Everybody Thinks Scientifically

Everybody’s favorite science blogger did a podcast with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and has been posting highlights of it. One of these, on scientific thinking, has a bit that I don’t quite agree with. Tyson says:

I think the, if it were natural to think scientifically, science as we currently practice it would have been going on for thousands of years. But it hasn’t. It’s relatively late in the activities of a culture. Science as we now practice it…this is a relatively modern, that’s been going on for no more than 400 years. And you look at how long civilizations have been around, and you say, there’s a disconnect there.

Clearly, it’s not natural to think this way; otherwise, we would have been doing it from the beginning. And meanwhile, mathematics is the language of the universe-fascinatingly so-and yet science and math tend to be the two subjects that you will commonly hear people complain about in their time in school.

You hear this sort of thing all the time from people talking about science: that scientific thinking doesn’t come naturally, and it’s hard to do, and so on. I understand why people say this, but ultimately, I don’t think it’s right. I agree with Tyson that science as an organized activity in its current form is a recent invention, but I disagree that this reflects some inherent difficulty of thinking. It doesn’t take any special skill to think scientifically, and ordinary people do it all the time without noticing.

Science, stripped down to its essentials, is just a method for figuring things out: you look at some situation, come up with a possible explanation, and try it to see if it works. If it does, great, if not, try something else. Repeat until you find an explanation that works.

This does not demand an arcane or complicated skill set. It’s really not much more than you need to be a functioning adult in modern society. And most people have, at one time or another, used exactly this procedure.

If you’ve ever done a crossword puzzle, you have the mental skills needed to be a scientist. You solve crossword puzzles in essentially the same manner as you solve scientific problems: look at the clue, make a guess that fits in the blanks, and then see if your guess is consistent with the other words in the other blanks. That’s scientific thinking, and millions of people do it every day over coffee.

If you’ve ever cooked without a recipe, you have the mental skills needed to be a scientist. You come up with new dishes in essentially the same manner as you solve scientific problems: you make a guess that cooking two particular ingredients together in some way will be delicious, then you do it, and taste to see if you’re right. That’s the scientific method right there, and millions of people have done it at some point in their lives.

If you have ever repaired anything– a car, a dripping faucet, a blown fuse– you have the mental skills needed to be a scientist. You fix problems in everyday life in the same way that you attack scientific problems: you make a guess as to the source of the problem, you try the appropriate solution for that sort of problem, and see if it worked. That’s how science works, and millions of people make their living doing this without ever realizing that they’re thinking scientifically.

Are there people out there who have never done any of these activities, or any of the myriad other everyday tasks that employ the same mental skills as science? Sure, there are a few– I used to share a house with one in grad school. But I wouldn’t really characterize them as fully functional members of society.

In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think that the “Scientific thinking is really hard” line has less to do with the reality of scientific thinking than with flattering the vanity of nerds. Being a professional scientist is hard, but thinking in a scientific manner is something that every human in the last umpty-thousand years has been and is capable of.

Contrary to what Tyson says, I think it does come naturally to us– as I’ve said before, I think science is what makes us human. Modern science as a profession is a recent development, but scientific thinking is as old as the species– all of human civilization has its origin in scientific thinking. You don’t get Roman engineering, Egyptian pyramids, or organized agriculture without people thinking in a scientific manner. And it goes back even farther than that– you don’t get stone tools and cave paintings unless some proto-scientist spends a bit of time banging rocks together and experimenting with pigments.

I think we do a disservice to science and to society as a whole by saying “scientific thinking is really difficult.” It lets people who don’t want to deal with science for whatever reason off the hook– they can say “Oh, that’s just too difficult for me,” and shrug off learning anything about science, or accepting its conclusions, rather than making any effort to understand what’s going on. And it enables people to stereotype and stigmatize scientists as not like everybody else, which then makes it easier for kids to be turned off from science, and round and round the positive feedback loop we go.

