Thursday, February 27, 2014

Physicians and engineers are not scientists

Creationists are fond of mentioning people who are committed to creationism but still function as successful scientists. We saw an example in the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. These creationist "scientists" are often physicians or engineers.

It seems obvious to most of us that engineers and physicians are not scientists. PZ Myers mentions this on his blog when he discusses the debate as reviewed by William Saletan: Saletan is at it again. Here's what PZ says ...
Engineers can practice real science, but an engineer is not the same thing as a scientist. I agree that creationists can be perfectly good engineers, but how can you trust the scientific acumen of someone who insists that the earth is only 6,000 years old? That says right there that they have no respect for the evidence. How can Saletan ignore Ham’s bogus distinction between historical and observational science, in which he flatly rejects any possibility of inference about the past from the present? This creationism is utterly incompatible with biology, anthropology, geology, astronomy, climate science, geochemistry, cosmology, and any other science that deals with cause and effect and history. These sciences apparently do not matter to Saletan, as long as engineers make satellites and doctors do surgery.

Saletan cites Ham’s videos as falsifying the claim that creationism is incompatible with science. Ken Ham makes a big deal of this, too.
This would be unremarkable except that Jason Rosenhouse disagrees [Saletan vs. Myers on Nye vs. Ham]. Here's what Jason says ...
Oh for heaven’s sake! Engineers are scientists. Full stop. Are you really that desperate to deny that a creationist could ever make a contribution to science that you will sink to this level of insult and idiocy? (Yes, it is insulting to suggest that engineers are not scientists.)
Engineers have a Bachelor's degree in engineering and they typically work for a construction company or in the IT department of a large corporation. They are not scientists. Full stop.

It's true that some engineers do science but usually they have a higher degree in engineering and usually they are academics. There's no possible way you could assume that all engineers are scientists just because they are licensed engineers and wear the ring. I'm sorry, Jason, but you are wrong.

Similarly, the typical physician has a private practice at a strip mall in the suburbs. They have an M.D. degree that can be earned right out of high school (in Europe). They are not scientists.

There are some physicians who are scientists and some of them have earned Nobel Prizes. They are the exceptions, not the rule. It's ridiculous to assume that everyone with an M.D. is a scientist.


  1. What on earth is Jason on about? I have a Masters in Engineering, and spent most of my career doing software. I got a lot of core science in my education, and there's some conceptual overlap, eg. debugging a problem involves a bit of hypothesis formation and testing. But I'm not a scientist. I can tell the difference.

  2. It brings to mind the memorable exchange between Sheldon Cooper and his sister Missy ("The Porkchop Indeterminacy" episode of The Big Bang Theory):

    Missy: Yep. I'm always bragging to my friends about my brother, the Rocket Scientist.
    [Sheldon looks in disbelief.]
    Sheldon: You tell people I'm a Rocket Scientist?!
    Missy: Well, yeah.
    Sheldon: I'm a theoretical physicist.
    Missy: What's the difference?
    Sheldon: What's the difference?!
    Missy: Goodbye, Shelly.
    Sheldon: My God! Why don't you just tell them I'm a toll taker at the Golden Gate Bridge?! Rocket Scientist, how humiliating!

  3. A better question is who IS a scientist according to these rigorous requirements? A majority of scientists I know do not practice the basic scientific method with any regularity and far more commonly jump to conclusions or have assumptions not based in physical science. Almost all of the positions listed here are not scientists, including the many famous theoretical physicists, because they cannot provide a repeatable experiment. Oddly enough, an engineer or physician can almost always provide a repeatable experiment.

    As for how creationism fits in, as long as it's not part of the equation or theory then it should not preclude the persons scientific credentials. One CAN be a scientist, yet hold a BELIEF in a higher power.

    1. How about the not so famous theoretical physicists, are they scientists ?

      Here's an actual definition of someone who CAN not be a scientist:

      Someone who holds a BELIEF in a higher power despite a complete lack of evidence to support that BELIEF and in the face of massive, overlapping and non contradictory evidence that rebuts that BELIEF.

      And that would include any creotard or IDiot who plays a scientist on TV in front of a blue screen and actually makes their living scamming rubes like you.

