What makes a scientist?

So it is now February, and I have not written a single post this year yet. Term 2 of my final year is proving busier than ever; primarily, this semi-writer’s block has been spurred on by a shockwave of deadlines, which have been (miraculously!) met with varying levels of quality. Nonetheless, I am still standing and more contemplative about my future than ever before.

A sudden urge to write hit me after a conversation I had with my housemates recently. It consisted of a debate about what it is that makes a scientist, and would any of us consider ourselves as such? You might think that in a household where all of us study a degree which is either of some form of science or utilises it directly: biomed, physics, maths, engineering (the last two of which have debatable status as a science, although STEM certainly provides the correct label) – that our views would be similar. However, it seemed that the general consensus amongst us was that no, none of us are scientists. Our degrees may follow the scientific method, yes, but until we are involved in research and publish peer-reviewed papers, none of us are scientists.

By the definition given by our omniscient friend Google, a scientist is “a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences”. Note: studying or has expert knowledge. So my knowledge of quantum mechanics is nowhere near expert, although I do study it. Does that make me a scientist? Apparently so. But whilst I do some form of theoretical research, and may well be finding out new things, I have not been published. Therefore my credibility as a scientist is pretty dire.  I would say that this is the distinction between a scientist and a science student: their credibility, mixed with existence (or lack of) scientific integrity. To quote Richard Feynman from Cargo Cult Science, about what constitutes a scientist:

“It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

So, in contrast to Google’s definition, a scientist is someone who conducts experiments or theorises results, but is sure to make all aspects that lead up to it clear: the things that fit, as much as the things that don’t fit.

And as I begin to develop my understanding and appreciation of the scientific method,  and begin to implement it in my studies and hopefully in my future career, I come to realise that to be a scientist also  means being incredibly tough-skinned. Coping with criticisms left right and centre, coping with perpetually hitting brick walls, coping with other members of the scientific community who may as well be brick walls… But the tenets of Taekwon-do are teaching me to persevere in everything I do; hence, I will persevere and probably take up my conditional offer for a Master’s degree in Atmosphere, Ocean and Climate at Reading uni, and graduate with that 2:1, and be the absolute best that I could ever dream to be.

In my favourite song ever, Ben Howard once said, “keep your head up, keep your heart strong”.

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