers.
The same is true when we’re carrying out a Scientific test. If we go in feeling like we know what the results are going to be, we’re biasing ourselves. We should always start at zero belief (ignorance) and wait for the evidence to convince us one way or the other. We can have our hunches but the whole point of Science is to test them.
Rene Descartes carried this out to the extreme in the 17th Century. He decided to start at complete ignorance, refusing to believe anything, and see what he could convince himself of. He came to the conclusion that he existed, God existed, and mathematics existed. Whether we agree or disagree with Descartes’ conclusions, his intentions were noble: start with no belief and wait to be convinced of reality.
Admitting and owning up to ignorance can be really hard, particularly when you’re a teacher. You spend a lot of time telling people what you know, so it feels weird to talk about how much you don’t know. It’s not easy to get the balance right.
As a teacher I usually make it clear to my classes that I know a lot about the subjects I’m teaching. It’s not to boast, it’s to help students feel at ease in my classroom. If students have confidence in their teacher’s knowledge they’re more likely to feel they can trust what happens. So I try to establish the fact that I know a lot of things about what I teach. And I do. I’m really proud of my subject knowledge.
But I know less than 0.00001% of the Scientific knowledge out there! This is one of the cool things about Science: even when you know loads about it, you’re still not even close to running out of stuff to learn.
Sometimes I’ll joke with my classes and say “I know everything” but it’s understood, I hope, that I really don’t know much about anything. My knowledge is dwarfed by other teachers. And theirs will be dwarfed by others still. Thing is, that's OK. Even the most knowledgeable people in the world are mostly ignorant of it. And it’s wise to remember that, particularly when we’re doing Science.
Image credits: Angry teenager
You know when you want to reach into a television screen or the pages of a book and slap someone in the face? There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon visits his mother, and it boils my blood. He mentions wanting to teach Evolution and the following exchange takes place:
Sheldon’s mother: Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
Sheldon: Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.
Sheldon’s mother: And that is your opinion.
Ouch. The issue I have here isn’t with evolution or people who deny it (well, I do sort of take issue with that, but we’ll do that another day). It’s the fact that Sheldon’s mother thinks she is entitled to an opinion about the reality of the world.
The real crime she’s guilty of is not understanding what opinions are for. I suppose we can’t really blame her for ignorance. We can, however, blame her for being stubborn. She should have figured it out by now. Opinions and facts aren’t the same thing. But she’s not alone in muddling them. It’s actually very common and it starts young.
Recently I visited a primary school and did an experiment where we measured which chemical would fizz the most: A, B or C. The pupils all took guesses and it was a three way split. After conducting the experiment it turned out to be C.
Everything was going well until I asked the class: “are we allowed to carry on believing in A or B if the evidence says it’s C?” Rather surprisingly they all said yes, you’re allowed to believe whatever you want, even in the face of evidence.
The explanation they gave sounded pretty solid: “everyone’s allowed to have an opinion and there’s no such thing as a wrong one”.
I completely agree with this statement, but it made me think. Is it a good idea to teach people they can believe whatever they want? I can think of several reasons that might be a bit ridiculous.
I might believe murder is justified. Or that a certain medicine contains poison and I prevent sick people from taking it. Some opinions could lead to significant harm caused to others (if you want depressing proof of that, check out the case of Natalie Rippberger).
Also, if an opinion is something which can’t be right or wrong, it can’t apply to a situation where there is a definite answer. The square root of 64 is always 8. You can’t have an opinion about that. So, I think we need to teach a more realistic message:
An opinion can’t be wrong, but you can’t have an opinion about reality.
Suppose I looked out of my window and saw it was raining. If I say “in my opinion it’s sunny” then we clearly have a problem. It’s not illegal or harmful to say something like that, it just makes no sense. Learning about the truth is a coercive thing, your senses are forced by the way reality is and you don’t get any say in whether you agree or not. You have to agree with reality.
I know we’re told from an early age that our opinion matters, but I wonder if there’s a risk in taking it too far. Nobody’s opinion means diddly-squat when compared to nature. If you’re trying to figure out how the world is (Science), opinions are the things you should try to leave at the door.
You can disagree on what the evidence says but that’s not a matter of opinion, that’s a disagreement which can be settled by finding more and better evidence. How we use Science can be a matter of opinion, the facts of Science are not.
We want children to form opinions independently from their parents. A world where children just believe what their parents believe would be one in which progress never happened. That’s obvious. But I do think we need to be cautious about going too far.
