Scientists don’t think the same way as your average person.
What does that mean? Well, it means that we’ve trained our minds to use a particular set of skills that many people don’t understand or actively avoid using. Often those who pursue science have natural tendencies toward curiosity and information, and a quicker grasp of numerical analysis than others, but not always. Many of us are simply passionate enough about science to buckle down and learn the mindset that a scientist needs.
One skill is the ability to objectively analyze information.
We don’t just nod approvingly, our minds latch onto bits and pieces of everything that comes our way. From behavioral patterns to mathematical models, we are surrounded by information that is often raw and complex. Information alone doesn’t do anything for us, it isn’t good, or bad, or helpful – it exists, with that existence having inherent value and potential. Scientists are the ones who use that potential, those who look for the reality of what is truly there instead of just skimming the surface.
This skill comes in two flavors, and not everyone likes both equally.
First, there is the ability to dig deeper and deeper into the minute details. Taxonomists, chemists, and molecular biologists are examples of those who use this skill extensively. They need the attention to detail, the patience, and the dedication to catalog all of the differences between two species, or to analyze thousands of samples of DNA looking for a matching sequence across taxa. Often, this is described as a reductionist analysis of the world. Application of objective analysis in this way leads us to further understanding of precisely how things work and what they are.
Second, there is the ability to analyze patterns and interactions at the scale of whole systems. Ecologists, sociologists, and climatologists are examples of those who use this skill extensively. These scientists need to integrate information from a variety of sources and find out how everything fits together, how individuals and parameters are connected, and determine the consequences of a series of changes. They are often dealing directly with the emergent properties of a system, rather than with the individual cogs in the machine. Application of objective analysis in this way results in a better comprehension of what happens and why it can happen again.
A second skill is the willingness to step back from our beliefs.
Scientists rely on evidence. We search for evidence, analyze our evidence in the form of data, build our models out of pieces of evidence, and sometimes change the world by finding evidence to support new ideas about the world. Yes, new ideas about the world. The importance of this skill is that every good scientist inherently understands that they are actively seeking to determine if they are wrong. We make the absolute best hypotheses possible, that logically could be right and are based on the most complete information at the time. And then we set out and dedicate ourselves to finding the truth.
Falsifiable hypotheses, experimental controls, and large sample sizes are all tools that we use to try to find the truth. And yet all of those tools are useless indeed if we ignore the result of their dedicated application. What happens when we are wrong? First, we determine just how much we can trust that answer. Did we collect reliable information? What might have gone wrong? This is also where statistics comes into play. Second, we accept it and determine the consequences. We know nothing – we seek everything. In reality, what this means is that we do change our minds sometimes (We thought the world was flat until evidence indicated otherwise, remember?). Additionally we end up accepting contradictions as an inherent part of reality.
Perhaps the evidence didn’t support my hypothesis because I don’t know enough to write the correct hypothesis yet.
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” -Socrates
Why? What is it about these two skills that often sets scientists apart?
One reason, in my opinion, is that humans have a deep desire for the status that comes with being right. James Gee discusses our desire for social status and the need to support our “family” in his book The Anti-Education Era, and these are traits that do help us survive. We are inherently social animals, and being wrong can, quite frankly, sometimes have devastating consequences. Not only do we want to be right, we also want to be with others who are right because of the direct and indirect benefits we gain.
Consider this: “Do you want to rely on someone who says that they might be wrong?”
This is the kind of mental construct that exists to some degree in all social organisms, and it developed entirely outside of (and prior to) the construction of formal scientific methodology. It is a Darwinian safety mechanism that has been built over time because bad decisions have consequences – often death. The result is that most people tend to hesitate in following someone that has been wrong in the past.
Consider this: “Can you trust someone who refuses to admit that they could be wrong?”
Aye, there’s the rub. We are also aware of our own fallibility. Since we are capable of being wrong, there is always the possibility that we are at this moment, actually and truly wrong. This understanding of ourselves and others logically leads to skepticism that also benefits our survival, and someone who refuses to accept this possibility can (and should) seem insane and untrustworthy.
The Conundrum: A need to be skeptical of both those who state that they can be wrong, and of those who state that they cannot be wrong.
Thus we see how trust in scientists is so easily lost, and how people can so easily be misled. We see why scientists rarely become celebrities, and why bad ideas that don’t kill you can spread like wildfire.
A second reason is the fear of the unknown, resulting in the construction of explanations independent of evidence. This is based in part on the concept of “mental comfort stories”discussed by Gee, as he illustrates how much our happiness and contentment about the state of our lives often relies on not challenging these comfort stories. Effectively, humans often reap benefits from ignoring evidence that contradicts their long-held beliefs.
Consider this: You (most likely) hold some beliefs for which you have no supporting evidence, besides tradition. Holding to those beliefs hasn’t killed you, and probably makes you happy and accepted by your community.
So, what is wrong with this situation? You benefit from the mental comfort story (perhaps about god) and no one is harmed, right? Well, that is only true until you encounter a community that doesn’t hold those same beliefs. Then, those unsubstantiated claims might very well cause people in both groups to die, and will at least make people unhappy and unacceptable to the opposite community. Who is wrong? Is there any way to tell? No, because the ideas weren’t based on evidence in the first place – they were based on what comforted people, made them accepted and content with the world around them.
Consider this: You are shown evidence that contradicts your beliefs (perhaps about ethnicity/race), and you refuse to alter those long-held beliefs. Although you are happy that you’ve upheld your beliefs, the consequences can be major – losing your job, failing a class, being arrested because of your actions.
Well, you now have 2 good reasons to change this particular belief, but if you’re like most people, you won’t. The evidence indicates that your belief is wrong, and there are negative consequences to holding your belief. Perhaps you decide to split the difference – to not act on your belief in a way that causes problems such as being fired, but it will still make you unhappy. Or you decide to deal with the consequences so that you can remain happy and accepted by your chosen “family.”
The Conundrum: Some beliefs cannot always be conclusively shown to be right or wrong, and the resulting conflicts can be devastating. Other beliefs can be demonstrably wrong, and upholding them in the face of evidence can also be catastrophic.
What is the scientist’s solution (and Gee’s)? Use the skills of a scientist – objective analysis of reliable evidence & an open mind.
Evaluate your ideas with evidence whenever possible. Do not continue to hold beliefs that are conclusively false. Not only is this illogical, it will eventually have consequences for you and/or your society.
Build and use your mental comfort stories when there is no way to find the truth – but be open-minded. Other people with varying perspectives can hold ideas that are different from your own, and you should allow them that to retain right so long as it does not cause you harm. If it does, then you have the ability of any organism to make decisions that benefit your survival. You should feel free to try to convince them that you are right, but understand that typically neither of you has any evidence, and both ideas may be equally valid.
A social community for researchers, mostly scientists: ResearchGate
featured image: A grass shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio)