ForumsWEPRWhat is Science?

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aknerd
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Hello!

Most of the threads I have made regarding scientific topics have failed because we all come from different backgrounds, making it hard to find a common topic we can actually debate about. But, looking over the types of people the post in the WEPR, I still feel like there is a general interest in science, so, following Moegreche's lead, this is going to be more of a philosophical discussion.

Feel free to join in even if you have no formal scientific education, everyone's opinion can contribute something worthy here. This is intended to be more of an opinion based thread, I'm interesting in what other people think about science. Feel free to make a new thread, however, if you want to talk about how science is different from religion. While it might come up here and there in this topic, religion is really beyond the scope of this thread.

Okay, now that you've read the fine print, lets get down to business. The first questions I would like to address are these:

1) Where do you think science comes from?

2) What is a typical scientist? How do you think one becomes a scientist?


I would to focus on current science for these questions, by the way. Current being the last 20 years.

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HahiHa
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I think it might be interesting to start with a link to the Online Etymology Dictionary on 'science':
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=science&allowed_in_frame=0

1) Where do you think science comes from?

The search for knowledge and truth. There have been several approaches to this, but there were always people trying to find out how this world works. Science being one of those approaches, typically the more objective one.

2) What is a typical scientist?

Honestly, I don't think there is such a thing. The only thing uniting most modern scientists is their interest in their specific branch.

How do you think one becomes a scientist?

Officially? Studying a certain scientific field, do research and publish papers.

Now of course, anyone working with scientific methods can be considered a scientist, those methods involving experiments, facts and objectivity.
MageGrayWolf
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Starting with the Title.

Science simply put means knowledge. (Latin, scientia meaning "knowledge", scio meaning "to know".) What is general meant when talking about science is the method used to arrive at this knowledge, "n. the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment"- Oxford Dictionary.
"Science is a system of statements based on direct experience, and controlled by experimental verification. Verification in science is not, however, of single statements but of the entire system or a sub-system of such statements."- Rudolf Carnap

1) Where do you think science comes from?


The development of science in general stems from philosophical thought. Since you're speaking of moderns science how about we turn to wiki.

'The Scientific Revolution (The Scientific Revolution is a convenient boundary between ancient thought and classical physics.) established science as a source for the growth of knowledge. During the 19th century, the practice of science became professionalized and institutionalized in ways that continued through the 20th century. As the role of scientific knowledge grew in society, it became incorporated with many aspects of the functioning of nation-states.

The history of science is marked by a chain of advances in technology and knowledge that have always complemented each other. Technological innovations bring about new discoveries and are bred by other discoveries, which inspire new possibilities and approaches to longstanding science issues."

2) What is a typical scientist? How do you think one becomes a scientist?


I agree with what HahiHa said.
aknerd
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I'm going to reword the first question a bit.

1) Where do you think scientific ideas come from?

Hopefully, this is a bit more non-trivial than the original version.

But, I think there could still be some discussion on the second question. I don't totally agree with Hahiha's answer:

Honestly, I don't think there is such a thing.

Okay, I get where you are coming from. Obviously, we can't throw a blanket over ALL scientists. But, in the end, science is a profession. Like, most scientists are professional scientists, who are paid salaries to do, well, science. This is actually a recent development- historically science was the domain of independently wealthy hobbyists.

So there is one commonality of most scientists: they are for profit. And who pays them? In the U.S, typically universities/colleges. Or the government. A lot (here, I do not use the word "most") of scientists are also professors, and have degrees.

I also think that, at the moment, a large proportion of scientists are young, like younger than 35. In my experience most labs* are run by a single older person, but most of the people in the lab are still students.

* "lab" here refers to a research lab, not a lab class as in a university. Though there is actual research conducted in classrooms these days.

Officially? Studying a certain scientific field, do research and publish papers.

Now of course, anyone working with scientific methods can be considered a scientist, those methods involving experiments, facts and objectivity.


I agree with this, but also think that we might be able to discuss it further. Because its interesting, isn't it? Like, theres this huge divide between being able to call yourself a scientist, and getting other people to respect you as a scientist. Its not like becoming a doctor, where you have to do a certain number of things in order to legally practice medicine.

Anyone can conduct an experiment in their basement. But then again that doesn't mean you're gonna get published in Nature.

Follow up question: Should there be some sort of criteria you need to pass in order to become a scientist? Why or why not?
MageGrayWolf
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So there is one commonality of most scientists: they are for profit.


