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.