Philosophy of Science MOOC

Tree art

In December 2020 I started on this MOOC:

My reason for doing this course?
I’m thinking about how we need to understand more about the natural world and how to live in better harmony with it. It seems relevant to learn from indigenous communities and their ways of being, how treat the natural world as an equal, not a resource to be plundered. This puts a foot in the camp of being more spiritual and feelings-based, and embracing ideas different to our Western thinking. Our science takes away the question of how you feel about the world.

Our scientific approaches, whilst making great strides in all corners of human existence, are also destructive and problematic. Do we need to change our approach to science, and start bringing different forms of knowledge together?

This has led me to the following questions:

What do I think science is?
Is it different to what I was taught 30 years ago, and how I have been practicing my science? What is science and how does it work – Covid-19 suggests much can be achieved through rapid discovery, but more often results emerge through multiple lines of enquiry, often across different collaborating groups, so community is very important.

Is there any UK indigenous knowledge of plants and nature?
We talk about indigenous knowledge – what is our own indigenous knowledge – from the UK – where did it go? Understanding our own history might give us a better appreciation of others.

What might a blue print for the future be?
What do we need to change about science in order for it to be more effective? What big breakthroughs do we need as steps on this journey for future generations? What new approaches do we have that are maybe untapped by some areas? We might not have many generations left to be able to make significant change to our health or environment.

What are the principles and values by which we need to do this work?
We know that the structures of science are broken. How do we embrace diversit,y and overcome privilege and inequality in having these discussions?

I hope over the next few weeks to gather more ideas on this blog. 

A simple way to write a research question for desk top research

Aim of the article: This post helps you think about how to write a research question and shows a whizzy way to help you do this.

With so much information available on the web these days, you don’t have to have access to a university library to find research articles. (I’m not part of a university).

Here is a blog post I wrote before on getting started if you are a student or a new teacher to this area, and it is pretty much OK still today. But I think I’ll reflect the most relevant parts here. Do go to this blog post on desk top research if you want the full whammy though.

Step 1 What is your research question?

If you are doing a quick search, then you probably don’t need to sit down and think about your research question. If you are researching for an article, your own blog post or as part of your own work, a good starting point is knowing your question. All will be revealed in a few steps time as to why this is important.

Deciding your question: Think about if you want to ask a broad question, or whether you have something very specific you’d like to research.

Developing your question: You might even want to do some research and reading even to help you develop your question. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia for providing you with the context around most subjects. You might find inspiration there.

Step 2 Tools to help you write your question

This gets a bit academic, but there is a tool called the PICO framework which helps researchers build their question around relevant areas. You can read about it on my previous blog article. It was first developed to help nursing students by Melnyk and Fineout-Overholt in 2005. (See their reference and some useful links at the bottom of this post).

PICO framework diagram

P – poplation / patient group – who are you interested in studying?

I – intervention – are you looking for a herb, drug, new surgical procedure?
C – comparison – you can leave this step out for most searches.

O – outcome – what are the measurements you are interested in?

Step 3 Playing with PICO!

So I want to know if hydrotherapy is going to help with my dog Spike’s arthritis. We can use PICO to write the question:

P – dog
I – hydrotherapy
C – control
O – arthritis

So my question is, “Does hydrotherapy help with dog’s arthritis”. I might think that this isn’t quite right and I wish for a wider question and PICO can help us check that all is in order: “What therapies help with my dog’s arthritis”?

P – dog
I – therapy, hydrotherapy, massage
C – control

O – arthritis

Or I might want to go narrower: “Does hydrotherapy help with dog’s arthritis of the hip”?

P – dog
I – hydrotherapy
C – control

O – hip arthritis

Step 4 Do I have to use PICO?

There are other tools out there to help you build up your questions, and these steps are really important for writing papers and doing big research projects. But for more informal searches that we might want to do each day, I think they are just useful and keep you organised. You might want to write them down at the start, but once you’ve tried them a few times, you’ll do them without knowing.

There is another important point to them. PICO helps you create groups or categories for your keywords (patient – dog, intervention – hydrotherapy, outcome – arthritis), and if you were being really snazzy, you could then develop your search by building up lists of words in a table. We’ll see about that next time.