We should tell children their opinions are valid, but they aren’t the ultimate guide on what’s true. If you say something which is factually inaccurate you aren’t really allowed to defend it by saying “that’s my opinion”.
There is of course, a grey area. Socrates argued that opinions were views people had about factual information, without having the full breadth of evidence. And I think he had a bit of a point (as was often the case with Socrates).
A lot of political issues fall into this realm. You might, for example, think there would be less crime in the world if we made alcohol illegal. You might think there would be more financial prosperity if we increased numbers of immigrant workers, you might feel that certain types of movies will lead to a breakdown in social order.
These are statements about fact: numbers of crimes, money coming into a country, amount of public riots etc. But they’re facts which nobody has hard evidence on. The only way to find out whose opinion is correct would be to actually carry out the social change and measure the effect.
The annoying thing is that gathering the evidence can be tricky, costly and daunting. So, many of these arguments never get resolved and remain opinions. Ultimately I think we need to distinguish between opinions, tastes and facts.
Tastes are to do with whether we like something or not.
Tastes are subjective.
Opinions concern reality when there isn’t clear evidence.
Opinions are subjective stances on objective reality.
Facts concern reality when there is clear evidence.
Facts are objective.
Remember, of course, that facts are still only best-explanations until better evidence comes along, making them blur with opinion sometimes, but I would say if there is overwhelming evidence for something and absolutely zero coherent evidence against something, we have the right to call it a fact. For the time being.
A few weeks ago, several news websites including the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian all ran a story on the latest Scientist to analyse Yeti samples. Stories of the abominable snowman, a mysterious creature inhabiting the Himalayas, have been circulating for about 200 years now. Sightings have been reported and tracks have been photographed. At the time of writing however, nobody has caught one so the question is: do we believe in Yetis?
Let me be clear, I would love yetis to be real. And, just to put it in context, cryptid creatures really are discovered occasionally. Giant squids and okapis were both mystery-creatures until fairly recently.
Could yetis be next on the list? Well, maybe. It would be foolish to say “yetis definitely don’t exist” because someone might find a yeti carcass the next day and you’d look like an idiot.
Yetis aren’t a matter of opinion either because they either do or don’t exist and, strictly speaking, it’s a testable idea; we really could carry out an enormous experiment to confirm or disconfirm their existence (observing every square foot of the Earth simultaneously would do it).
For now though, we have to be honest and say we don’t know if yetis exist. But if we wanted to place a likelihood on it - to say whether such a creature was probable or not - how could we do so? At present, yeti evidence falls into three categories.
1) Body samples: People have found chunks of bone, flesh and hair claiming them to be yeti. The most recent investigation on such a sample was carried out by Eliecer Gutierrez and Ronald Pine, who published their results in Zookeys issue 487 (which you can find online for free). The conclusion they came to via DNA analysis is that supposed yeti hair samples can be identified as coming from Himalayan brown bears………Or, they came from yetis and yeti hair matches bear hair by coincidence.
2) Footprints: A lot of photographs and casts have been taken of unusual tracks found in Himalayan snow. The size of the footprints, their angle and the distance between them don’t match any known animal. So, none other than Edmund Hilary (the first man to reach the summit of Everest with Tenzing Norgay) investigated the tracks and explained his findings in the January 13th 1961 edition of Life magazine.
Hilary followed several apparent yeti tracks, discovering them to belong to dogs. As the dogs raced through the snow, the bounding of their feet meant several paws would hit powder in the same place at the same time, creating enormous shapes at unusual distances and angles from each other. So the footprints could be explained as belonging to dogs………Or, they were made by yetis and the dogs happened to be in the area.
3) Sightings: Since the early 1800s, many people have reported seeing hair-covered creatures walking in the Himalayas. Himalayan brown bears (and a few other bear species native to the area) will sometimes walk on their hind legs. Add to that, human sensory systems working poorly at higher altitudes where there is less oxygen, and a higher rate of hallucination. It seems quite likely that the various sightings have been bears and blurry eyes………Or, yetis.
We have a decision to make. We can explain all the yeti information as bears, dog-footprints and human misperception………or there really are a species of unidentified ape-creatures living in the Himalayas who have never been reported in detail prior to the 19th century, leave no identifiable remains, leave no droppings, have never been clearly photographed or filmed, and have managed to survive in a harsh environment for two hundred years while somehow keeping their population density extremely low. Two competing hypotheses which both explain the evidence completely!
