Thursday, June 28, 2007

Are You a Scientist?

While I was having coffee with a scientific colleague of mine, Ian Parnell, the originator of the excellent blog, "What's your Ecotype?" we shared an interesting conversation about "science" and both came to the conclusion that science is a much misunderstood, often maligned, field of inquiry (see what a good Starbucks coffee will do to you? Mine was a latte, actually...but I digress...) To my pronouncement that I am not a scientific "modeller" Ian suggested that in a broad sense everyone is a modeller and a scientist; humans are naturally inquisitive, seeking to make sense of a world often frought with seemingly random patterns and events. Our brains, specifically the hypothalamus via REM sleep, processes our experiences and memories of the previous day into learning. Learning is really modelling: figuring out paradigms, patterns, mosaics that work; consequences of actions. The stuff of common sense. Okay, Ian didn't say all this (it was my wonderful latte that made me think about it while we were talking). The whole discussion brought to light how symantics and language can play a vital role in how we see ourselves and our actions. Are you a scientist?

Here are some definitions that were forwarded in the past:

"Science is classifiction"--Aristotle (~340 BC)

"Science is common sense classified"--Herbert Spencer

"Science eliminates the worthless and the useless and then makes use of it in something else"--Thomas Edison

The word science came from a Latin word scientia that means knowledge and comes from scio--I know. The Indo-European root means to discern or separate (Sanskrit chyati; Greek schisein). Karl Popper (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959) describes science as "a system of acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method, as well as the organized body of knowledge gained through such research." This kind of science is often called "pure science" to differentiate it from the application of scientific research to specific human needs.

It would seem that the "scientific method" separates science from other methods of inquiry. As for the scientific method, it is simply a way to explain the complexities of nature and the universe in a replicable way and to use these explanations to make useful predictions. It does this by providing an objective process to find solutions or make conclusions. All this means is that you would gather and/or use reliable (source-checked) data, cross-checked to make your conclusions. So, deciding that Vinny Garbanzo is the man to elect based on his dimpled smile isn't science. But checking all possible non-biased sources for information on Garbanzo's platform, history, etc. is.

So, are you a scientist?


Alan said...

mmmm. when I am not librarying or blogging I am studying accounting, where we are tightly focused on capturing specific data, recording and preserving the data in a particular way and using the data to answer questions, forecast results, consider scenarios, etc. I've never called myself a scientist but by your definition....

Steven said...

My high school science teacher gave us the assignment to find out if momentum exists or not. I followed the instructions to the letter and proved it does not. He insisted I do it again. I asked him why. He said because we all know momentum exists. I think I was a scientist that day and he was not.

sfgirl said...

I agree! That's certainly doing science, Alan. I love your story, Steven! I don't think half the crazy theories would have come about with your high school science teacher's attitude. We certainly wouldn't know about chaos theory!