James Quinn

Photo of James Quinn Speaker at 2017 Forum SOK

James Quinn

James S. Quinn (Jim) is a professor of biology at McMaster University. He teaches conservation biology, molecular ecology, and behavioural ecology as well as a first year course called “Biodiversity, Evolution, and Humanity”. Dr. Quinn’s research team has examined DNA mutations inherited by young gulls and mice caused by their parents’ exposure to anthropogenic air pollution. His current research is focussed on two species of cooperatively breeding birds with a rare joint-laying system in which multiple females within a social group lay eggs in the same nest. Jim works to encourage students and the administration at McMaster to reduce their impacts on the planet. As a citizen he works with Environment Hamilton and the Hamilton 350 committee as well as other allies to resist fossil fuel pipelines including Enbridge’s Lines 9 and 10.

2017 Forum Talk: Western Science: Lessons from behavioural ecology, the neighbourhood, and nature

Western science is a self-correcting system that relies on testing hypotheses that are originally based on observations. This approach tends to be reductionist in that it attempts to isolate the phenomenon in question. Western science does not operate on a balance of evidence, rather it usually relies on statistical analyses that reduce the likelihood of accepting a premise as true when in fact it is not. Western science seeks to understand cause and effect relationships and to avoid the pitfalls of spurious correlations.

While this approach has proven successful on many fronts, it sometimes considers questions out of context and may not account for the multidimensional complexity of nature. When considering natural phenomena, the initial approach to western science (here after “science” or “scientific method”) is to make observations. These lead to possible explanations of phenomena, much like the approach of traditional knowledge acquisition. From here, the scientific process tests hypotheses, adding support if predictions are met, or excluding hypotheses if critical predictions are not met. The goal of the scientific method is to understand phenomena. As such, there is great effort to call existing hypotheses into question and replace them if they are wrong. In this way it is self-correcting.

In this talk I will illustrate the scientific method, incorporating examples from peer reviewed literature, including some of my own research studying birds with complex social systems. I will attempt to show the importance of identifying cause and effect. I will show that sometimes the results of western science are intuitive and the process may seem pedantic. Finally, I will argue that in some situations the statistical approach, to avoid accepting a false premise, can be cumbersome and inappropriate. This is of particular concern when action on a complex problem, such as human caused climate change, risks delay.

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