    2. So is Freeman Dyson not a scientists then? or Francis Collin?

    3. I don't know - Freeman Dyson has been getting awfully cranky in his old age, giving out favorable quotes about intelligent design and contributing a foreword to Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's book, Extraordinary Knowing.

    4. Collins is a disingenuous, lying sack of shit who I'm sure makes baby jebus cry on a daily basis.

      I had the pleasure of seeing Freeman Dyson talk many, many years ago at McMaster University and he was an engaging speaker back then, however I think time is taking it's toll and now he's just going senile.

    5. Re unknown

      Gee, Albert Einstein wasn't a scientist. That will be news to historians of science who almost unanimously consider him one of the three most important scientists who ever lived (the others being Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton).

      Re steve oberski

      Collins is a disingenuous, lying sack of shit who I'm sure makes baby jebus cry on a daily basis.

      That's way over the top.

    6. @colnagno80

      Why would that be ?

      Does Collins have some special cachet due to his positions in the Human Genome Project and NIH that make him less immune to criticism that your standard run of the mill televangalist and religious huckster ?

      I read his book and it's lies from beginning to end.

      He dresses and talks better than you average piss stained loony haranguing you from the street corner about jesus with a loudspeaker but in essence he is no different.

      And factor in the respect and authority that his scientific accomplishments give his religious ravings he is far more dangerous.

    7. Re Steve Oberski

      That's not criticism, that's name calling and character assassination. AFAIK, Collins is a competent researcher. Just for your information, my PhD thesis adviser, who was a finalist for the Nobel Prize in physics this year for his contributions to the Higgs boson theory, denied evolution and was a born again Christian whose political and religious views were far to the right of Collins'. I think that Collins, like my adviser, was sincere in his kooky beliefs.

    8. @colnago80

      Why does "sincerity" excuse their bad behaviour ?

      And while my language is purposely inflammatory, Collins is a liar for baby jesus. That is not name calling, that is exactly what he does.

      And like a coward he hides behind his scientific reputation knowing full well he would be treated like any other religious nut bag in any other venue and laughed out of the room.

      Fucking frozen waterfall indeed.

  4. Replies
    1. Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.

    2. I've always wondered what his criteria are for starting a new paragraph.

      There seems to be no discernible pattern.

  5. I suppose there's a difference between doing science and being a scientist, but I've found the boundary fuzzy. When as a newlywed I moved to my husband's family farm, where machinery repair was a major part of life. I soon learned that a good mechanic (not every mechanic, you understand, but good one) forms hypotheses and tests them -- before ordering expensive parts. I had had no idea. The same processes were applied to testing out new ideas about how to farm (seeing if results could be replicated in our situation).

    I think one reason science is as well respected as it is, is that so many people in different walks of life are applying the processes of careful observation, rational thought, and testing successfully.

    I also think that the fact that someone fails to apply scientific thinking to his/her religious beliefs doesn't mean he isn't doing science well -- even being a person hired as a scientist! -- in some other fields. Though it does reduce the odds.

  6. There appears to be some equivocation here between whether engineering is a science and whether most engineers are working as research scientists. The first obviously has to be answered with yes. The problem with the latter criterion is that many physicists, chemists, or biologists are not working in research either.

    If one of my friends studied biology and now works in a logistics centre, is he a scientist? By training, yes. If you deny this then you would have to apply the same logic elsewhere, e.g. by saying that a fully qualified dentist is not a dentist once they are unemployed or retired.

    1. There is the science of engineering (generally practiced in a university department by a small number of people) and there is the practice of engineering (generally done in industry by the vast majority of people who have studied engineering). Many fields work that way. Computer Science for example. Computer Science proper deals with issues of what is computable, deriving algorithms, and developing new tools and methods for efficient programming. But most people other than CS professors who have a CS degree don't do this -- instead they write programs to process insurance claims, calculate bank interest, and so forth.

    2. Many fields work that way.

      Well, yes. That is a very succinct summary of my argument, actually.

  7. It's very much possible for a baseball fan to also be a scientist. Of course, a scientist-plus-baseball-fan isn't actually doing science when they attend a baseball game, but they don't spend all their waking hours attending baseball games.
    Analogously, it's very much possible for a Creationist to also be a scientist. Of course, a scientist-plus-Creationist isn't actually doing science when they're doing… whatever it is Creationists do that they portray as if it were science even though it really isn't.
    Extending the analogy, it's very much possible for an engineer to also be a scientist. And so on.

