Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What Is a Scientist?

The question has come up in the discussion of the AAAS video on Panda's Thumb [The AAAS responds to “Expelled”]. The video highlights several people who claim that science and religion are compatible. Since AAAS is a scientific organization, it makes sense that the people being interviewed are scientists. However, many of them are not—at least not by my understanding of what a scientist is.

For example, some of the people being interviewed are high school teachers in Dover. One of them, Jennifer Miller, is participating in the comments. Is she a scientist? Yes, according to some people because she got an undergraduate degree in biology. According to PvM that's all it takes.

Is this sufficient? I don't think so. I think that a scientist has to be an "expert" in some area of science and I think that having an undergraduate degree isn't enough. This doesn't mean that the testimony of high school science teachers is irrelevant to the discussion about compatibility of science and religion. It just means that they aren't really expert enough in science to be called scientists.

This issue also came up last week when I was talking about it to a fellow evolutionist. That person made the claim that Richard Dawkins isn't a scientist any more. That's going too far, in my opinion. Just because he may not have a grant and may not be publishing papers in the scientific literature does not mean that he has lost his claim to scientific expertise. If we try to stick to a definition like that then not only are high school teachers eliminated but also a great many real scientists.

Why do you think? Can you be a scientist if all you have is an undergraduate degree? Can you be a scientist if you don't publish in scientific journals?

Here's a challenging test of your definition of a scientist. The photograph below is from the April 30, 2008 edition of The Daily Mail in the UK [Calamari for 500: Scientists defrost giant squid with 10.8 inch eyes]. The caption reads, "A technician sits in the tank with the carcass as scientists examine the squid."

Surely these people aren't real scientists?

[Image Credit: The scientist cartoon is from Jacks of Science]


  1. Dawkins long ago stopped being a serious scientist. He's lost it, despite his good education. He does not think scientifically; he just shoehorns everything into orthodox reducto-darwinism and "information theory". And don't get me going about how "scientific" I think his meme theory is.

    Another good example is Behe. All necessary wall-decorations, papers in nature, good journals. But on the topic of origins he has been unable to keep it 100% scientific. So he's another whose "expertise" I would not consider proper of a scientist.

    Scientists who spend more time giving lectures or "evolution education" are more prone to forget properly scientific ways and shoehorn things into pandering to their social clique (religious or antireligious)

  2. Seems to me that the term "scientist" is best used in the sense of what a person's profession is. That is, are they currently practicing science, funded/publishing or not.

    Personally, I think that the confusion comes from how just about everyone uses the label in place of saying that someone [still] thinks like a scientist, or was trained as one.

  3. I don't think presence or absence of a degree has much to do with being a scientist. Gertrude Elion didn't have a PhD. (Nor did Darwin, and so on.) There are lots of graduate students who are fine scientists long before they are granted a degree.

    I also think there are people who are scientists even though they aren't doing "science" -- just as there are lots of people who do science, but are not scientists. (Sometimes, I think, the majority.)

    I do agree that being a high school teacher of science doesn't qualify one as a scientist, but it doesn't disqualify one, either.

  4. I do agree that being a high school teacher of science doesn't qualify one as a scientist, but it doesn't disqualify one, either.

    The same can be said of M.D.s, as well. Medical training does not make you a scientist; not even one bit. It doesn't disqualify you, and there are many excellent clinician-scientists (not all of whom hold MDs and PhDs). But simply getting trained as a physician doesn't make you a capable scientist (neither, it should be said, does a Ph.D., though with Ph.D., at least you've been (hopefully) trained in the scientific method).

  5. I think the question is not, "Who is a scientist?" but rather, "What is science?"

    Of course, if you define "science" as "that which scientists do," then the questions are one and the same. But I don't think that definition really works.

    Of course, the question, "Is science compatible with religion?" is just as sensitive to the definition of religion as it is to the definition of science.

    If by "religion" we just mean a set of arbitrary cultural practices, then it's trivially obvious that it's compatible with science, no more incompatible than the custom of eating turkey on Thanksgiving.

    If by "religion" we mean asserting some physical statements as actually true, then it's trivially obvious that religion is incompatible with science.

    The situation gets more complicated when we consider religion in a specifically ethical sense. To the extent that religion makes claims to ethical truth, then it's just as incompatible with science. Even if there were objective ethical truths, religion has a zero track record as an epistemic method to find ethical truth.

    In the sense that people use religion as a metaphor for subjective ethical preferences, the case is ambiguous. On the one hand, a metaphor makes no explicit truth claim; superficially it's just an opinion.

    On the other hand, people have a tendency to take metaphors literally. To the extent that religion "metaphorically" expresses subjective ethical preferences as real truths (i.e. the preferences and properties of a specific being) it encourages people to have untrue beliefs about reality.

  6. My working definition of "scientist" is "a person who has published at least one peer-reviewed scientific paper in the last 3 years and is currently working on work with the intention of similar publications in future".

    The 3 years thing is obviously arbitrary, but my definition focuses on a person having some continuity of work that includes both the day-to-day process of scientific research and disemination of results to a wider, critical audience.

    Under this definition, the degrees one has earned and one's day-job are irrelevant, all that matters is a past history and a continuing activity with an intent.

    I think Behe still qualifies under my definition, while Dawkins does not. This doesn't particularly bother me.

  7. My own (admittedly ideosyncratic) definition is that a scientist is someone who is doing science. "Scientist" is not a title or something conferred by a degree, it is a description. There are scientists who never got any degree and people with degrees up the kazoo who never came close to being scientists.

    Maybe we could have a different description for someone with scientific expertise who is not actually doing science ... a "wise guy," perhaps?


