Since the beginning of my PhD, or maybe even before that, I have been hearing loads of comments from others regarding what is science. Most of the times, a scientist is someone with the white coat, stuck in the middle of the lab, carrying lots of test tubes, sheets, and with books all around, some open with post-its, some closed with dust.
Scientist. Someone that does science. Someone that makes you believe that any word that comes from their mouth will be supported by a Nature paper, or something very impactful at least.
With his/her white coat.
You may be thinking, “Francisco, here are you being very provocative, again…”. But, give me a couple of minutes more. Give me another attempt to perform my experiment, and be willing to be my guinea-pi… volunteer participants, and search now for images of scientist on a common browser, say Google.
So, now that I have a couple of minutes more of your attention, let me continue. If you search instead images, but descriptions, the white damn coat will keep appearing, but this time, another definition is wider:
Right, this is not very scientific to use Wikipedia. I’m sure you all will agree. But wouldn’t be the first time an academic would use Wikipedia. There were found more than 1000 journal articles referencing Wikipedia in recent research. And I’m not even writing a journal article.
But, for those who are more skeptical, here is the Oxford Dictionary definition:
Now that I made my point, I will resume it before entering in the battle I started maybe even before starting my PhD.
A scientist is anyone with a white coat in a laboratory or an office that seems a laboratory, who uses [understand follows] a method or methodological (validated, I hope) procedures.
So, from this logical reasoning, the premises, the variables into account, and the analysis of all, I can state:
I AM NOT A SCIENTIST.
But, there’s a problem folks.
Either you like or not, I am a scientist. I truly believe I am a scientist. A researcher that does science or a scientist that does research, wherever you want to call it… I am a scientist.
I am a social scientist.
We can see the lack of mentioning the use of a scientific method, or even… the white coat. I’m very sad for the white coat. In the past I had colleagues working with me at the forensic psychology department who needed to use it obliged by their superiors. They (the superiors) used to say that the white coat would give psychologists a similar look to physicians…
I believe it’s enough to stick with the same issue. Similar look, really? Anyway, fortunately I had a different experience. But, I never used my white coat. Oh, wait! I’ve used it… On my secondary school when doing “science” experiments. So cool! Not the experiments, the coat! Gives you… power?
Right, you all understood my point, or if not, I’m sorry. In academia, we tend to believe that people understand everything we think, even when we are talking gimbrish to others.
Getting back to the main discussion, science. What is science, what is not science. After starting my PhD, I found myself in the middle of a group where some people were working within natural sciences and some within social sciences. I believe most the people were following procedures in a systematic way, and therefore had a method. A scientific method. However, I kept hearing things like “what you (social scientists) do it’s not… well let’s be honest, it’s not science. Like pure science, right?”. Or even worst, I’ve heard, more than once, people who work within the social side of the force (my attempt to pull some Start Wars fans to keep reading this text) saying “well… they (natural scientists) do science, we do something else. They don’t understand the way we see subjectivity. They can’t live with subjectivity”.
Let’s talk about subjectivity. Just because I can’t stand more the fact that some natural scientists still think social science lacks method. It reminds me the discussion on gender equality. Man (not all!) think it’s a non-issue, therefore it’s everything OK with gender gap. It’s a shame, a pitty… but it’s the way it is… Damn!
OK, back to subjectivity. For those natural scientists who believe they have the most certain outcomes or for the social scientists who believe that subjectivity is a dark stone almost mystic that belongs only to the social dimension.
Let’s look at some examples:
Mathematics. When you get yourself within mathematics, let’s say basic maths, you start to acknowledge some rules. Some of these rules are so called dogmas, or mathematical dogmas. Well, a dogma in this field is something you will believe however it’s tricky to proof it. It’s something that allows you to carry your job, but few tried to scrutinize it.
Physics, biology, chemistry, amongst others. Let’s say you got your experiment all done. Almost as a 5-star chef your white coat is immaculate. Either you were very meticulous or you have a great team working with (for!) you. Anyway, it’s time to analyse results. You will probably use statistics to analyse your raw data. Are we all in agreement that the word statistics per se has subjectivity (even controlled kind of) all over the place?? If not, we can schedule a session just to talk about statistics.
I’m not even talk about people who like to get dirty in their white coat, i.e., people that have their research done in questioned ways. If you think this is something uncommon, just click here, I believe it will make you get rid of any doubts…
And then, on the other hand, it’s possible to see social sciences having their methodologies aggregated in either qualitative or quantitative ways. Both, when carried properly, have a method that is needed to follow. Both can use statistics. And both will have the exactly same issues as natural sciences. The topics are different, obviously.
So, to end, for now, this discussion. Let’s stop talking about proper science and improper science, or real science and folk science. That kind of discussion fits badly in scientists, where being humble should be at the same level of arrogance which translated are the characteristics of an expert in a specific field.
I remember now that a recent discussion on natural science vs social sciences awaked the discussion of being able to sell your research, or in other words, to make it plausible for society to pay for it.
But, this text is already big enough. And another deadline for another blog is on the pipeline.
See you all very soon, scientists! 😉