I think it's more a matter of requiring money in order to get the necessary supplies in order to properly run some experiments rather than being for profit.

A lot (here, I do not use the word "most") of scientists are also professors, and have degrees.


All that tells us is they spent time learning and have learned about the field they are endeavoring to contribute to first.

I also think that, at the moment, a large proportion of scientists are young, like younger than 35. In my experience most labs* are run by a single older person, but most of the people in the lab are still students.


I would have to see statistics on that.

Anyone can conduct an experiment in their basement. But then again that doesn't mean you're gonna get published in Nature.


That would all depend on the nature of the experiment and how you carried it out. This is where money can come it. With a better facility and you stand a better chance of running more precise experiments and can better monitor the results with better equipment. Since science has us become more focused and precise at each step, that becomes more important as we go.
Also you will have an easier time being taken seriously if you have the proof that you are knowledgeable in that specific field (a degree).
aknerd
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I think it's more a matter of requiring money in order to get the necessary supplies in order to properly run some experiments rather than being for profit.

Many (most? nearly all?) scientists get grant money to run their experiments, but are paid an additional salary by whatever institution they work for. I'm not trying to say that scientists are in their field solely for the monetary benefits (because the benefits aren't really THAT great), but rather that it is more of a profession than it used to be.

I would have to see statistics on that.

Hmmm. I'm going to go ahead and say that I will not be able to produce satisfyingly definitive numbers for that claim. As I said, it was more of a personal observation. But, there are SOME numbers to back it up on this NSF page.

So, its like this. PhD students generally* have to complete a thesis before they get their degree. In the pursuit of this thesis, they generally* work for a mentor (and, again, are generally* paid a salary) for a number of years. If they are also trying to get their masters, a good number would be like 6-8 years. But each mentor can have multiple students. In this way its easy to see how the cumulative "student years" can outweigh the "mentor years", especially considering how the number of PhD students has been rising.
(*you might notice that I am generalizing here...)

Furthermore, it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to say that virtually all science PhD students are currently scientists, but they won't necessarily remain scientists for the rest of their lives. Many of them will drop out, and even those who get their degrees won't necessarily continue their scientific career until they die. A lot will go into administrative or purely academic roles as they get older, some will just get tired or jaded or whatever and open up a food truck.

All that tells us is they spent time learning and have learned about the field they are endeavoring to contribute to first.

A LOT of time, though. And again, the fact that so many go into education even after they graduate shouldn't be ignored. Think about it: a significant bulk of research is conducted by people who have spent their entire lives in an academic setting. Does that matter? I don't know. But it is interesting to think about.
HahiHa
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So there is one commonality of most scientists: they are for profit.

Often the profit is made by independent organisations using the knowledge provided by science. As an example, in medicine/biology the knowledge provided is supposed to help fight diseases, which is used by pharmacological companies to develop treatments (and get money).

Anyone can conduct an experiment in their basement. But then again that doesn't mean you're gonna get published in Nature.

Getting published in Nature is no requisite for being scientist, it is 'simply' a great achievement. There's that thing with the journal indices, and scientists try to publish ina journal with an index as high as possible. One can argue about the sense of this; of course papers published in Nature will get more attention, but that doesn't mean it is better; it just means it probably contains the words 'cancer' or 'dinosaur' in the title

Follow up question: Should there be some sort of criteria you need to pass in order to become a scientist? Why or why not?

No. As it is, you need to learn the fundamentals of your branch as you specialize, in order to find people supporting your research etc. This should already be sufficient.

I'm not trying to say that scientists are in their field solely for the monetary benefits (because the benefits aren't really THAT great), but rather that it is more of a profession than it used to be.

That is mostly because scientists used to come from wealthy families before. Now that scientific education got more accessible, institutional funds replace private wealth.

Furthermore, it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to say that virtually all science PhD students are currently scientists, but they won't necessarily remain scientists for the rest of their lives. Many of them will drop out, and even those who get their degrees won't necessarily continue their scientific career until they die. A lot will go into administrative or purely academic roles as they get older, some will just get tired or jaded or whatever and open up a food truck.

Does it really matter who does the research, as long as the methodology is respected? Many go to private companies and in the industry after getting their diplomas, true, but this may not be a bad thing either. Knowing some professors, I can tell we don't necessarily need more old mules fighting about their opinions..