In research, we always attribute the work of others. We put Melnyk’s name in the text (called a citation), and here are the full details of their book that they published (called a reference).

Melnyk, B.M. & Fineout-Overholt, E. 2005, Evidence-based practice in nursing & healthcare: a guide to best practice, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia.

These authors wrote about other aspects of research that you might also find interesting and more easily available on the web.

Melnyk BM, Fineout-Overholt E, Stillwell SB, Williamson KM. Evidence-based practice: step by step: the seven steps of evidence-based practice. Am J Nurs. 2010 Jan;110(1):51-3. doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000366056.06605.d2. PMID: 20032669.

Different types of research article and where to find them

Aim of the article – learning about different types of research article and where to find them.

For anyone interested in finding out more about herbs or natural medicines, looking for research articles can be one place to start. When I speak to people about herbs, they are often surprised to find that there is a growing base of evidence supporting their use, and importantly, helping us understand how herbs are acting in the body.

How to find research articles?
The place I’ve used nearly every day for as long as I can recall now is PubMed – a free electronic bibliographic database from the US National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Just as you would do a search engine search, for example “holidays + Spain”, you will have a think about your keywords (holidays, Spain) and also combine them up, not using the ‘+’ sign but the word AND (these are called Boolean terms and mean the same thing).

So if you want to go to PubMed and search “Turmeric AND human” please go ahead. What you’ll see is a list of all the research papers and a little graph that shows you how the numbers of papers looking at the herb is greatly increasing year on year. So that is the growing evidence base I was talking about, and what that also means, is it gets more and more complicated to actually find good articles that are helpful to us.

Screengrab from a simple search.

What are different types of articles?
We also need to consider what type of articles we are looking for. When researchers write articles, they can be of different types, as shown in the diagram.

Types of research diagram
Different types of research you may come across reading about herbs
Some of these types of research approaches are:
  • Review – an overview of all the papers in an area.
  • Original research – they might have done some experiments and found out new things.
  • Clinical trial – this is the term to describe a human study, but it might be a pilot study at a small scale and not using precise methods.
  • Randomised controlled trial – or RCT – this is a human study that does use precise methods; patients are ‘randomly’ allocated to groups, and there is a test (which could be turmeric) and it is compared to a control (or placebo).
  • Systematic review – this is a type of review that is designed to answer a specific question by finding all the RCT in an area, and it follows a number of methodological steps.
  • Meta-review – sometimes there are so many RCT, and researchers have compiled these up into even large numbers of SRs, then we might do a meta-review or overview of reviews, to draw conclusions from all of them.
  • What about evidence hierarchies?
    People often talk of an evidence hierarchy but I don’t like this so much as it suggests that some forms of research are more important than others. All types of research help put the pieces in the jigsaw to understand our health or the world around us. I’m a big fan of what we call ‘qualitative’ research, which helps generate ideas, and understand our thoughts and attitudes. You might do this research through interviewing people which is a great skill and is always very illuminating.

    When I’ve talked about experiments or RCT or SR, we mean ‘quantitative’ research – think of quantifying, and that involves gathering numbers.

    New words and abbreviations
    Qualitative – qual
    Quantitative – quant
    Clinical trial
    Systematic review
    Randomised controlled trial – RCT

    Where science meets spirituality


    Aim of article
    – To explore the science system and what needs to be challenged – the lack of diversity – the lack of diverse perspectives on what science is and means.

    I’ve been immersed in the Tree Sisters ‘Courage to Shine’ course which is helping me to think about the connections between nature and spirituality. One of the speakers recommended by Clare Dubois who founded Tree Sisters and is hosting the course is Pat McCabe. Pat whose indigenous name is the glorious ‘Woman Stands Shining’ is guided by the inner voices from her indigenous culture, and in one part of the interview suggested her next life challenge is to think about modern-day science (43 mins 20 secs in):

    “Our detour or abandoning of ourselves to the scientific methods, to the material science view point of this world.” (Pat McCabe).

    Her words captured the essence of what I’m interested in for this blog – to question the nature of science and to think about how we can open it up to encompass whole system thinking. As a scientist I’ve been taught to use validated methodologies to take incremental steps forward, whereas instinct and intuition are frowned upon. The following account of the discovery of quinine by the Andean community is described as “luck” whereas this knowledge would have grown from their strong spiritual connections with nature, evident by their viewing plants and animals as family members (Elizabeth Huaman 2017).