I think we would be better served by making clear that scientific thinking is just thinking, and the sort of thing that everybody does all the time. That science is just another profession, and scientists are people just like everybody else, only with different interests. Yes, being a professional scientist requires a lot of specialized knowledge, but so does everything else. Tax accountants, basketball players, carpenters, knitters, short-order cooks, literary critics– if you’re engaged in any work requiring more mental effort than mindlessly digging holes and filling them back in, you draw on specialized knowledge about your profession. And odds are that at some point in your work, you will think about what you’re doing in the same way that scientists think about what they do.

If more people realized that they think like scientists all the time, people might be more accepting of science. And given that every good thing in human civilization is ultimately the result of science, that can only be an improvement.

Comments

  1. #1 vagueofgodalming
    March 8, 2011

    So how do you explain the fact that scientists are never stupid?

    Oh, wait…

  2. #2 Josh
    March 8, 2011

    It’s probably just semantics, but I agree with Tyson that scientific thinking is hard. Anyone can think logically and do their own experimentation, but to take that an extra step and say everybody thinks scientifically is a bit of a stretch. Thinking scientifically also means going where the data leads you, regardless of your preconceptions. From religion to climate change, people just do not do that too often. Even professional scientists can struggle with that.

  3. #3 DynaM
    March 8, 2011

    I think the word missing is rigorously. Even in survival training where food and shelter made the list and sex didn’t, I was constantly building hypothesis and testing them, especially when trying to finding food.

    Some of us apply more rigor to our thoughts, others less. It doesn’t matter the field of endeavor. We are deluged with science of poor quality, and we miss the clarity of thinking expressed by many six year-olds trying to make sense of the world — when we too often tune them out when we first hear the ultimate science question — Why?

  4. #4 G.D.
    March 8, 2011

    I must say I agree with Tyson here. People don’t think scientifically, and it does not come naturally Instead of attempting to test one’s hypotheses or beliefs by seeking disconfirming evidence, one instead seek instances that do confirm what they already believe, and systematically so. Even people who should know better sometimes recommend “look at the evidence with an open mind and let the evidence guide you to your beliefs” – which in science is, of course, a recipe for disaster.

    “I think we would be better served by making clear that scientific thinking is just thinking, and the sort of thing that everybody does all the time.”

    Maybe this is a terminological point, but to me this seems false. “Scientific thinking” doesn’t mean “the kind of thinking scientists actually engage in”. Scientific thinking means thinking about matters in a way that is in accordance with good scientific methods. I also disagree with your characterization of what basically characterizes science:

    “you look at some situation, come up with a possible explanation, and try it to see if it works. If it does, great, if not, try something else. Repeat until you find an explanation that works.”

    What I take to be the essentially scientific point, however, is the next step. You take the explanation that works in this case, figure out what else it would predict, then check whether its predictions come out. If they don’t, you return to the drawing board. The point is that constructing explanations for data we already have doesn’t distinguish science from religion, conspiracy theories or what have you.

  5. #5 Paul Orwin
    March 8, 2011

    I think that you and Tyson have very different definitions of “thinking scientifically”. The hard part of thinking scientifically is the continual self-doubt – skepticism towards your own observations. The really hard part is knowing when to quit being skeptical :). As other commenters said, people are very good at being skeptical about others’ observations (see, for example, all of politics ever), but much less good about what you might call enlightened self doubt. In teaching lab classes, this is the hardest thing to get across to students (well, and math…)

  6. #6 ADD
    March 8, 2011

    “every good thing in human civilization is ultimately the result of science”

    That is a ridiculous statement. You can’t really believe that EVERY single good thing is a result of science. Certainly many good things have come from science, but the arts and humanities have produced some good things, too.

  7. #7 Jesse
    March 8, 2011

    You obviously haven’t spent much time around the human race if you think scientific thinking comes easy. Just look at virtually every culture in human history that allows religion and mythology to trump science in almost every circumstance.

    Tyson is right here.

  8. #8 tbell
    March 8, 2011

    confirmation bias is the default mode for human reasoning and evidence gathering.

