Monday, July 27, 2009

Defining Scientists - and asking self-critical questions.

Last week, I got into an interesting side debate over whether I’m still a scientist. Especially here. I have to say it caught me off guard, especially this:

“And second, I have read the work (bought off Amazon), and I have an M.S. in Oceanography (and make my living in the field, sort of) So please, do not presume to speak for me as either a scientist, blogger, or author. I can do that very nicely, thanks.”

In other words, you’re not a scientist. If you found my construction confusing, I apologize. Where scientists object to the work it is primarily on the basis of shoddy or non-existent research and poor writing.

Now, I can concede the point that, if you look at the masthead to your left, it reads that I’m not presently doing science on a daily basis. I’d also argue that it’s a gross over-simplification of how I earn a living – but the fault for that gross over-simplification is my own.

So my response went like this:

Constant,Indeed, my blog does describe me as doing strategy at present, but that hasn’t been my whole career, nor does it cover all my current work. It’s just a summary - which I obviously need to rethink.

As a person trained in science who does other thing during the day to earn money (!),

And we moved on to other matters.

Still, the question got me thinking about what constitutes the definition of a scientist. I spent the weekend mulling it over, in fact, because I believe it lies at the heart of many of the challenges we face in today’s world. Just take the climate crisis as one example. Scientists on the IPCC, and in many academic settings and government agencies, are very pointed on the nature, direction, and impacts of the climate crisis, and have a ton of research to back them up. Other people, who want to block meaningful response to climate change, place themselves in the dialogue as scientists, and the public understandably is lead to conclude that there is a controversy on climate, when, in fact none exists. So, the definition of science matters.

First, I think scientists need some kind of training in a scientific discipline. Notice I didn’t say an advanced degree in a science discipline, because I have come to know many really good scientists who are trained in other disciplines, but use the scientific method to look at the world around them. My blogging colleague Darlene highlights them all the time. Their contributions of data and observations, once informed by the proper training, are no less “scientific” then someone holding a Ph.D. in a discipline.

Second, I think scientists must, by definition, include those who do science outside of an academic setting. Too often, the biologists, physicists, and plant pathologists (to name just a few disciplines) who work in government labs on a government salary are derided as not being “real” scientists because their work isn’t “free” of any agenda. If you work for NOAA, the logic seems to go, you can’t really be doing oceanography as its practiced in academia because NOAA is a federal agency, and must ultimately answer to the White House, Congress, etc. Unfortunately, academicians who take this view are missing a key point – unless they are somehow in a n endowed research chair, with the University picking up all their expenses, they are subject to the politics of their grant funding agencies, and thus their requirements.

More basically, though, I think a scientists needs to understand and apply the scientific method to his or her professional work. They need to remain skeptical of untested hypotheses, but willing to accept those hypotheses until additional data can prove the point one way or the other. They need, also, to be able to be skeptical of their own positions, beliefs and ideals – never taking their interpretation of the world today as static.

So where does that leave me? Well, I do write strategy papers and proposals, about the strategy of doing ocean science for the nation. I read the scientific literature, and produce the occasional synthesis piece in response to policy challenges (as I am doing now on Ocean Fertilization). I even get to give occasional talks to scientific meetings. But today (and tomorrow, and next month) I am not out in the field (or on the water) collecting data. I won’t run or interpret any Analysis of Variance or check the r-square of my correlations.
But am I still a scientist – I’ll leave that up to you to judge.

P.S. Apparently I’m a Cheese Weasel now. Interesting use of both terms.


Thomas Joseph said...

A relatively anonymous blogger (made up name, no linkage). Meh, pay he/she/it no mind. According to the logic employed by this individual half of Science Blogs aren't scientists either. If that's the case what the heck are they doing on Science Blogs?

Well, come to think about it ... in that case, he/she/it may have a point. :P

PS: Anyone who says I'm not a scientist because I work for the government ... they can kiss my "Ten peer-reviewed papers submitted in the past three years" buttocks.

Philip H. said...

You've actually provided a efinition here - you are a scientist, in some small part, because you publish in peer reviewed literature. I wonder, are there other in your lab who do science but don't publish? Are they, in your view, still scientists? That's what the commenter was sort of getting at, I think.

Thomas Joseph said...

According to agency regulations, my support scientists should not be placed on my peer-reviewed manuscripts because their paycheck is its own reward and they're there to do the grunt work ... not to provide the intellectual lifting. Of course, I put them on anyways and I make sure they do just enough for me to justify their inclusion (Hey, write up that M&M section for me. and Here, read this section and provide me your feedback. and Hey, how would you interpret this experiment? Do you think it says A, B, and C? Or maybe D?).

Of course, I am only one of a handful that does this, so every other support scientist in this agency, while they do the bench science, don't get credit in the form of peer-reviewed manuscripts.

Are they still scientists? Hells yeah!

Are our secretaries scientists? No.

According to Mr. Webster, a scientist is someone who is learned in the sciences. It can mean an investigator, but I do not think that that is 100% required.

So I guess my definition of scientist is rather broad. It would include anyone who has been trained to do proper science, whether they're practicing it currently or not.

For example, I am a licenses Medical Technologist. I pay my yearly dues each year to keep my license up to date so, at the drop of a hat, I can be hired to perform those duties in a clinical setting. As far as the ASCP is concerned, I'm a Med Tech, even though I haven't engaged in that profession (via work) for over a decade.

Mike at The Big Stick said...

This speaks to the larger question of academia verses work verses creditintials, etc. I have a history degree and an anthropology degree. I worked as an archaeologist for several years and I've worked at a number of historic sites and museums using my knowledge of history to help steer these institutions in a specific direction.

Now I do post-contract support for a major company and spend my days buried in financial spreadsheets, conference calls and crunching numbers.

Am I still an archaeologist? Am I still a historian? Are we defined by how we make our living, our academic achievements, our hobbies, our writing, etc? I would contend that someone who earns an MD next to their name will always be Dr. Smith, even if they start teaching art to 3rd graders as a second career. But in so many other fields, if you're not doing it for a living, you can't claim it.

The knowledge doesn't leave your head just because you aren't actively using it.