    I’m not arguing that modern day science is ineffective – of course it isn’t. But I think there is more of a balance and a blend to be had, and recognizing our diversity and different approaches, would create better science and as Elizabeth Huaman states, to understand principles that “have sustained life for millennia”.

    We also need to consider the elephant in the room – the structure that science operates in today. The last Research Excellence Framework (REF) which evaluates the impact of university research in the UK cost £250 million according to the Times Higher, with inequalities still “baked in” to the university system as a whole that disadvantages women, black and other ethnic groups. Those involved in the last REF in 2014 described attempts to treat all staff equitably as “cumbersome”, and the fact that additional time and cost had to be invested to attempt to gain a diverse submission shows how much the system is twisted and buckled (LSE Admin Blogpost 2015). The system supports the career scientist and advancing one’s own recognition seems to take precedent over advancing knowledge.

    So there are three things that need challenging:
    The science machine and economy

    The chronic lack of diversity within science
    The lack and loss of diverse perspectives on what science is and means


    Huaman, E. S. (2017). Indigenous Rights Education (IRE): Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Transformative Human Rights in the Peruvian Andes. International Journal of Human Rights Education1(1), 5.

    LSE Admin Blogpost (2015). Why did REF 2014 cost three times as much as the RAE?

    Introducing herbsearching


    Aim of article (5 minute read)

    You will read:
    – A little history on the use of herbs
    – How there is an abundance of natural medicines in the world all around us
    – Why herbal research – herbsearching – is important.

    The use of plants, not only as medicines, but as part of daily healthcare routines, is as old as the hills. Hippocrates, the Greek Physician who produced his medical treaties up to his death in 370 B.C., wrote extensively about the use of plants for human health. In his Regimen for Acute Diseases he writes about the use of barley gruel for stomach complaints, the topical application of barley and vetch heated and applied to abdominal pains, black hellebore or purple spurge for pain below the diaphragm, and so it goes on. He also observes the effects of climate on disease, and the importance of how we grow our food “the condition of the plant depends on the condition of the earth in which it grows”. I am always humbled when I read writings from centuries ago; we have much to learn as scientists today from people’s ability at that time to patiently and simply observe the world around them. Hippocrates was the master of observation. (Hippocratic Writings ISBN 0140444513).

    I just love this quote and love this film:

    “The closer you look, the more magical and magnificent and mysterious something is…it is our problem that we don’t look close enough”.

    Bill Mitchell in Numen, the film.

    I’ve been a scientist all of my life and I love science. I do think sometimes we have stopped the practice of gently observing and that we are not looking closely enough. When I go and speak at universities (where I worked for many years), students studying medical and biomedical subjects are often surprised at the scale of traditional wisdom regarding the use of plants as medicines that extends back thousands of years. I can’t blame them for not knowing that this treasure trove of information and healing practice exists, because my education and career path did the same to me. I’m lucky I’m now in a job where I’m having a crash course in the world of plants and it has brought a whole new perspective to my work.

    This traditional knowledge from around the globe is captured in many incredible records of how plants were grown, harvested prepared and administered to help the human body in times of dis-ease. There are many finely detailed referenced works on plants and their known medicinal uses. The Potter’s Herbal Cyclopaedia is one example of an anthology of 700 plants and details of their phytochemical constituents and referenced medicinal uses.

    The knowledge on Black Hellebore (Helleborus Niger L.) has advanced of course since Hippocrate’s times, and we know the plant to be a source of potent cardiac glycosides – a group of compounds from which many pharmaceuticals are derived today used to increase cardiac output (force and rate of contraction of the heart). Plants are the most wonderful chemists.

    So what is herbsearching? I’m really interested in not just the science behind the herbs, but who is doing the research and how. Finding good quality evidence is a challenge, and there are many skills that budding herbalist, herbal scientist or medical researcher interested in the use of herbs, needs to get started. I hope through this blog to explore the research techniques being used, and to look for the connections between traditional and allopathic (what we might call modern-day) medicine.