Practice of Science Friday: The Abstraction of Science and Who Counts as a Scientist?

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.

7 thoughts on “Practice of Science Friday: The Abstraction of Science and Who Counts as a Scientist?”

  1. RE: Who Counts as a Scientist?

    One thing I always found sort of interesting back about 10 or 20 years ago, when I was much more active working directly with various U.S. Forest Service personnel on individual timber sales and projects, was that very few of the USFS experts and scientists I encountered actually didn’t have anything beyond a B.S. in science. (Maybe the pun here is intended, I’m not sure).

    Anyway, maybe things have changed in the past couple of decades, but many of us in the forest protection community (some of whom [not me, mind you] had advanced Masters degrees and/or PhD degrees in various scientific disciplines themselves) would marvel that we’d be getting lectured by a USFS silviculturist or forest or fire ecologist who only had a B.S. in science…and always seemed to want to do a bunch of heavy-handed logging for various reasons.

    Now, I myself have a BA in History, but I have never once called myself a ‘historian.” Yet for some reason a USFS silviculturists who obtained a BS (which basically meant that between the age of 18 and 22 they took a total of 12 different 3-credit classes on a broad subject matter) is considered an “expert” and a “scientists.”

    Anyway, perhaps things have changed in the agency over the past decade or two in this regards. I’d imagine that current USFS employees are given various incentives (including a better pay grade) when they obtain more education, so maybe that’s helped get more folks in the agency who actually have advanced scientific degrees.

    • Matthew, that’s exactly why I think it’s important to discuss specific knowledge claims and the basis for them, rather than needing to check credentials and experience every time folks disagree about something technical. If done in writing and available to the public, this would be a terrific mode of scientific education, albeit incredibly time-consuming..

      Taking your silviculture example, silviculturists (at least they used to) need to be formally certified, which is an educational effort of its own and possibly more related to the questions of managing vegetation than a master’s which is mostly classroom, some lab, and a thesis on possibly a specific narrow issue, not related to management prescriptions for a specific district.

      • I’ve heard that being certified as a Silviculturalist is the toughest certification in the Forest Service. Of course, Silviculture brings in many disciplines, and their synergies, to be analyzed into some sort of implementation plan. As the quotes says, “Forestry is not Rocket Science. It is more complex”.

      • Anony.. that is one view but it gets confusing… like for example, if someone gets a DC job in R&D, not using the RGEG, do they have to turn in their “scientist” card? What about those folks who go back and forth between say Forest Health and R&D?

        I mean it kind of works as a definition, but it may be hard for internal or external folks to use.

  2. It was Kuhn’s STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS (1962) that first familiarized a larger readership with the contrast between the orderly presentation of scientific knowledge and work in science textbooks with the underlying messiness of the actual craft. Writers in the 1950s and 1960s especially drew attention to the sharp divide between scientific confirmation and the creation of new scientific ideas or theories, once again highlighting the open-endedness and method-less-ness of the latter. Who isn’t going to marvel a little, for instance, on discovering that Mendeleev was running way behind schedule in writing his promised volumes about the known chemical elements and therefore decided to see if he could group them in such a way that he could cover more ground faster by writing about the group’s characteristics without having to tarry over each element individually. And thus, of course, was born his stunning periodic table of the elements. Holy Moly.

  3. Perhaps another, very much related question is “what counts as science?” Sometimes science means data or results, other times it means method, and often it means body of knowledge. We could add to his list too.

    I mention this because the philosophy of science often segues into the sociology of science and then the politics. There’s a fascinating issue (at least for me in all my work on collaborative approaches to public land management) about what it means to practice science as part of a policy process, with some scientists preferring to stay at arms length from policy and others wanting to make special use of the objectivity of their methods as a way to claim special role for themselves within policy debates.

    Science Friday is good stuff.


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