It’s time to use Occam’s razor. Attributed to the medieval philosopher William of Occam, the principle is pretty straightforward:
“The hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be chosen until you know better”.
Occam’s razor says if you have two equally plausible, equally evidenced hypotheses and no way to distinguish between them, go with the one requiring the least number of mental leaps.
This does NOT mean the simpler hypothesis is definitely correct. Indeed, it might wrong. But until evidence comes along to support one explanation over the other, Occam’s razor says you’re better off going with the simpler one.
In the case of yetis we either accept a hypothesis in which bears exist, footprints can be misinterpreted and human eyesight can be fooled (a hypothesis with no leaps of faith) or we accept that never-before-seen animals exist and have avoided detection against all odds (this takes quite a big leap of faith).
The simplest explanation isn’t always the correct one, but the number of times an unusual explanation has turned out to be right is very small.
If we don’t use Occam’s razor (and go with the more outlandish explanation) then we might as well accept an infinite number of ideas. We might suggest that Yetis can turn invisible. Or turn into trees, or fly. Or perhaps they can teleport to the moon. All these hypotheses are consistent with the evidence: no yetis found.
Occam’s razor is not a way of deciding if a hypothesis is true or not. It’s also not an iron-clad rule of Science. But when you have two plausible explanations for something, the chances are that the more straightforward one is going to be right. While I want Yetis to be real, I have to go with Occam’s razor not my preferences. So, are yetis real? Unfortunately, I doubt it.
Yeti by Phillippe Semeria
Himalayan Brown Bear by Zoo Hluboka
William of Occam by Moscarlop
In 1941 Pope Pius XII declared Saint Albert to be the patron saint of Scientists. He even has a special feast day – November 15th if you’re interested – and he is revered as a doctor of the church. It’s an interesting choice and one which makes sense; Pius discovered the element Arsenic and believed firmly that Science ought to be united with religious belief.
If the choice was up to me (probably a good thing it’s not) I’d consider Saint Thomas the Apostle, more commonly known as doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas was told of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and, according to the gospel of John, didn’t believe it - asking instead to see the evidence. Once the evidence was presented he switched from non-belief to belief. Point is, he needed to check things first.
Sometimes Thomas is criticised for his actions but I feel that might be unfair. Whether you think the story is true or not, doubting Thomas is an icon of uncertainty. And for that reason I think he would have made a good Scientist.
Sadly, we tend to think of doubt as a bad thing. Search the word "doubt" on google and you return loads of hits about how doubt crushes dreams and holds you back. We don't seem to like it very much.
Imagine a prime minister standing up in parliament and announcing “I am not certain of my policies. I don’t know precisely how they work and I am doubtful of my own approach to leadership.” The thought is so absurd it’s almost funny.
It’s understandable of course; doubt looks like weakness (especially in a leader) and we want to feel like the people in charge know what they're talking about. Little children afraid of ghosts want their parents to tell them there are no such things as ghosts. They don’t want to hear “well, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any ghosts…but who knows? I mean there might be some under your bed right now"!
If someone asks whether I believe in gravity, I answer “yes” obviously. But if someone asks me: are you absolutely certain gravity exists at every point in the universe? That’s a little different. I’ve not been to every point in the universe so the answer to the question is technically no. It would be arrogant of me to say I possessed such knowledge. It’s reasonable to assume gravity probably does exist everywhere until we know different, but we shouldn’t tie ourselves to a belief and label it unquestionable.
If I believe something is true I always try to do so with 99% confidence but never 100% certainty.
If you are 100% convinced something is true, you are 0% open to being corrected.
To be clear, doubting yourself isn’t always the best way to live. In fact, making assumptions helped us survive in our early development as a species. The human who doubts the lion’s footprint is probably the one who gets eaten.
So yes, in the world of everyday life it’s natural and even useful to trust ourselves. But when we’re taking time to work things out in detail, when we’re studying the world, when we’ve got time to think and be critical, the best thing we can do is entertain the possibility we might be wrong. It comes back to what I said in my previous post about Science being a cycle. We have to recognise that a theory is simply our best guess.
Science thrives on a lack of certainty. It moves forward because it entertains the notion that “this theory is open to investigation…let’s check it before we believe it.”
Doubt is important to Science because it makes us humble, makes us listen to other people and stops us from getting too lazy in our knowledge. If we don’t embrace doubt we won’t discover as many new things.
