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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Additional Thematic Activities

Accessing the Past: evidence of artefacts

This conference, scheduled for 18 and 19 March 2016, draws together different innovative approaches to establishing and interrogating evidence from objects in order to foster multi and interdisciplinary debate and share knowledge of the cutting-edge approaches to interrogating artefacts practised within the University. It will be of interest to anyone concerned with objects, their significance and values, interpretation, degradation and care.

The conference will open with the rare opportunity to inspect medieval manuscripts and see a demonstration of pigment analysis with Durham University’s Professor Andrew Beeby, (Chemistry) and Professor Richard Gameson (History). Other speakers include:

  • Professor John Chapman, Durham University (Archaeology) Towards an integrated theory of fragmentation: the fragmentation of place
  • Dinah Eastop, PhD, MA, FIIC, ACR Consultant in Conservation and Material Culture Concealed garments and their biographies
  • Dr Sarah Semple, Durham University (Archaeology) Narratives in Stone: Reworked Roman Stone in Early Medieval Contexts
  • Deborah Cane, Hoard Conservation Project, The Staffordshire Hoard, Birmingham Museums The Staffordshire Hoard
  • Dr Stefano Cracolici, Durham University (Italian, School of Modern Languages and Cultures) Travelling Canvases: Sacred Art from Rome to the British Isles in the Nineteenth Century
  • Gary Bankhead, Durham University ( Archaeology) Analysing evidence from the bed of the River Elvet
  • Dr Craig Barclay, Durham University, Curator, The Oriental Museum Communicating evidence in the museum

The programme consists of short presentations arranged around the following themes:

  • Evidence & the Biography of Artefacts - Creation, Use & Abuse, Discarding & Recycling, Present Day Cultural Values
  • Evidence Types: Analytical, Recovery Context, Cultural Associations
  • Evidence & Degradation: Making Meaning from Damage and Decay
  • Making and Communicating Meaning from Evidence

The presentations will be interspersed with mediated roundtables to debate the evidence obtained through different strategies including technical analysis, aesthetic and intellectual analysis and how such evidence is evaluated and communicated.

The conference is open to academics and students from Durham and other universities and to members of the public.

For further information contact Dr Mary Brooks

Cutting-edge Computation and Scientific Evidence

Over the last several decades, computational methodologies have transformed the practice of science. Computer simulation gave rise to the first wave of transformation, cutting across the traditional methodological categories of theorizing and experimenting: it allowed scientists to apply theories that were otherwise mathematically intractable, even as the practice of simulation modelling bore notable resemblance to experimentation. Today, advanced computational methods permeate scientific practice across a range of fields. In a number of contexts, these methods are integral to the production and/or interpretation of evidence. Advanced computational methods are used, for instance, in the interpretation of observational data in cosmology; in fMRI studies of brain function; in the production of observational datasets in climate science; and in drug selection in personalized medicine.

At the same time, the use of these methods leads to challenging questions about the nature of the evidence produced. What evidence do fMRI images provide about the brains of subjects, given the complex computational processing involved in their production? If, as exciting new research suggests, computer simulations can provide evidence that certain drugs will be more effective than others in treating HIV in a particular person, does that evidence have a different status than evidence collected in clinical trials? And so on. Within scientific communities, the evidential status of results produced with the help of complex computational methods is often contested.

This one-day workshop will bring together scientists from a variety of fields as well as philosophers of science to explore challenging questions about evidence arising from the use of advanced computational methods in science. The focus will be not on the technical details of advanced computational methods but on the types of challenges involved in using as evidence scientific results that are produced with the help of such methods. The aim is to stimulate cross-disciplinary dialogue, identifying similarities and differences in types of the challenges faced as well as the strategies used to try to overcome them.

The workshop is expected to take place in late Spring 2016. All are welcome to attend, space permitting. If interested in attending, or for more information, please contact Dr Wendy Parker (

What Can we Learn about the Mind from Brain Imaging Evidence?

Our understanding of human brain function has advanced dramatically over the past two decades, since the arrival of increasingly sophisticated methods of brain imaging, notably functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Graphic colour photos of brain scans are now commonplace in people’s everyday experience of print and online journalism.