  8. This is about saying scientists only can decide about evolution or Gods presence in nature.
    YEC are accused on not having some people on our side so we say we do and then complaints about occupation being true scientists.

    I say there is no such thing as science or scientists. Just people thinking about things and trying to "prove' thier ideas or disprove others.
    SCIENCE claims and is seen by the public as a higher standard of investigation that can demand confidence in its conclusions. Further it adds its done by above average intelligent people. right or wrong the public thinks this about scientists.
    I always find Engineers ONLY do science because they have too. yet their passion is what they engineer. A different species from scientists indeed.
    I find scientists respect intelligence and see themselves as above average.
    engineers don't care likewise. so they are more of a cross section of society and creationists can get heaps of them. Easily republicans too.
    Sciency types are trying to get Nobel prizes in smart things while engineers just want to engineer something. A real difference in clan.
    ID people are scientists and want nobel prizes too.
    YEC just want a vigour defence and uppity offence. No more pretensions to smartness then that.

    Its all still the last ditch defence of evolutionist, not making a case on their evidence,
    to say they are right because SMART scientists are on their side and not the others.
    Smart is as smart does.
    Creationists come from the more intelligent demographics in the country and in history.
    All this tells us evolutionism can't prove its case on the merits . Just counting heads of a self appointed intellectual superior.
    The smarter guys will prevail and we know it. By the way didn't Mr Nobel get his fame from making dynamite? Was he a scientist?

  9. Larry wrote: "Engineers have a Bachelor's degree in engineering and they typically work for a construction company or in the IT department of a large corporation."

    I think that clearly shows how small and limited his world is. I remember a discussion here at Sandwalk a couple of months ago where I tried to explain to some Sandwalkers why genetic algorithms could not do product development independently. Larry wasn't in the discussion, but if he doesn't see the role of the engineer outside the IT department then I guess he to subscribes to the idea that product development is done by some kind of evolutionary magic. It would also explain why he fails to recognize design in biology.

    1. Prof. Moran fails to recognize design in biology because there is no evidence of it.

  10. I'm curious whether Prof. Rosenhouse has been asked whether he thinks engineers and physicians are mathematicians (Prof. Rosenhouse is a professor of mathematics), and if so what his response was.

  11. Lots of generalizations here. The scientific method is the important process at work, and it can be practiced by trained scientists, MD's, and yes, even lowly engineers. All of the above should at least have received training in, and understand, the scientific method and its usage.

    That said- we as humans have some screwed-up ideas, on occasion. An individual who follows the scientific method in his or her field, rigorously and thoroughly, and gets published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal may also embrace some tenets of religion, or astrology, or ascribe to Masaru Emoto's woo-infested nonsense, or be a conspiracy theorist, or many other borderline pseudoscientific bits. It's rare, and it should be as those and other bits of pseudoscience generally haven't any credible support gleaned through the scientific method- yet, in parts of their lives, they are scientists. This debate over "real scientists don't eat (religious) quiche" is a bit silly.

    Yes, Ken Ham trotted out a few engineers and inventors. Big deal. The vast majority of the scientific community thinks he's a moron.

    1. I understand your point but it's a bit more complicated than you think.

      First, there's no such thing as "the scientific method" so let's not use that as an excuse.

      Second, I'm an advocate of the broad definition of science as a way of knowing. That means that I'm comfortable with the idea that historians and engineers are using the scientific way of knowing when they search for knowledge (i.e. "truth"). Most engineers and physicians are not in the business of seeking knowledge so they are not doing science most of the time.

      Third, even though I like the broad definition of science, the word "scientist" has a very restricted meaning in the minds of the vast majority of people. It always (with few exceptions) applies to people who do physics, chemistry, biology geology, etc. for a living. That does not apply to the average engineer or the average physician so it's wrong to say that you are a scientist just because you are a physician or an engineer.

  12. I respectfully disagree with part of your statement. Fully agree that physicians and engineers aren't automatically scientists, however not all those employed in the fields of geology, chemistry, biology or physics are, either.

