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Dissertation Log 1: My dissertation research project

I guess I’m not a typical blogger as I don’t like to generate my own reasons to blog: I blog when there’s a topic which interests me and about which I feel I can say something novel. (Which is another way of saying that a lot of blogs seem to be somewhat echo-chambery – not that echo chambers are inherently a bad thing, but that I don’t necessarily feel sufficiently married to any particular social group that I feel the need to necessarily reinforce my social bonds with that group by echoing discursive themes.)

However, having completed modules in science and the public and communicating science in the information age, and been awarded my post graduate diploma in science and society, I now have to research and write a 15,000 word dissertation. in order to get the full MSc in Science and society degree. (That’s mainly sociology of science and technology, with some philosophy of science, social psychology, linguistics, politics and other odds and sods.)

Well, my research proposal has been accepted. I’ll expand on the detail shortly, but part of the marking criteria includes keeping a regular research log. Rather than keep a purely private log, my intention is to develop it as part of my blog.

First, we are living in a networked world, and my research cannot exist independently of the world in which it exists, so this is a good way of acknowledging engaging what I’m doing with that world.

Second, one of my modules was on science communication in the digital age: if, as the basic thesis of that module proposes, the world of research is being transformed, I don’t think that can be restricted to just the natural sciences. I can do a bit of action research and actually try out the idea of a public lab book, and see how I feel about it, and how it compares with other projects I’ve worked on. May be it won’t work, but negative findings are still findings 😉

Third, the discipline of writing something each week will actually benefit me, ensuring I’m writing down what I’m thinking and allowing me to keep a track of the development of ideas and theories. It will probably allow me to air drafts of sections of the dissertation, and refine the arguments and presentation.

Fourth, I’d be interested in getting feedback on my ideas and actions. The main weakness of Open University study (and it’s not much of a weakness in the grand scheme of things) is that I often feel disconnected from the academic community, and I’d welcome intellectual discussion and constructive criticism of my ideas and action. This is not a licence to slag me off because you don’t like me, social science, my values, my face (you’re not alone in this one) or whatever, and I will cull comments which aren’t constructive, but could be fun for me. (Of course, what will probably happen is no-one will ever comment. Meh.)

So over the coming few months (the dissertation is to be submitted in September 2012) I will try to post a blog at least once a fortnight touching on my research; for example, my next post will be on choosing a methodology for undertaking the research. If you have questions, ideas and comments, please post them.

So, now for the big reveal, what is it I’m studying? I’m interested in the way social groups construct their views of scientific topics, and in particular in medical subjects. I’m also interested in a social group who describe themselves as “skeptics”; they’ve become increasingly active and high profile in the UK and I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of what they say and do, but there’s very little research into them as a social group, influence and norms and values. So, my proposal aims to explore those key areas.

My accepted proposal reads as follows:

The Burzynski Affair: a case study in perspectives on alternative cancer therapy

Patients with terminal cancers, their friends and families often seek out therapies which would not normally be considered as a “last ditch” effort to save their own or loved ones’ lives. An example of this type of therapy, which appears in the press not infrequently, is the “antineoplaston therapy” promoted by the Burzynski Clinic in Texas, USA ( A typical story is that of Chiane Cloete, a five year old girl who has been diagnosed with a supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumour in the brain; her parents are seeking to raise £130,000 to get her treatment “not available in the UK” at the Burzynski clinic (Parsons, 2011).

I am interested in exploring how four different groups represent the Burzynski Clinic’s therapies in discourse available publicly. The first group will be that of proponents of the Burzynski Clinic and its work. The principle sources will be the Burzynski website, promotional materials, testimonials (via blogs, tweets and publicly accessible fora) from patients and associated materials.

The second group will be that of skeptics in the UK (the spelling using a ‘k’ comes from the American spelling, and is used to differentiate skepticism – the movement – from scepticism – the philosophical position – although the two are not unrelated). Writing about the emerging skeptical community in the USA in 1993, Hess described skeptics as “antiantiscientists” (Hess, 1993, p 11) who focus on debunking and demystifying “parapsychology … superstition, occultism and ‘pseudoscience’” (ibid. p 11). In the intervening 18 years, a sceptical community has arisen in the UK, complete with its own internet counter-culture and real-world community events (such as skeptics in the pub, and conferences such as Q.E.D.). After skeptics in the UK raised concerns about Burzynski in September 2011, a threat of libel action was made against several of the sceptical voices. The principle sources will be sceptical websites, blogs, tweets and other associated materials of people in the UK who self-identify as skeptics, or who are strongly associated with the skeptic movement in the UK (for example, Dr Ben Goldacre, Robin Ince and Dr Brian Cox).

The third group will be the printed news media in the UK. The principle sources will be Nexis and using Google to find other material hosted on major outlet (ie. national distribution) websites. This will be limited to information available at no direct cost to the consumer.

The fourth group will involve a literature search exploring the view of peer-reviewed scientific journals and associated research (eg. Cochrane reviews). This will be as light-touch as possible, to identify the boundaries of knowledge rather than to provide a considered opinion on the use of such treatments.