These methodological advances have created a whole new language for thinking about brain function, and have led to a vast range of claims in the literature. These have ranged from relatively incremental or confirmatory findings that add to or strengthen our existing knowledge – through to what some would describe as outlandish or sensationalist conclusions based on sometimes simplistic analyses. Most neuroscientists will recognize reports of the latter variety as belonging in the speculative fringes of science – yet it is all too easy for them to be presented within the public media as ‘scientifically substantiated’.

What truly can be claimed about our cognitive and emotional life from brain imaging research? What kinds of evidence can it provide, and what is the epistemological status of this evidence? What new techniques and analyses are now being developed to go beyond the sometimes naïve inferences that have been made in the past? What fallacies and pitfalls may be lurking in the undergrowth of our thinking about, and interpretation of, brain imaging? What does the future hold for developing new insights and methodological advances?

These questions, and others, are of crucial importance given the considerable expenditure that funding bodies now devote to brain imaging research, as well as the major interest that such research arouses in the popular mind.

The day’s activities will include a programme of talks by invited eminent speakers with particular emphasis on discussing what is good and bad science in this area, what constitutes safe evidence that can be relied upon in making inferences about the brain, and what the future may hold for advances in brain imaging technology. In addition, there will be extended discussion sessions, in an informal atmosphere designed to stimulate a free exchange of ideas. Audience participation will be an important feature of the meeting.

It is hoped that the presentations and discussions at the workshop will lead to increased intellectual clarity in thinking about the nature and value of brain imaging evidence within cognitive neuroscience, and that the event will lead to the development of new and enhanced collaborative networks. Speakers include:

  • Professor Jody Culham (Western Ontario): What is Functional Neuroimaging?
  • Professor Eleanor Maguire (London): Neuroimaging and Cognition
  • Professor Adrian Owen (Western Ontario): Neuroimaging and Consciousness
  • Professor Richard Passingham (Oxford): The Uses and Misuses of Brain Imaging

The workshop will take place on 17 June 2016 in Kenworthy Hall at St Mary’s College. Places are limited; therefore please contact Dr Susanne Weis in the department of Psychology for further information.

Use of science and modelling in public and commercial policy

Evidence from mathematical modelling and science are increasingly important in the determination of public and commercial policy and strategy. Prominent current examples include:

  • Climate change adaptation and mitigation (where policy relies on very large scale physical climate models, and has been influenced by economic models e.g. the Stern Report);
  • Electricity market reform (where UK government decision making has been heavily influenced by sophisticated microeconomic models);
  • High Speed 2 (where the technical modelling was more towards an accounting exercise, but there were important issues of how to treat uncertainty in economic and social background looking decades ahead);
  • Implications of unsatisfactory use of mathematical modelling in the current financial crisis, e.g. Joseph Stiglitz “These economists provided models - based on unrealistic assumptions of perfect information, perfect competition, and perfect markets - in which regulation was unnecessary”;
  • The recent debate over flood defence policy following the extremely wet winter of 13/14 in the South West of England. More generally, the current practice in the UK government is for policy proposals to be supported by a quantitative Impact Assessment, which often means a large scale modelling study.

A common feature across all these different applications is that the ultimate decision makers do not themselves have a quantitative or science background. One can often divide the participants in the policy process into several layers:

  • Modellers and scientists, including both methodological researchers and those who do day-to-day modelling and scientific analysis
  • People who interpret modelling or science for decision makers (e.g. civil servants, academics such as the UK Energy Research Centre)
  • High level decision makers, who do not usually have a modelling or quantitative science training.

Important questions include: How do non-scientists taking decisions based on modelling or scientific insights interpret the modelling results? What do they think that modelling or science can and cannot tell them? Are the messages which people in one group think they are sending the same as those being received? How can modelling and science be used more robustly in the policy process?

This series will engage all the categories of policy actors outlined above, and explore in detail these questions about modelling and scientific evidence is used in policy making. The core of the series will be a 1 day workshop in early 2016 based around the example of UK energy policy, and there will be 1-2 further visiting speakers during the IAS Evidence theme. Full details will be available at and enquiries should be addressed to

Evidence On Trial: weighing the value of evidence in academic enquiry, policy and everyday life

An international conference hosted by the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University (12 - 14 July 2016).

Celebrating the IAS’s 10th Anniversary, this conference will follow the model of the successful event that the Institute hosted in July 2014. As well as drawing delegates from around the world, this brought a number of former IAS Fellows back to Durham to convene panels and participate in related activities. The 2016 conference will focus on issues of Evidence, in accord with the IAS’s annual research theme for 2015-16.

Further details