Archive for December, 2013

Principles of Science


Above is a design for a wood carving I created in order to illustrate the principles involved in the application of scientific method. The knotwork represents the evidence that needs to be unraveled. The tree at the centre of the spiral represents Truth. The three circles at each corner of the tree triangle represent the cognitive processes involved: logic, intuition and bottom-up processing.
The five circles arranged on the spiral represent the five principles of scientific method: Empiricism, Scepticism, Tentativeness, Openness, and Anti-authoritarianism, all feeding the tree of Truthful knowledge.

The level of anti-science rhetoric, and ignorance of what scientific method actually is in the community and the media greatly disturbs me.There really needs to be a concerted effort by the scientific community  to engage with and educate the community about scientific method and why it is the most effective process we have for discerning objective truth.

Below I have transcribed part of a lecture that my first year research methodology lecturer Andrew Tilley gave to us on the subject. This lecturer used to use a lot of humorous cartoons in his lectures. My favourite was of three people in conversation that went thus:

1st person: Men are from Mars.

2nd person: Women are from Venus.

3rd person: Pop psychology is from Uranus.

From Tilley AJ 1999
The Science of Psychology Lecture
Science is a PROCESS of acquiring knowledge and a means of trying to understand reality and reveal the truth.

Science is the OBJECTIVE, SYSTEMATIC process of DISCOVERING, DESCRIBING, ANALYSING and ultimately EXPLAINING phenomena and events and relationships between variables.

Science is based on the assumption that a) everything is essentially ordered and organised rather than random or chaotic; & b) based upon CAUSE AND EFFECT. ie based upon reliable, consistent predictable, or lawful relationships between variables.

Principles of Science
1 Empiricism
2 Scepticism
3 Tentativeness
4 Openness
5 Anti-authoritarian

1 Empiricism. This principle means that evidence about reality must be OBJECTIVE AND OBSERVABLE. What you think is true must be OBJECTIVELY DEMONSTRABLE to the most severe critic. Non-empirical evidence is inadmissible. NOTHING IS TAKEN AS SELF EVIDENT. Scientific knowledge must be based upon empirical observation. Logic, reason , common sense and intuition are all useful and necessary but insufficient to produce or provide knowledge.

2 Scepticism. This principle is all about checking and questioning. Science is sceptical and critical. It insists upon being able to check and question evidence and explanation. How good is the evidence? Is the evidence REPRODUCIBLE? Is the evidence sufficient to support the explanation? Is the explanation sufficient account for the evidence? Is there a simpler, or better or alternate explanation. Science maintains that all NATURAL events and phenomena have NATURAL causes. Science is all that is necessary to explain everything.

3 Tentativeness. Science offers only tentative or approximate explanations that are relative to the existing state of scientific knowledge, which can change. Nothing is written in stone, nothing is sacred. Science always allows new and better theories to replace old theories if they are found wanting in the face of the empirical evidence.

4 Openness. Science is open and public. Scientific research is published to INFORM and to allow and encourage others to question and check the validity and reliability of the research.

5 Anti-authoritarian. Being empirical and sceptical means that science is naturally anti-authoritarian. Science REJECTS AND RECOILS from accepting on faith, without questioning, the statements or pronouncements of any text or authority on the nature of reality. Nothing is accepted unless it is supported by empirical evidence. Acceptance of any position is tentative and open to change or modification if a better explanation for the existing evidence, or if new evidence comes to light.

My note: (In other words Science is not a belief system like religion. It is a system for uncovering facts so that people can form their beliefs about the world out of truths, not myths).


In each or these diagrams there are represented two conflicting beliefs (circles), and four aspects of cognition that are involved in belief formation and maintenance, emotion, critical reasoning, attention. and conscious thought, There are others but l have omitted them for simplicity. Represented at the bottom of each diagram is a collection of “evidence” that either confirms or disproves belief s A or B. Colour indicates activation of the relevant neuro-networks. No colour (white) means no activation.