  8. I don't have criteria as explicit as thebrummel, but I sure have a problem with Dawkins being called a "scientist" when he hasn't contributed to the professional literature for a quarter century. He's a science writer, and a good one, but he's not a scientist in my book. PZ is much closer to being a professional scientist than is Dawkins, and yet I thought it was ridiculous for the NY Times to refer to him as "evolutionary biologist." Ditto for Behe and Wells: former scientists, current writers (I would say propagandists).

    Does it matter whether a "scientist" is actually doing science? You bet it does. Is there a world of difference between Richard Dawkins and Francisco Ayala, spiritual proclivities aside? You bet there is.

    This, Larry, is just another reason why Stephen Jay Gould is worthy of the esteem in which you and I both hold him. He wrote about science, unforgettably, and did science, well.

  9. Just as a matter of curiosity, does Prof. Moran consider Ken Miller to be a scientist?

  10. SFMathesosn says,

    I don't have criteria as explicit as thebrummel, but I sure have a problem with Dawkins being called a "scientist" when he hasn't contributed to the professional literature for a quarter century. He's a science writer, and a good one, but he's not a scientist in my book.

    My last paper in the scientific literature was in 1994 and I don't intend to publish any more papers in scientific journals.

    Can you and "thebrummell" tell me when it was that I stopped being a scientist?

    While you're at it, can the two of you let us know when PZ Myers stops being a scientist? Maybe we should have a wake on that date? (We might have missed it according to thebrummell's definition.)

  11. slc says,

    Just as a matter of curiosity, does Prof. Moran consider Ken Miller to be a scientist?

    Ken Miller is a scientist. So is Michael Behe and Richard Dawkins.

    Jim Watson is a scientist. Bruce Alberts is a scientist. Francis Collins is a scientist. Ernst Mayr was a scientist until the day he died.

    Jonathan Wells is not a scientist.

    I think of a scientist as someone who is an expert in some field of the natural sciences and whose full-time profession is doing science where "doing" can include teaching about science, writing about science, and even administration work related to science. Furthermore, scientists who retire from "full-time" employment do not cease to become scientists as long as they continue to be involved in some way or another.

  12. It seems to me a scientist has nothing to do with degree or knowledge or expertise or publication (in part). A scientist is a person who works with (real) data (whether natural phenomena or experimentally generated) and then creates, modifies and extends theories and hypotheses based on that data. And then looks for more data to support or refute such claims. To me, the most important part of being a scientist is trying to prove yourself wrong to see if your theories hold up. This is often done with proper controls and attempts to find alternative explanations. A trained monkey could do the PCR (probably), but it takes a true scientist to design the proper experiments and controls to create a meaningful and coherent story. While i dont think publication necessarily makes anyone a scientist, an important aspect of the scientific process in communication of results and theories. Those who teach such information in high school, i think may be scientifically trained, and could possibly be actual scientists, but teaching alone is not practicing science.

  13. TheBrummell said...

    My working definition of "scientist" is "a person who has published at least one peer-reviewed scientific paper in the last 3 years and is currently working on work with the intention of similar publications in future".

    Thanks for ruling out all of us who work in industry in applied science. We've got Ph.D.s, read the relevant literature, and do a slew of actual research (mine happening to be proprietary so I can't publish). Am I less of a scientist because that's what I do now, having published my last peer-reviewed 'pure' academic paper 20 years ago?

  14. From the photo, it is obvious that the scientists are the ones wearing the lab coats.
    I would think "scientist" should include anyone using the scientific method, whether or not they have published or are considered a so-called 'expert'.

  15. I would have some qualms about the designation of Prof. Behe as a scientist, based on his abandonment of the scientific method in pushing ID. Of course, I would have qualms about designating Linus Pauling a scientist in his declining years when he was pushing vitamin C as a cure-all. I would have qualms about designating J. Allen Hynek a scientist in his declining years when he started taking alien abductions seriously. I would have qualms about designating Peter Duesberg a scientist based on his attitude towards HIV as the cause of AIDS.

  16. I think there are active and inactive scientists, and then people who through their actions stop being scientists. Active scientists are those still doing research of any kind using the scientific method in its broadest sense. Your actions define you as a scientist and the list is kept in heaven ;). Inactive scientists do all the other things scientists do but no longer do active research. A scientist stops being a scientist when they abandon the scientific method. If they abandon it a little now and then, is that a problem - I think that is a matter of judgment. If they were once scientists we could call them ex-scientists.

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  18. This clarifies things:


  19. It's unbelieveble how the world never
    changes, how history repeats. By reading all this stuff I felt a sensation of being in an obscure time of the past. A time when people didn't know nothing from nothing.
    A scientist is not a professional.
    A scientist is not a graduated.
    A scientist is born a scientist and
    it's the rarest(or most rare - I'm
    brasilian and still learning the english - and, by the way Brasil is with "s" not "z")kind of human there can be. Really I don't think there is even one alive today in the world. In my count, in the whole history of mankind, their number may not surpass 200.
    It seems everybody is making a confusion between scientist and researcher.
    If a scientist, by chance, exists today, he's hidden in a corner somewhere just waiting to see what happens. Perhaps he's understanding
    what Jesus meant when he said maybe the only or, at least most profitable thing in the bible: don't you throw pearls to the pigs.
    Oh!!! too sad, not everybody can be a scientist. The most remarkable quality of a scientist is a deep deep deep profound honesty and integrity not attainable by 99,999998% of human race. This is what enables him to see what no one
    can. A scientist never tells or believes in lies like "everybody is equal" or "oh! what beautiful things mankind does when gets united" or "god is so good that we'll keep believing in him even though we know he doesn't exist".