    Scientists practice science, to my way of thinking- be it full time, as a career, or even part-time as a portion of his or her employment or even in rare cases, as a hobby (believe there's some story about a patent clerk and some theories of his, who may have been considered a scientist).

    The practice of science entails execution of (or potentially application of, or even understanding of) the scientific method. The exclusionary and elitist view that only those employed in a few restricted fields can be "scientists" is where I disagree. The scientific method, and its diligent execution, make a scientist. yes, it's not the neat and tidy definition you're looking for however the process really is science. The use of scientific method, by the way, implies and requires that the experimenter (scientist) rely on and trust the data that results from good science- essentially ensuring that scientists are data-driven and implying that the populations of creationists and scientists are mutually exclusive. Just my opinion, mind you.

    This is remedial (and isn't meant as condescending) to you, Professor Moran, but included for the benefit of others reading this discussion.

    Of course, in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I'm an engineer with three degrees, and an abiding interest in science- and I would not describe myself as a scientists, as I don't conduct scientific research.

    1. The method is everything. I always looked at science as a detective would. Uncovering the puzzel of the truth is beautiful-simply because it's the truth. Only the true detective can appreciate this. Sophistry is what Plato warned about. Have the guts to find the truth. Not everyone can separate beliefs and emotions from cold hard facts. The square peg of nonsense cannot go into the round whole of truth. If you are in the process of forcing it to do so, you are not a very good detective, are you. The Crowning achievement of the Human Race is the detective, or scientific 'method' of finding the truth. If that's not your goal, then whatever it says on your diploma is meaningless.

  13. @Larry
    "Similarly, the typical physician has a private practice at a strip mall in the suburbs. They have an M.D. degree that can be earned right out of high school (in Europe). They are not scientists."

    Are you kidding? In the UK, getting into University to study Medicine requires the highest academic qualifications - usually in Maths Physics Chemistry and Biology. A degree in Medicine is also longer than other Science degrees and in many Universities has the same courses in the early years as other "science" degrees.

    And by the way in the UK a "private practice at a strip mall" means something entirely different which would get you arrested ;-)

  14. I’d disagree. Engineers are every bit as involved in research, academia, and discovery as biologists and physicists are. My professor (J.R. Elliott) in Chemical Engineering has written text books on the subject of thermodynamics. Is he not a scientist? Is “scientist” then a term of distinction that engineers are not worthy of holding? I know plenty of my engineering classmates who have failed in chemical engineering only to succeed in physics, biology or chemistry whereas I have never met or even heard of someone who failed at a traditional science only to succeed at engineering.

    So if intensity of scientific study is an indicator of one being a scientist I would say an engineer has every right to be called a scientist, same for physicians. At my company we hire engineers to serve in both research and practical application (engineering). In other words, chemical engineers can serve as chemists and engineers, but a chemist can only be a chemist. A mechanical engineer can serve the role of a material scientist, but we don’t put material scientists in the roles of mechanical engineers. A physician can serve in both medical research and medical practice, but a biologist cannot serve in medical practice. I guess I am confused as if this statement is supposed to be a jab at engineers and physicians. Simple economics show demand correlates with supply. In the case of occupation the supply correlates with the difficulty of that occupation. So if you need economic based evidence on the difficulties of the scientist vs. the engineer I would compare the salaries of a chemical engineer to that of a chemist, or a biologist to that of a physician. That evidence based comparison should speak volumes of the scientific study involved in engineering.

    And as far as creationism goes – not seeing something is not the same as seeing its non-existence. If quantum mechanics violates laws such as the conservation of energy it is no less bizarre to entertain the possibility of a sentience involved in our existence. It’s only foolish and arrogant to claim what such a sentience wants, but it is not foolish to be open to such a concept.

  15. Are social scientists, anti-scientists?

  16. According to the Oxford dictionary:

    A person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences.

    The sciences concerned with the study of inanimate natural objects, including physics, chemistry, astronomy, and related subjects.

    Firstly, nowhere is it stated that being a Creationist excludes one from this title.
    Secondly, Bsc Engineering what does the sc mean?

    Just saying, as an engineer, not a scientist!