Figure 1
This is an illustration of the cognitive style known as top down processing. A pre-existing belief that the individual has gained through a process such as acculturation For example, the mother of the individual has passed the belief on to them and they have accepted it without any reference to evidence for or against the belief. If they have held the belief for any length of time there will be an emotional attachment to the belief that reinforces it as a part of their world view at the same time as inhibiting the formation of beliefs that contradict this belief. In this instance the person is presented with both confirming and disconfirming evidence. The weight of the evidence is against the belief A, however, in this individual there is a lack of critical reasoning skills and so the strength of the pre-existing belief determines which evidence the individual attends to. Thus they employ only selective attention to attend only to evidence that reinforces belief A and so belief A retains dominance in the conscious thought of the individual.

Figure 2
Here we have a second example of top down processing. In this instance all the available evidence disconfirms belief A while confirming belief B. However, the emotional attachment that the individual has to the belief has blown it’s strength out of all proportion. The individual in this case does not even try to attend to evidence for the belief as they are absolutely certain of its veracity. This is the sort of reasoning we observe in fundamentalist religious views. In fact critical reasoning is decried as a threat to the belief and is thus actively discouraged.

Figure 3
This diagram is representative of the cognitive style known as bottom up processing. The individuals beliefs are informed by the evidence for or against them. Evidence is gathered, hypotheses formed to account for the evidence, evaluation conducted to establish the facts, and beliefs are chosen based on the hypotheses that conform to the evidence. This is the mode of thinking adopted by the scientific mind and the scientific community. As can be seen by the pattern of activation in the diagram, all evidence is attended to and all possibilities to account for the evidence, including our hypothetical belief A, are considered.

Figure 4
Of course it is not possible to think without emotion. In fact damage to a person’s emotional centres causes severe impairment to decision making processes. So there is always emotional input into thinking and decision making. However, when a mind is trained in critical reasoning skills, emotions are moderated.

Top down processing is based on preconceived ideas. Another term for this is schema driven cognition. The social version of this being stereotyping. This is a very efficient form of cognition as it takes up few cognitive resources, it aids individuals in making very quick decisions about how to behave. However, this efficiency trades off accuracy, The cognitions of individuals who predominantly think in a schema driven style are often fallacious, in other words it is the cognitive processing style that defines the wilfully ignorant. It is stupid thinking in that it requires minimal cognitive effort. It is the style of thinking that perpetuates beliefs such as: Women are too irrational for the vote, men don’t cry, all Aboriginals are drunks who abuse their kids, all people on the social security are bludgers, atheists worship Satan and are all driven by greed and self-interest, artistic males are gay, people of other races are inferior, environmentalists are dope smoking hippies, anyone who believes in social justice is a communist, drinking recycled water is the same as drinking sewerage, women don’t have the emotional constitution to handle positions of authority, Aboriginals just want handouts. Individuals who adopt this way of thinking, and unfortunately that is the majority of the human population, can have disconfirming evidence thrust into their faces and they still refuse to alter their beliefs and attitudes.


There is a lot of ignorance, assumptions and discrimination surrounding depression that results in a lot of unnecessary, additional harm to those suffering the disorder. For instance the myth that people with depression are self-absorbed. Research has shown the exact opposite. Those with depression have a greater degree of empathy for others. This is possibly due to the amount of pain that we have experienced in our lives. We become highly sensitive to the pain or potential pain in others and tend to be more prosocial in our behaviour toward others than neurotypicals.

Another great misunderstanding about depression is that it is just a state of being ‘sad’. Sadness is a natural emotional reaction to losses or temporary unfortunate events in a persons life and the experience is short lived. Depression on the other hand is often, but not always, the result of severe trauma, years of relentless abuse, bullying, neglect, and/ or social isolation that ingrains a negative pattern of thinking that is very hard to remove without help from a competent Cognitive Behaviour Therapist. Along with this cognitive aspect, physiological changes take place inside the brains of its victims. The exact mechanisms are complex and not fully understood as yet but they centre around a dramatic decrease in the brains ability to produce enough of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Sustained child abuse has also been shown through scans to cause damage to neurological structures themselves. This all makes the experience of depression very different to the occasional sadness that most people experience. The experience of depression is one of severe emotional pain that feels as real as any physical pain. This emotional pain can become so extreme that it results in suicide to escape this relentless experience of pain (to sink the boot in, those who attwmpt or commit suicide are labelled “cowards”).