A lot will go into administrative or purely academic roles as they get older,

At my uni, professors are chosen for their renown and contributions to research (which is a problem since they don't necessarily possess good didactic skills)...
HahiHa
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At my uni, professors are chosen for their renown and contributions to research (which is a problem since they don't necessarily possess good didactic skills)...

I meant to say lecturers, not professors..
Moegreche
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This is such a terrific topic, but it looks at bit bogged down. I'd like to suggest a slight shift in direction in how we go about answering (2) from above.

While it might be difficult to give an account of a scientist (or, for that matter, a 'typical' scientist) there certainly do seem to be things that an individual must do - or must avoid doing - to be considered a scientist.

In formal terms, there are some necessary conditions (some of which are already mentioned above) for being considered a scientist. But there are also defeaters - practices that, if an individual engages in, would cause us to withhold the title of scientist to that individual.

I find the defeaters for 'scientisthood' far more interesting that the necessary conditions, although both certainly play an important role.

So my question is: why are there defeaters? What makes certain practices not scientific?
A related question: Does science have its own goals, or does scientific practice reflect further goals that we have as epistemic agents?

aknerd
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Does it really matter who does the research, as long as the methodology is respected?


My point was more along the lines of arguing that more people tend to "drop out" of science as they age than "drop into". I was trying to show how you have this (relatively) huge pool scientists in the form of grad students as a young age, which then shrinks with time as some of the student follow other, non-research interests. My overall point was that scientists tend to be younger than what is typically featured in the media.

But, your point in a great segue into Moegreche's post. Because, in a way, he answers your question with another question.

It DOES matter (in my opinion) where the science comes from, because of Moegreche's defeaters. So:

why are there defeaters? What makes certain practices not scientific?


There are defeaters because the current way that science is implemented requires a high level of trust within the scientific community. A scientific paper is an analysis of information, but rarely contains the information itself. Manipulating this data in a clandestine manner is thoroughly unscientific, because you are no longer analyzing the information you are claiming to analyze.

If you are found to commit such an action knowingly, then your paper will definitely be rejected, and probably any past and future papers will be called into question.

Because really, that is what science is all about. Applying logic to data. We can examine each others logic in a paper quite easily- if someone makes an error in a formula, we can see that. But if someone applies a totally different formula to their data in order to make their results more significant, or fabricates the results entirely- well then. How do we know?

There are certain things that someone can do that will raise the level of suspicion. If you have something very personal invested in the topic. If your employer has something important invested in the topic. etc. These shouldn't be enough to discount you as a scientist on their own, but they definitely raise some flags and might merit further inquiry.

I'll have to think about your last question for a bit, I believe.
HahiHa
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My overall point was that scientists tend to be younger than what is typically featured in the media.

You mean like the Doc in Back to the Future? Yeah, scientists tend to be much younger. Usually the older ones already became professors or so; as you said.

It DOES matter (in my opinion) where the science comes from, because of Moegreche's defeaters.

I understand that. But remember I said "Does it really matter who does the research, as long as the methodology is respected? ". Or, in other words, Does it really matter as long as there are no defeaters involved?

Scientists cheating on their results are still officially scientists, but yeah, they don't really do justice to their profession. Sadly such individuals will always exist, but peer-reviewing and more importantly reproduction of experiments tend to show if something's not quite right.

On that matter, what about someone using a statistical method on a dataset that is not the most adequate one, which might yield slightly different results? It isn't done consciously, and if you don't work with someone who understands statistics, it's easy to do such a mistake. It is of course an error in the procedure, but is the person less of a scientist because of that? Science keeps making mistakes and learning from it, in totality as well as individually.

Does science have its own goals, or does scientific practice reflect further goals that we have as epistemic agents?

Scientists certainly have their own goals. Science is the totality of scientists. Of course, per definition, science strives towards knowledge; any other goal, I would consider individual or cultural.
Freakenstein
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Number one has been answered thoroughly and successfully I think, so I'll just answer number 2.

As soon as one finds a curiosity, learns a principle, trait, or tool, or figures out something within the natural and synthetic universe, that person is a Scientist (one who studies Science). This is akin to "as soon as one person can compile one printed line, they are a computer programmer". It doesn't have to be a giant achievement, so long as they fulfilled that curiosity to learn and have learned something about it.

Number three blurs the definition of number 2. Although one can call oneself a scientist, Society demands a degree of accreditation from scientists to the point of being absolute professionals in that realm of study. The accreditation evolves with the class of your degree, the amount of knowledge you have provided/helped provide, and how much work into research you have on your belt.

