Not Everyone Is a Scientist (But I Want That To Change)

It has been suggested that everyone is a scientist. After all, humans are curious and they act on that curiosity. That should count, right?

Actually, not. See, science isn't just about wondering why and trying to find answers. It's not just about trying new things. It's about trying to find answers in a specific, systematic way.

Take, for example, a couple of kids who find a frog. They know that it's an amphibian and that amphibians live in both land and water. But they disagree on whether or not an amphibian could drown.

Being incurably curious, they decide to do an experiment: they will hold the frog under water for a couple of hours and see if it is still alive at the end. Now, they're not willing to actually hold the frog under with their hands for as long as it takes, so they build a little enclosure out of rocks, put the frog inside, and then cover everything with more rocks. When they come back a few hours later, the frog is dead. Thus, they conclude that frogs cannot breathe underwater.

Curiosity: check. Acting on curiosity: check.

Science: NO. Why not? We scientists have a couple of sayings that we like to bring up when we hear stories like this:

Correlation does not equal causation.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

You probably had a lesson (or two, at least) on the Scientific Method when you were in school. Quick refresher on what that looks like:

  • Ask a question/state a problem
  • Research
  • Form hypothesis
  • Experiment
  • Analyze data
  • Draw conclusions

The difference what I do as a scientist, whether in my lab or in the field, and what those kids did with the poor frog, lies in steps 2, 5, and 6. You can sum up the difference thus:

Scientists put everything they do in the context of what else has been done.

Step 2, research: If you look at a peer-reviewed article in any scientific journal, you'll find that the first major section is the introduction, where the authors explain what has been done in the past that's relevant to their experiment. This is their summation of the research that was done before they started the experiment (ideally; though frequently you get stuck halfway through a series of experiments and end up going back into the literature for more background information).

Step 5, analysis: One of the important things about science is to realize that one data point is not enough. In addition to putting their work in the context of what other people have done, scientists put their work in the context of what they have already done--and that means statistics.

For example: if a normal person wanted to measure how long it takes you to get to work, they would probably start a stopwatch when they left their house and stop it when they got to work and that would be it. But a scientist would understand that one measurement may not represent a 'normal' day. What if there was an accident on the way that stopped traffic and your commute that day took twice as long? Maybe you could measure three times and report the average. A scientist would probably do even more measurements and report mean, median, and standard deviation--not to mention analyze for outliers.

Step 6, draw conclusions. As mentioned before, scientists understand and use statistics (a lot) to determine whether their data is trustable. But scientists talk about the quality of their data by putting it in the context of what others have done. (If you look at a peer-reviewed article, you'll find this in the discussion section.) If experiments give results that are wildly different from what others have found, they need to consider why. Could they have screwed up badly? Are they looking at things from a different angle, so their results are merely the flip side of the coin that others were looking at earlier? Or is there something novel going on here that no one has seen before?

Scientists tend to cycle through steps 4, 5, 6 repeatedly (like, hundreds of times) before they feel confident about reporting their science to the public. Peer review (the process of having other scientists vet your results and conclusions) helps the science community be even more sure about the validity of the results.

So, can only people with Ph.D.s be scientists?

I submit that everyone is capable of being a scientist. For this to happen, though, everyone would need to be trained to think more scientifically. I believe this can happen to a certain extent even in elementary school, which is why one of my life goals is to figure out ways to teach these skills at all ages (see my book and other articles on my website).

If you don't have any formal training as a scientist, go on being curious--but also study what scientists have done in the past and think long and hard about what the outcomes of your experiment actually mean.

Originally posted on my blog