Usually when people talk about Science they mean subjects like Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology etc. If you look through any Science text-book it’s essentially a list of facts the author seems to just know. What’s often not included is the story of how the facts are discovered.
This approach to Science is unfortunate but inevitable. If books explained how each fact was arrived at, they would be fifty times the size. The problem is that people often come away from Science seeing it as knowledge rather than method.
Science ought to work something like this:
Let’s start at the top. All Science begins with not knowing something. Science is born in ignorance. Maybe we don’t know what happens to apples when we let go of them, maybe we don’t know how often chimpanzees fight in the wild or maybe we don’t know what will happen if we mix two chemicals together.
First thing: get out and do an experiment. The alternative is to try and work everything out in our heads, what’s called a priori thinking. Science tends to reject the a priori approach because it makes the assumption that people think perfectly. Science assumes that even brilliantly clever people make mistakes, so nobody can just decide what is true from their own brain.
After the experiment we’ve got some information. We might have discovered that all apples fall, that chimpanzees fight once every hour and that the chemicals turn blue when mixed. Sometimes people think this is where Science stops. But this is just the beginning because although we’ve learnt a simple fact about the world, we’re lacking an explanation. So we come up with a “hypothesis”.
A hypothesis is another name for an educated guess. It’s a potential explanation which must explain everything, not contradict itself and, most importantly, it must be falsifiable.
Falsifiability is a key principle of Science. It’s the idea that a hypothesis must be capable of being proven wrong. I’ll show what I mean by using “Sagan’s dragon”. Suppose I claimed to have an invisible dragon living in my house who made the Sun rise. Not only is he invisible but he floats and never leaves footprints, he is non-corporeal so you can’t throw a blanket over him, he’s also silent and he gives off no heat signature. In fact there is no way of detecting his presence at all, but he’s definitely still there. Prove me wrong.
Such a hypothesis does provide an explanation for what makes the Sun rise. In fact, it might be true. There really might be such an invisible dragon living in my house. But if you can’t prove the idea wrong, how do you test to see if it’s true? The problem with a non-falsifiable hypothesis is that if we accept it we have to ask: why not an invisible walrus too? Or an invisible fish-wizard? Why not an army of undetectable pixies living in my washing machine who control the weather? Our world may be filled with such creatures and we would never know it.
If you accept one non-falsifiable hypothesis, you have to accept every other one since they have an equal amount of evidence (none). Our picture of the world quickly becomes infinite under such a view. It might really be like this, but we can’t know with any confidence so we have to ignore all such claims, not because we think they’re untrue (they might be right) but because they are un-knowable.
So once we have our hypothesis locked, we put it to another test, one which measures it specifically. This is the kind of thing we learn about in school as “fair testing”. Remove anything which could throw the results off and anything which could be a distraction. Arrange it so that only one thing is changing and one thing is being measured.
Then do your test repeatedly. This is to get around coincidences. Even the simplest “sugar dissolves better in hot water” hypothesis has lots of potential misleading factors. The temperature of the room, the quality of the sugar, the type of water etc. So you test it over and over to make sure the hypothesis wasn’t confirmed or rejected by accident the first time.
At this point your hypothesis is either proven wrong or it looks hopeful (note: we don’t say we’ve proven it right, just that we could be onto something). Thing is, we’re human. We want our idea to be correct because we’re proud of it. If our hypothesis is proven wrong then it’s completely normal to get frustrated or disappointed or feel like we’ve wasted our time.
In an ideal world, proving a hypothesis wrong would be seen as good, because we’ve still learned something, but humans aren’t ideal and it can be difficult to think like that. Even a hard-nosed Scientist must feel a slight pang of annoyance if their hypothesis fails.
We do our best to put up our hands and say “oh ok, I guessed wrong, back to the drawing board” but we’re full of emotional biases and the desire to achieve positive results (even though negative ones are just as useful).
In addition to these instinctive responses there are all sorts of other things which could make our conclusion faulty. Bad equipment, poorly designed tests, mistakes carried out by accident and even conscious dishonesty. That’s why Science introduces the next crucial stage: we bring in other people to check it.
You cast your hypothesis on the ravenous mercy of other Scientists and hope for the best. This is frightening because you are opening yourself up to heavy criticism, but it’s vital. If you’re doing Science in your kitchen then get your friend to check your results, but if you’re working in Scientific research the standard way to release your results is to submit them to a journal (a sort of weekly Scientific newspaper).