In order to undertake this research, the following questions will be considered:

  1. What language is used by each group to describe the Burzynski therapy, and what are the implications of the language used?
  2. What are the similarities between the way the Burzynski therapy is represented by each groups, and what are the differences?
  3. What values are revealed or highlighted by the language used by the contrasting groups?
  4. How does what each of the groups say compare with what the scientific literature has to say on the issue? What situated knowledge is implicit or explicit in the discourse?
  5. How are groups (particularly proponents and skeptics) represented by the other participants in the discourse?
  6. What implications does this analysis of the discourse have for understanding the ways in which an issue is represented in the public?

Exploring these research questions will demonstrate an understanding of the ways in science, scientists and their limitations are understood and represented by contrasting public groups. This will touch on issues raised in S802 such as concepts of anti-science, ethics, expertise, regulation, policy and risk.

Certainly the issue raises questions of what constitutes science and non-science (see for example: Grove, 1989), but also raises the issues of the knowledge boundaries of scientific research (Collins & Pinch, 1998). It also touches on how scientific knowledge is used, constructed and reconstructed in everyday life (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).


  1. Construct a narrative relating to the Burzynski affair based on publicly available material
  2. Compare and contrast through discourse analysis four differing perspectives on the Burzynski affair: proponents, skeptics in the UK, UK news media and published papers in scientific journals
  3. Understand how the perspectives reflect on the construction of scientific knowledge, uncertainty and how the values of each group influence their representation of the issue

Collins, H., & Pinch, T. (1998). The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Second.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grove, J. (1989). Anti-science. In Defence of Science: Science, Technology and Politics in Modern Society (pp. 151-177). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hess, D. J. (1993). Science in the New Age: the paranormal, its defenders and debunkers, and American culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Irwin, A., & Wynne, B. (1996). Misunderstanding Science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage.

Parsons, R. (2011, December 14). Cancer girl’s £130,000 plea for life-saving operation in US | News. The London Evening Standard. London.

Goldman Conjecture: How do I know who to believe?

I heard Massimo Pigliucci on For Good Reason nearly a year ago (episode 1 and episode 2) talking about his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk.

I’ve just finished reading the book (well, technically, listening to it in my car), and it’s a reasonable, Skeptical discussion of philosophy of science and epistemology. Massimo Pigliucci has three doctorates (genetics, botany and philosophy of science), and writes clearly about the issues, ranging from the demarcation problem (what is science and what isn’t?) to how science works.

However, it was his penultimate chapter on expertise which promoted me to write this post. In it, he advocates five principles which are adapted from Alvin Goldman’s Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?. Here they are (paraphrased):

  1. What is quality of the arguments presented by the experts (eg. are they citing evidence or using fallacious arguments)?
  2. Do the arguments agree with the arguments and evidence presented by other experts in the field (eg. do they agree with the consensus)?
  3. What recognition of expertise does the person have (eg. do they have a relevant academic qualification or other recognition)?
  4. What are the biases affecting of the experts, and how do they related to the positions they are espousing (eg. if they’re researching drugs, are they funded by pharmaceutic companies)?
  5. What is the experts success rate like (eg. do they have regular/recent/relevant peer-reviewed research published)?

In the book, Pigliucci compares an advocate of creationism with an advocate of evolution, and unsurprisingly his conclusion is that the evolutionist is more worthy of trust than the creationist. He also uses the criteria against a single person – Deepak Chopra – and concludes that he falls at the first hurdle: his arguments aren’t really arguments at all.

My problem with the first this is the context in which such assessment is supposed to occur. Outside of a few professionals, who is expert on assessing and weighing evidence? The fact is that most debates in the public sphere are decided on the basis more of effective rhetoric than expert application and assessment of inductive and deductive logical patterns.

The second assumes that people have access to the information necessary to assess the quality of the evidence, and assumes that it is necessarily possible to identify consensus. To Pigliucci’s credit, he does point out that consensus can be wrong, but I’d question whether developing – or even developed – science is quite so amenable to objective analysis, not least because information may be hidden behind paywalls, technical language or mere obscurity. It also assumes a desire to check this information.

[edit: added this paragraph at 2115] It also occurs to me that this requires you to know who is an expert in order to be able to identify who is an expect. Seem like this could result in a recursive loop in which every expert can only be an expert when the comparator expert has also assessed!

The third assumes that most people know what is, or is not, relevant to the issues at hand. For example, which type of biologist should I ask about evolution? Why is a biologist not the right person to talk about abiogenesis?

The fourth, it seems to me, can be problematic on both sides of the equation and requires a subjective decision as to which biases should be included and which should not (for example, is a persons religious affiliation relevant to a discussion on the development of life?).

Finally, the fifth has the same weaknesses as the second, and in addition assumes that people have the ability to assess the relative success of different papers and publications in the knowledge ecosystem.

Although Pigliucci’s writing is a good introduction to epistemology and sciphi, it very much preaches to the choir. His clear disdain of post-modern thinking is amusing (but doesn’t seem to have evolved much since Sokal), but I would hope – as Pigliucci himself encourages – that readers treat his conclusions with some, dare I say it, skepticism. After all, the people who most need to think critically are the people least likely to read it…