Duty Calls, Philosophy, Science

On systems biology and bullshit

Clarity and lucidity are key strengths of scientists and writers. Jargon and cliches can make the best paper unreadable. This is why science writer Carl Zimmer keeps an index of banned words his students should avoid.

One of the words on the index is ‘breakthrough,’ which is overused, because the person reporting it doesn’t bother to think about how big the step forward really is. Using such cliches shows sloppy thinking and lack of scrutiny. This is why Zimmer bans ‘breakthrough‘ “unless you are covering Principia Mathematica”, in which case you are fine, regardless of whether you refer to Whitehead and Russell or Newton.

Not only science writers need to avoid cliches and enrich their texts for content – ‘real’ scientists also often use fancy buzz words with far too much levity. Just think of these three (in no particular order) that you can hear in almost every systems biology talk:

  1. Integrated,
  2. Network,
  3. System.

Continue reading


Radiant with triumphant calamity — Feyerabend in Frankfurt?

Great minds think alike. Having recently read Feyerabend’s Tyranny of Science I was reminded of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung), a key text in Critical Theory and the Frankfurt school. I had never managed more than the first chapter of Dialectic, but that was already enough to find surprising parallels. Feyerabend doesn’t mention Adorno or Horkheimer in his autobiography, but he sure converged on some of the same ideas.

Continue reading

Philosophy, Science

Here be dragons! Thomas Kuhn, Statistics and System Biology

Here be dragons!

Thomas Kuhn had physics in mind when he wrote Structure of scientific revolutions but his key ideas also apply to statistics and systems biology and can explain some of the confusion in the field.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of scientific revolutions desribes the history of science as phases of normal science separated by revolutions and paradigm shifts. During normal science, research is guided by  a ruling paradigm, which identifies feasible problems and routes to tackle them. Normal science is a period of puzzle solving. The better your paradigm, the clearer the puzzle, the better your chances to solve it and progress.

Continue reading

Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Science

Crocheting reality – beautiful fringe science

“For thousands of years mathematicians believed there were just 2 types of geometry, the plane and the sphere. But another more aberrant structure lurks beneath the surface of Euclid’s laws – one that has been illuminated through the art of crochet.” *

You’ve heard correctly: crochet!

The Institute for Figuring features many ways to make abstract topics more accessible, one of them is to crochet models of hyperbolic spaces. A whole institute dedicated to aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics — this is awesome!

Continue reading

Philosophy, Science

Faster forwards than backwards — scientific de-discovery and forensics

Carl Sagan: Science is self-correcting process.

Science is simple! At least, great minds have found simple formulas to describe it. For Paul Feyerabend it’s Anything Goes. For Karl Popper it’s Falsify! Falsify! Falsify! And Carl Sagan called science a self-correcting process that is perfect for finding out what’s true.

But how do these grand ideas hold up in practice?
Continue reading

Books, Duty Calls, Philosophy

Feyerabend and the tyranny of science

In October 2011 PLoS Biology, a top biology journal, tried something new – it took a deeper look at the boundary between biology and philosophy:

“Does the cultural divide between science and the humanities, first articulated by C. P. Snow over 50 years ago, still exist between biology and philosophy? In a mini experiment to find out, we asked a philosopher and biologist to review the recent English translation of Tyranny of Science, by 20th century philosopher Paul Feyerabend, perhaps best known for rejecting the claim that science is a singular discipline unified by common methods and concepts.”

What a nice idea! The philosopher is Ian J Kidd from Durham in the UK, who does research on Feyerabend and other philosophers of science, while the biologist is Axel Meyer from Konstanz in Germany, who studies diversity in fish. And Feyerabend (1924-1994) is a very good choice, because he is notorious as a polemic writer and not known for holding back his opinions. If there is any divide of any kind anywhere, Feyerabend will be right in the thick of it.

Continue reading