The reduction of serotonin in the motivational and pleasure centres of the brain means that it is almost impossible to feel happy about anything, and results in great difficulty engaging in everyday activity, hence the myth that we’re lazy. In extreme cases a sufferer cannot even bring themselves to look after their own well-being on a day to day basis. Assuming that this is because the sufferer of depression is just lazy is like assuming that a sufferer of paraplegia doesn’t walk because they’re just lazy. Just because you can’t see the cause of disablement, doesn’t mean it’s not there.


Another assumption that people make comes as a result of Joe Pleb being unable to distinguish between a mood disorder and intellectual impairment. People seem to automatically treat those of us with depression as though depression makes us stupid. An unfair irony considering that they are the ignoramuses. Having an IQ of 170 I often feel like a I’m talking to monkeys who are hiding bananas behind their backs and thinking that they are much cleverer than I…even though I can plainly see the banana over their diminutive shoulders. But how do you explain that to a stupid monkey?

Then of course is the assumption that having a mental illness makes you dangerous. As they say, “You have to watch the quiet ones!” Being socially withdrawn and reserved as a result of feeling so much pain and no motivation to interact, obviously we are plotting the serial murder of everyone we know. In this case they are confusing what is referred to variously as psychopathy, sociopathy, or it’s proper psychiatric designation, anti-social personality disorder (APD). Soon you find yourself suspected of all the unsolved murders in the local area. Another unfair irony with this is that sociopaths are quite often charming and outgoing and the last person to be suspected of crime within a community. They are quite often considered pillars of the community in fact, and are very good at hiding their indiscretions.

I had the next assumption bluntly thrown in my face once from an acquaintance from my amateur ballet days. The individual in question was a principal dancer with the Queensland Ballet who had choreographed a pas de deux that I had performed in an amateur production. I was walking down the main street in West End in Brisbane and happened across he and his wife. He introduced me to her as, “Roger, the snob!” This is in fact a prime example of what is known in psychology as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). A curse to anyone suffering, even temporarily, from mental dis-ease. Put simply, it is a phenomenon whereby a person’s behaviour is attributed to an internal trait as opposed to an external influence. So, to this principal dancer, the reason that I was quiet and withdrawn was not because I was suffering, as I have since childhood, major depression as a result of various abusive personalities and traumatic experiences. The reason, to his minds assumptions, was that I consciously chose not to be talkative and bubbly towards him because I saw myself as superior, ie a snob. Fundamental Attribution Error is essentially an act of cognitive laziness. It is a failure on the part of those who engage in it to reason more deeply as to the motivations and causes behind the behaviour of others. It is cognitively easier to attribute a behaviour as an internal, consistent trait of the individual rather than as a temporary state resulting from environmental circumstances. That would require the individual to use cognitive resources to conceive of possible environmental explanations.

One expects ignorant bigots, to have a complete deficit in empathy. The real hurter is family, and people you considered friends who show you absolutely no understanding or compassion. This lack of compassion causes so much extra unnecessary pain. That is why it is so important for sufferers to surround themselves with a social network that is understanding and supportive…if they can. I have to admit from personal experience, that understanding, empathic people are very hard to find, even among the clinical profession that is supposed to be there to help. Of course, having studied psychology and seen the plethora of privileged young people studying psychology who don’t appear to have any sense of suffering beyond missing an episode of their favourite tv program, I’m not surprised that they don’t show empathy with their clients. Don’t give up trying to find empathic people though, and don’t give up on seeking therapy either. A competent cognitive behaviour therapist will help you recover despite being a compassionless twit. It is the structured program of CBT that does the work. It would be nice to live in a world where those of us who suffer depression are not told, “Cheer up”,or even worse, “Harden Up”, as if that is the problem, it would make recovery from depression so much easier. The general attitude and lack of understanding of people towards those of us with depression however adds an extra layer of stress in our lives and a perceived need to keep our affliction to ourselves. We live in fear of the treatment we will receive from neurotypicals.

Addendum: I thought I should mention that I have finally found genuinely empathic therapists who have helped me immeasurably.

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