MageGrayWolf
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So my question is: why are there defeaters? What makes certain practices not scientific?


Science like any discipline has a set of rules that apply in order to weed out misconduct and pseudoscience. They are needed to counter problems with our ability to make observations and draw conclusions. Someone who habitually breaks these rules we qualify as not a scientist, just as someone who habitually breaks the rules of golf in a game we would consider not to be a golfer.

Because really, that is what science is all about. Applying logic to data. We can examine each others logic in a paper quite easily- if someone makes an error in a formula, we can see that. But if someone applies a totally different formula to their data in order to make their results more significant, or fabricates the results entirely- well then. How do we know?


Yes and no. It is possible for bad science/pseudoscience to slip through the peer review process. Though we have another stop gap in play after this point where others try to replicate the results and make those results fit with the rest of the puzzle, so to speak.
09philj
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Science is the exploration of how the world works, and developing, proving and disproving theories about this OR [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlNw5ZuDYsk]

aknerd
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Yes and no. It is possible for bad science/pseudoscience to slip through the peer review process. Though we have another stop gap in play after this point where others try to replicate the results and make those results fit with the rest of the puzzle, so to speak.


Ah! but then we reach an entirely different problem.

Scientist one (Call him Dr. Bob) can say:
"I think that it is A because of B, as evidenced by C."

To which Scientist two (call her Dr. Barbarella) responds:
"You couldn't be more wrong! A is because D, as evidenced by E! Everyone knows E is better than C."

At which point it essentially becomes Bob's word vs Barbarella's word. Both scientists could have released contradictory papers, but both papers could be completely logical and claim to use accepted methodology. Which either means one scientists could have lied about their methods (but which one?), or that one (or both) of the methods was actually not that great to begin with, or the data were bad, or that BOTH scientists are wrong, or that both scientists are correct and the contradiction isn't really a contradiction, or...

Trying to disprove another scientific paper is very, very difficult. A lot of science, especially in my field, is very sensitive to environmental data and can be difficult if not impossible to replicate. Replication is strived for but rarely seen.

Think about it- if you are a scientist and want to make a name for yourself, or secure grant money, or whatever, are you going to try to redo someone else's exact experiment? Or would you rather try something new? That's kind of the point of my rant here- you pretty much never see Scientist three (Dr. Sassafras), who says:

"Well A probably isn't because of B, because I looked at C 30 times at great expense to myself and my institution and only produced B once."

And that's where the whole "trust" thing comes in. We have to trust that other scientists are actually being scientific, because otherwise we would have to waste countless resources to double check every paper that gets published.

*disclaimer: when I talk about double checking, I'm talking about on an individual paper level. More "important" theories obviously get checked over and over again.

To answer Moegreche's last question:
I think that different fields of science are subject to different motivations, some of which are beyond the general pursuit of knowledge. I know that a lot of people in my field do this for conservation reasons, and their research tends to be much more practical. To put it more in the terms of your question, I would say some people's goals are more like "I want to know more about "A" so that we can save (or harvest more of) species "b". As opposed to "I want to know more about "A" so that we will know more about species "b", and thus know more about life in general."

If this continues to merely trudge along, I'm going to drastically change the topic by Sunday. So, get to discussing if you like this topic!
HahiHa
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At which point it essentially becomes Bob's word vs Barbarella's word. Both scientists could have released contradictory papers, but both papers could be completely logical and claim to use accepted methodology. Which either means one scientists could have lied about their methods (but which one?), or that one (or both) of the methods was actually not that great to begin with, or the data were bad, or that BOTH scientists are wrong, or that both scientists are correct and the contradiction isn't really a contradiction, or...

Luckily, the scientific community is made of more than two experts on each field. And while most papers don't give away the database, which usually makes sense (size of data and copyright, that kind of stuff), the methodology has to be explained; you could lie, but then any replication of the experiments using the described methodology will yield different results.

Even then, admittedly, experts can debate a lifelong about certain matters without moving much. But about your rant, yes, some trust is needed. However consider this: if something new is done that hasn't been tried and approved before, usually the first paper is about trying out some methodology on some database, and seeing how the results come out. Those results are in no way the last word, but often just incite yourself or others to go more into details; during that process, scams can potentially be uncovered. Of course even then, the process is never fool-proof, but what is? It's a model that has worked fine so far.
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