What does it mean to be a scientist?

Before I start I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a Physics major due to finish my undergraduate degree halfway through next year. I have always been passionate about science and this has heavily influenced the way I look at the world. This is my first post on this blog – it’s been “almost done” for a while – but I plan to get a fair few more posts up in the next few weeks so keep an eye out.

Over the years many philosophers have discussed what exactly “science” is. While I’m conversant with some of the main arguments, I don’t feel myself qualified to discuss the meaning of the word science. Instead, I’m going to talk about what I personally feel are the qualities essential to applying the scientific method to the way you live your life. These are the ideals I strive towards.

To me, the three most important qualities a scientist can have are curiosity, open-mindedness and scepticism, and I plan to talk about each in turn.

Curiosity is the most fundamental quality to any quest for knowledge. The desire to know the unknown is the source of all of humanity’s success.
In practice, there is too much information in the modern world for us to know it all. Nowadays scientists end up with sub-sub-sub–specialities, because even within a sub-category like particle physics there is far too much for any one individual to keep track of.

However, just because we can’t know everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to learn new things. It simply changes how we ought to approach knowledge. If I don’t know how the touch-screen on my new phone works, I’m not going to try and figure it out from first principles, or disassemble my phone. I might look it up on the internet, but I wouldn’t spend too long searching. Importantly though, if someone were to offer to explain to me how it worked, I would never say no.

The principle is that while there is far too much information out there to figure it all out by ourselves, when understanding is offered to you, you should always take it. Don’t demand a practical application; accept that knowledge has value in its own right.

Once you start asking questions, you need to be open-minded about the answers. In my opinion, it is essential to hear all the facts before forming an opinion, and it helps to hear other people’s theories as well.

You shouldn’t dismiss anything you hear, even if the source is unreliable or the claim ridiculous; after all, the fact that you’re hearing the claim is useful information. Any hypothesis you come up with ought to be consistent with all the information you have come across.

Further, it is my belief that it is essential to keep multiple theories in mind when considering something new. This helps keep confirmation bias (where you unconsciously look to prove yourself right) at bay. Just as importantly, if you have many theories from the start, you’ll still have some left after you’ve removed the ones that don’t work.

The final element of a scientific analysis is comparing all your theories with the facts at your disposal. If the facts flat out contradict a hypothesis, it obviously needs to be discarded. Where scepticism comes in is when a theory is consistent with the data, but has too many fudge factors.

If a theory can’t ever be disproved no matter how much data you take (eg. There are no physical laws, everything we have ever observed is just coincidence), then that theory isn’t useful and should probably be discarded. Note that this is quite different to a theory that won’t be testable for years to come, but does make predictions that are falsifiable eventually.
In practice, the theories that most often need a healthy dose of scepticism are theories that invoke a conspiracy (a surprisingly large number of fringe groups invoke a conspiracy amongst whomsoever they are opposed to). Whilst the conspiracy itself “explains” any contradictory evidence, if there is no positive evidence to believe in the theory, and the accompanying conspiracy, you should probably dismiss it until such evidence exists.

Sometimes, at the end of it all, you have two or three, or even more reasonable ways to explain the same thing. This is good. One of the hardest things to get to grips with is that there often isn’t enough information. I know I often jump to conclusions myself, but I think the most important thing I have learned while studying science is that there isn’t always enough information to reach a conclusion. At best you simply have a theory that matches all the available data and makes predictions.

In conclusion, I strive to always ask questions, always listen to the answer, and then make my own conclusions from everything that I have read and heard. I don’t always succeed at avoiding apathy and bias, but I feel that the effort is worthwhile. Try applying this method to an issue you feel strongly about – usually, the stronger your opinion, the less you have questioned it. You may be surprised at how much you learn about the issue, even if you don’t change your mind.

I’ll leave you with a link to a brilliant comic about the scientific approach.      http://xkcd.com/242/

One Response to “What does it mean to be a scientist?”

  1. Emma Bland says:

    Welcome to the blog!!

    I’m interested in why you don’t feel ‘qualified’ to talk about what science really is. If science is so relevant to people from all walks of life, then surely other interpretations of what science is and how it works are just as valid as Popper’s or Kuhn’s, for example.

    As young scientists, our views about science haven’t been influenced by self-interest in the same way that some professional scientists’ views may have been. As you say, it’s all about curiosity, open-mindedness and skepticism, which are qualities that are very prevalent within the undergrad science community.