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Telling good science from bad – a user’s guide to navigating the scientific literature

“Did you find it convincing?” That’s what one of my genetics professors used to ask us, a small group of undergraduates who blinked in response, like rabbits in the headlights. We didn’t know we were supposed to evaluate scientific papers. Who the hell were we to say if these papers – published by proper grown-up scientists in big-name scientific journals – were convincing or not? We thought published, peer-reviewed papers contained The Truth. But our professor (the always inspirational David McConnell at Trinity College Dublin) wasn’t about to let us off so easily. We learned quickly that it absolutely was our job, as fledgling scientists, to learn how to evaluate scientific papers.   This is not a responsibility that can be offloaded to peer reviewers and journal editors. It’s not that pre-publication peer review, when it works as intended, doesn’t perform a useful function. But those supposed gatekeepers of knowledge are as fallible as the primary producers of the research itse

Reframing the debate around free will - from the morass of moral responsibility to a grounding in biological agency

A recent article in the Guardian very nicely summarised “the free will debate”, or at least the more visible parts of it. The debate is a live one as new findings from neuroscience or even fundamental physics are supposedly constantly and cumulatively limiting any scope for free will to possibly exist. The article presents the two most popular positions among scientists and philosophers: free will skepticism and compatibilism, which are championed by influential figures like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. The trouble is, they are by no means the only possible options, and, frankly, neither is convincing or satisfactory, in my view, for many reasons.     First, they often start out with definitions of free will or criteria for what would constitute it that are not just different from each other, but independently highly arguable. Second, both take determinism to be true, as a given. Free will skepticism argues that determinism rules out free will. Compatibilism argues that free wil

Does quantum indeterminism defeat reductionism? (Response to Coel Hellier)

  KM: I’m grateful to Coel Hellier ( @colhellier ) for writing a blogpost in response to one I wrote arguing that if determinism falls, it takes reductionism with it. Rather than expect people to bounce back and forth between these posts, I have pasted Coel’s entire blog and intercalated my responses, in bold, below. For clarity, I have color-coded his excerpts from my original blog in blue: After writing a piece on the role of metaphysics in science, which was a reply to neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell, he pointed me to several of his articles including one on reductionism and determinism. I found this interesting since I hadn’t really thought about the interplay of the two concepts. Mitchell argues that if the world is intrinsically indeterministic (which I think it is), then that defeats reductionism. We likely agree on much of the science, and how the world is, but nevertheless I largely disagree with his article.   Let’s start by clarifying the concepts. Reductionism asserts