The journal’s editorial team will send your article to other researchers in the same field to find flaws. This is usually done anonymously (to avoid bribery etc.) This is an ingenius idea. You are essentially showing your work to your rivals, the people most likely to criticise and destroy. If they can’t find fault then your hypothesis has passed another hurdle and the results are published.
Now we have a public hypothesis so other people can test it. If other people find your hypothesis holds up then you can start to get excited. But if they can’t reproduce your findings then you swallow pride, abandon ship and start over.
But let’s say you’re lucky. Let’s say you’re in that tiny fraction of a fraction of people who come up with an accurate hypothesis. This is when it picks up speed. Once the hypothesis has been tested many times by lots of people over a long period of time and has been confirmed on every occasion, explaining every result, then we decide the hypothesis is probably correct. The hypothesis graduates from speculation to confidence and people start referring to it as a “theory”. A theory is not one person’s guess. It’s a statement about the world which has been put through the grinder and stood the tests of both time and savage scrutiny. But we don’t close the case because the Scientific method goes round in a circle.
We might use words like “Scientifically proven” or “Scientific fact” but these are shorthand for what we really mean. No theory is beyond question. Ever. A theory is something we’re 99.99% confident of. These are the facts we publish in our text books and teach in our schools. But any theory is based on falsifiable ideas and a single piece of evidence can bring it crashing down. Rightly so.
Take gravity. Isaac Newton drew up a hypothesis to describe the attraction between two objects in 1687. The more people tested it the more confident they became, and pretty soon we had a “theory of gravity”. A Scientific fact.
But later measurements of Mercury and its orbit around the Sun turned out not to fit Newton’s theory. So, rather than sticking to Newton blindly, we decided his theory of gravity was incomplete. Newton was wrong.
Then, in 1915, Einstein published his own ideas on gravity which would explain the anomalies and account for why Newton had seemed correct up until then. It was tested, shared and confirmed over and over. Today we call it Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But we don’t say job done and declare Einstein’s theory iron-clad. In fact, Einstein’s theory seems to break down in certain circumstances so we still don’t have the complete picture.
The key point is this: if, at any point, someone had declared their knowledge of gravity complete, they’d find themselves looking pretty stupid a few years later. Scientists are aware of this so they’re very reluctant to make bold claims unless they have incredible evidence on their side. Most of the time Scientists guess wrong and they know it.
Ultimately, Science is a self-correcting, painstaking endeavour making progress at a rate of inches per decade. It’s cautious about what it says, so when it does say something, it has a good reason to do so. But that’s only a theory of course. Eventually we might discover something better.
1) Science is amazing
It's a basic human desire to want to understand the world - Science is simply the best tool we have for doing so. And when we look, it turns out that nature isn’t disappointing. It’s remarkable beyond description. Science is, first and foremost, a celebration of how lucky we are to live in a universe as fascinating and beautiful as this one.
2) Science is important
No matter what you’re studying or in what level of detail, anything taking place in the Universe is based on a simple principle: cause and effect. Any event can be traced to a cause, which can be traced to an earlier cause and so on and so on, right the way back into the mouth of the big-bang expansion 13.8 billion years ago (which we’re still trying to explain). It goes the other way too. From studying the world as it is now, we can work out where it’s going and what will become of our planet.
Science is discovering the past and predicting the future to put the present in context. I sincerely believe that how well we understand Science is the thing which will determine the fate of our entire species.
3) Science is reliable
Science isn’t just a collection of useful facts. It gives us something more important than knowledge: a trustworthy way to get hold of it. The world is rarely the way it appears. It’s complicated and humans are prone to mislead themselves and sometimes each other. There was a time when the Earth was a flat disc and the Sun orbited us. That’s the way it appears and our senses are easily deceived. Science is our best chance at cutting through misleading information and getting to the way things really are. Science doesn’t just give us a picture of the world, it gives us a picture we can be confident of.
4) Science is for everyone
If there’s one thing I enjoy almost as much as studying Science it’s helping other people understand it. No matter what your age, nationality, religion, sex or gender, you have a right to Science.
So many people are put off the subject because it’s perceived as complicated; that it belongs to boffins sitting in labs scratching out brutal equations on squeaky blackboards. The reality is that Science belongs to the entire human race.
Sure, there are some parts which take a lot of work and Science can be hard sometimes (really hard), but I don’t think there is any such thing as an idea which is “too clever” for anyone. Science can be explained to anyone who’s curious enough to ask about it.
I love science, let me tell you why.