Anyone can be a scientist

After a somewhat lengthy absence from blogging (I just didn’t have anything to say–sue me :P), I thought I would return by talking about a subject that is near and dear to me: science.

I love science. That’s not exactly a secret on this blog. Science is a way to learn about the world and universe around us, about ourselves, about where we came from and how we got here–all kinds of wonderful things. And one of the greatest things about science is its uniformity. Anyone, anywhere can “do” science.

But increasingly it seems to me that in the modern world we don’t treat science that way. We don’t treat it as something that anyone can do. All human beings are naturally curious, and hard-wired to ask questions and seek answers. But the system has shifted now to one of academics, which in my opinion doesn’t benefit anyone and may even be detrimental to science.

What exactly am I talking about? I’m glad you asked. The way modern science has been set up is that you aren’t really a scientist unless you have a PhD, and only those with a PhD do “real” research and experimentation.

Certainly, those with a PhD have a better chance of securing funding. But does pigeonholing science into this ivory tower sort of thing ignore that basic tenant of science–it’s uniformity? I would argue that it does.

These thoughts were born after reading some recent news stories. There’s the high school student who created a new test for pancreatic cancer. And then there’s the undergraduate student who proved a 60 year old theory about the earth’s magnetosphere. You know who else didn’t have a degree? Michael Faraday. James Clerk Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper at age 14, and although he received a formal education, by all accounts did a good chunk of his study and research at home. If you go back further in history, many of the greatest discoveries were made by people with little formal training, but keen minds. Astronomer William Herschel didn’t have a degree, and he discovered Uranus and that sunlight contained infrared radiation. Ben Franklin didn’t have any degrees. A more current example, Robert Evans is a minister in Australia with a degree in history and a passion for astronomy who has visually discovered 42 supernovae (which is a record).

And that’s what I think bugs me the most about the current system. Yes, people like the ones I mentioned above are probably exceptional minds. But it doesn’t take an exceptional mind to be a good scientist. I realize that may sound counter-intuitive, but you don’t need to be a genius to understand what science is, how it works, and how to apply it. You simply need to be curious and know how to apply logic and the scientific method to your endeavors.

I think that a lot of people have questions or ideas that, if pursued scientifically, could yield interesting and fruitful results. One of the greatest weapons of discovery and innovation is diversity–a wealth of different competing ideas is more likely to lead to the truth than a select few people pursing much narrower avenues. And by forcing people to travel down a lengthy and often expensive academic path in order to practice science, I can’t help but feel that we’re losing that diversity, and we’re turning a lot of people who would make contributions to science away from the field.

And I’m sure that the high school student and the undergraduate student in the previous examples are going to be strongly encouraged to pursue advanced degrees. But is that really necessary? Sure, they’ll receive some great mentoring, but do the extra letters after their name somehow make the things they’ve already discovered more real? No, of course not. Would it somehow make them more brilliant? Doubtful. They’re naturally curious and inventive. So beyond the mentoring, I have to wonder what forcing these people further into an academic system really accomplishes, especially in light of all that they’ve accomplished already.

I guess this is my rallying call to the masses. Don’t think that just because you didn’t get an advanced degree that science is beyond you, and that you can’t contribute to it. Don’t think that you need 10+ years of advanced postgraduate education and formal training and a fancy lab at Harvard to do a scientific experiment. Get a library card and start reading. Take classes at your local community college. Buy a telescope and set it up in your backyard. Create a little lab in your garage. Be a pioneer, like so many who have come before you.

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12 thoughts on “Anyone can be a scientist

  1. Well, the same logic applies to business as well. Some of the best inventions and technological advances happened from someone’s backyard. When people realize there’s a niche to fill in some way, it creates competition. To strive for something better!
    On a side note…I find it funny how so many people around the world just don’t care. It’s like they’re doggy paddling through life, not striving to learn something new. It’s sad really.

    1. Very true!

      Bill Gates and Phil Knight immediately leap to mind. But there are countless other successes in the business world that parallel the scientific world.

      Sadly, I agree with your side note. Many (but not all, thankfully!) people just don’t care or don’t seem interested in learning. Maybe they’re too comfortable. Maybe they just figure someone else will do the learning and discovery for them. Whatever the reason, it’s very disheartening…

  2. I like your perspective on anyone being able to do science. I personally felt the pain of studying science at the college level. I love biology, physics, and chemistry in varying degrees, but since I am just below a Bachelor’s Degree, I am not considered a scientist by any means. Well, unless you ask my parents. But you’re right. One can be a humanist, an atheist, or an environmentalist without a degree, so one can absolutely be a scientist without the degree.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience!

      I feel like it’s a pretty typical one. People start learning about science, and get excited and have all these ideas, but get shot down or told to wait until they pursue a doctorate. I don’t think that’s really to anyone’s advantage, and probably disengages a lot of passionate and curious young people.

  3. Interesting perspective, and I agree.

    Welcome back, I was beginning to wonder what had happened to you. I know how it is, I recently had a long layoff from the blog thing myself. It seems to come in bunches, then long periods of nuttin.

  4. I guess I’m a little more pessimistic about this. I agree that it is possible to contribute to science without advanced degrees (your examples make it impossible to argue otherwise!), but it’s very, very hard. I think part of it is the amount of competition nowadays. There’s no lack of PhDs anymore. You don’t really get the kind of apprenticeship Faraday got.
    But in more practical terms, it’s difficult to dedicate the necessary amount of time to a subject without that being your job. If one is working a 9-5, reading all the journal articles and keeping up with current research and coming up with your own ideas, is a herculean task.
    I agree with your sentiment for sure and agree that more people should follow their curiosities as far as they can.

    1. You raise some excellent points. Surely balancing a regular 9-5 job (or jobs) with an independent scientific investigation would be hard. I could also see the benefits of apprenticeship and mentoring.

      In those areas, I can see the advantage of the academic or university setting for a scientist. And I can’t really say how someone would get around those two things other than that they would just have to dedicate the same amount of hours but stretched over a much longer period of time.

      What I would love to see is academic institutions and universities reaching out directly to the public. More science fair type events and contests, but for everyone as opposed to just students.

  5. Also, there are other examples, too. There are a lot of people out there that have a Bachelor’s, Master’s or PhD, etc; yet stray from their field. A good example is Noam Chomsky. His theories about genetics and how we learn language was big, especially back in the day but he is not known for that. Like Paul Krugman phd winning the nobel prize, chomsky has taken to a life of politics….using his “expertise” in various fields. And people follow him. Krugman, too. Once, he was considered an objective person but it looks like over-inflated degrees and egos can get the best of people. However, when it comes to other topics (generalizing here….like physics) usually people stay out of the way. Unless you’re Bill Nye (which….has a bacherlors in engineering) who uses his celebrity status to influence others. Like Neil Tyson, even. So, having a degree and a celebrity status is potentially bad….

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