For many of us, our natural terrain is not history and philosophy of science. But we need to dip into that world a bit to understand the context for what people mean when they use the term “science” in discussions today.
“Science” itself is an abstraction. In a novel by Andrew Greeley, the sociologist of religion, priest and fiction writer, he puts these words into the mouth of Bishop Blackie Ryan (speaking of individualism): “Actually,” I continued blissfully, “the word is a label, an artifact under which one may subsume a number of often contrasting and sometimes contradictory developments and ideas. Such constructs may be useful for shorthand conversation and perhaps for undergraduate instruction, but they ought not to be reified as if there is some overpowering reality in the outside world that corresponds to them.” Blackie goes on to say “in my experience all words that end in “ism” or “ization” are also constructs that should not be confused with reality.”
Any abstractions can be defined by different people, at different times, for different ends, or just change as ideas drift through time with no discernible cause. Privileged access to forms of communication may lead to other definitions falling by the wayside, or to no open discussion of definitions of abstractions (because generally who has the patience?), which leads to batting abstractions back and forth instead of deeper dialogue. Note: some of this can be laid at the feet of Plato and Aristotle, but I don’t think we need to go there.
Nevertheless, we can see that there are differences between science from the time of Thomas Aquinas- a time when theology was the “queen of the sciences,” to today when some have claimed that physics is now the queen (no doubt agriculture and forest research remain serfs under any classification scheme). But perhaps we should skip ahead and talk about who we define as a “scientist” today.
Maybe a good place to start would be 1981, when Sir Peter Medawar wrote a book called “Advice to a Young Scientist”. Medawar won the Nobel prize for his work in immunology and also wrote quite a bit about science and scientists. The 80’s are when the advisors, or the advisors of the advisors, of today’s students were being trained, and is also within the memory of many alive today.
Here are a few quotes from that book:
There is no such thing as a Scientific Mind. Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics. What sort of mind or temperament can all these people be supposed to have in common? Obligative scientists must be very rare, and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead.
It is not easy and will not always be necessary to draw a sharp distinction between “real” research scientists and those who carry out scientific operations apparently by rote. Among those half-million or so practitioners who. classified themselves as scientists might easily have been the kind of man employed by any large and well-regulated public swimming pool: the man who checks the hydrogen-iron concentration of the water and keeps an eye on the bacterial and fungal flora. I can almost hear the contemptuous snort with which the pretensions of such a one to be thought a scientist will be dismissed.
But wait; scientist is as scientist does. If the attendant is intelligent and ambitious, he may build upon his school science by trying to bone up a little bacteriology or medical mycology in a public library or at night school, where he will certainly learn that the warmth and wetness that make the swimming pool agreeable to human beings are also conducive to the growth of microorganisms. Conversely, the chlorine that discourages bacteria is equally offensive to human beings; the attendant’s thoughts might easily turn to the problem of how best to keep down the bacteria and the fungi without enormous cost to his employer and without frightening his patrons away. Perhaps he will experiment on a small scale in his evaluation of alternative methods of purification. He will in any case keep a record of the relationship between the density of the population of microorganisms and the number of users of the pool, and experiment with adjusting the concentration of chlorine in accordance with his expectation of the number of his patrons on any particular day. If he does these things, he will be acting as a scientist rather than as a hired hand. The important thing is the inclination to get at the truth of matters as far as he is able and to take the steps that will make it reasonably 1ikely he will do so.”
One of the most challenging aspects of increasing total knowledge, in our forest world, is to bring practitioner knowledge and academic knowledge together. Right now we can discuss our own definitions of scientists by paycheck, or by training, or by engaging in structured learning. These distinctions are still contested today and underlie many policy discussions.