Musings from the lab…

So instead of actually doing science like I should be, I’m going to wax poetically on the methods and practices of science from the standpoint of a young grad student still trying to find her place.

They teach you in schools about the scientific method over the course of maybe one class period. It’s dry, it’s set in stone, and then you move on to get deluged in facts and discoveries. All that a school kid sees is “we know this and this and this, discovered by so-and-so on these dates.” Blech. The textbooks were choked with this stuff, and most teachers found it difficult to meet state requirements and still teach the wondrous journeys of science, that is, those few teachers who understand it themselves.

And then you jump into research, as an undergrad or grad student. Maybe early on your advisors are careful to set you up with a self-contained project. You are skeptical that your little findings have any impact on the field, but you accomplished something and you are proud and that’s good. Later, you are trying to find a thesis topic. You are trying to design your own project and experiments and test your own hypotheses. Your thesis needs to be something really big to be important enough to publish, get you degree, help you get a good job, etc. With all of that, it’s hard to see how science really works.

Science, she is a cruel and exacting mistress. Your day-to-day work will not be glamorous, or eventful, or brilliant. You spend it designing precision instruments, then futzing with them until they work, writing scripts and code to analyze, take apart, scrutinize, summarize, and plot your data from every angle. You test many theories, big and small, but mostly small, and strive to understand what you are seeing.

It’s not so lonely, though. Science is a collaborative effort. It is a social endeavor as well as individual. I’ve watched my collaborators rip apart well know mathematical formulations and scientific theories to understand why, to make sure it all makes sense. We check each others work, peer over each others shoulders, show and tell and talk and talk. And that’s even before the formal peer review process of publication to a journal. Two astronomers were arguing over a concept, each with their own description of how some mathematical analysis would work, and each made prediction that was testable so finally one pointed to a computer and said, “show me.” And they worked it out through the code. THAT is when you know you are doing science, when someone says “show me” and you can. That is also why science is social, for we each challenge each others ideas and methods with a healthy skepticism that keeps science honest.

So when you see this, and you work through this day to day, its no wonder that scientists get angry when some intelligent design proponent says that his theory is as valid as any other. Try as I might, I see no evidence of skepticism or science in the work on intelligent design theorists. And so the blatant attack on science makes me angry. (UPDATE: Newsweek needs a lesson in this definition. In an already abhorrent tabloid-esque piece comparing Darwin and Lincoln, it says “…a scientist in the sense that we understand the term–a highly trained specialist whose professional vocabulary is so arcane that he or she can talk only to other scientists.” Excuse me while I vomit.)

Here is where the scientists, as some already do very well, can help out: Education and Outreach. Some love it, some hate it, but it is necessary more and more in a civilization that depends so heavily on the fruits of scientific labor. The wonder and discoveries of science need to be communicated, but the same for the methods and activities of scientists. The mode of thinking that brings each of us closer and closer to some scientific truth every day. The attack on science needs to be met with science education on a much grander scale than where we are today. And maybe all it takes is for each one of us to spend a few hours a month doing some outreach, and doing it in a way that has not been done enough in the past. Teach the methods, and then show the results. Show the critical thinking and the debate and the skepticism inherent in the process. Start with the young, but reach out to all ages. Everyone could stand to use a little more science in their lives.