  9. #9 JM
    March 8, 2011

    Experimenting is different from hypothesis-testing.

    Trying something, seeing if something works, figuring out how something works is different from testing with a control group, having a random sample, etc.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    March 8, 2011

    G.D.: “Scientific thinking” doesn’t mean “the kind of thinking scientists actually engage in”.

    That’s the problem. We spend way too much time talking about some lofty romanticized ideal of what SCIENCE! is, and not enough time acknowledging the essential humanity of the scientific endeavor.

    Any definition of “scientific thinking” or “the scientific method” that doesn’t include “what scientists actually engage in” is useless, and I suspect may even be counterproductive.

    Me: “you look at some situation, come up with a possible explanation, and try it to see if it works. If it does, great, if not, try something else. Repeat until you find an explanation that works.”

    G.D.: What I take to be the essentially scientific point, however, is the next step. You take the explanation that works in this case, figure out what else it would predict, then check whether its predictions come out. If they don’t, you return to the drawing board.

    That’s what I mean by “see if it works,” and that doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Again, something like “if the faucet is dripping because the washer is bad then changing the washer will fix it” works just fine. That’s a prediction, and if you change the washer and the drip continues, then you move on to the next theory.

    JM: Trying something, seeing if something works, figuring out how something works is different from testing with a control group, having a random sample, etc.

    And, of course, this is the flip side of the earlier comment, getting way too hung up on the methodological details and ignoring the bigger picture. The tools with which you verify your prediction are much less important (and less widely shared than even many scientists think), in my opinion, than the big-picture process. Control groups and random samples are just techniques used in messy and complicated sciences to keep yourself from being fooled. They’re not an essential part of science as a whole, which on the largest scale is just systematic curiosity.

  11. #11 andrew
    March 8, 2011

    another vote for tyson.

    *explicit* scientific thinking takes training (or an extraordinary individual), and the training comes from cultural development. our human minds come with the necessary components, but being clever and being able to solve problems isn’t the same as being scientific.

    “scientific thinking is just thinking” – reword this as “scientific approaches to problem solving are just approaches to problem solving”, and check if it still rings true to you.

  12. #12 Ron
    March 8, 2011

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2125#comic

    Screw “real life applications” Want kids to learn science? Put this in every textbook:

    “You can ignore this book if you want. Go ahead. Cost through class. But one thing in life is certain: someday, someone will clone a dinosaur. And that someone will be an expert in a million things you think are boring right now. And if you don’t study, and work, and think, one day you’ll watch that person saddle up, put on a cowboy hat, and ride a T. Rex from a monitor. Until your boss asks why you’re wasting company time.

  13. #13 synapse
    March 8, 2011

    Everyone can think scientifically, but most people allow other forms of thinking to dominate, like superstitious thinking, emotional thinking, and just believing what people in authority tell you. Your examples of scientific thinking are low-stakes: no one attaches ideological or social importance to solving a crossword puzzle; there isn’t “traditional” wisdom for how to fix a leaky faucet. But for any activity that has accreted these forms of traditional, social, or emotional overtones- which is most activities of human life- most people do find it hard to think about things scientifically rather than relying on “received wisdom” or “what they want to believe” or “what everyone says.” Part of that is practice, but part of it is that these other modes of thinking can be easier and are often more emotionally satisfying.

  14. #14 Chad Orzel
    March 8, 2011

    “scientific thinking is just thinking” – reword this as “scientific approaches to problem solving are just approaches to problem solving”, and check if it still rings true to you

    Since I already more or less asserted this, I’m not sure what you think the substitution is going to reveal. But then, I’m not coming up with any examples of problem-solving that isn’t scientific in the broad sense that I’m using here– all the methods I’m aware of amount to “I think this might solve the problem, so let’s try this? Did it work? If yes, great, if not, let’s try something else.”

    I suppose there are “problem solving” techniques such as “Loudly assert that the problem doesn’t exist” (aka “the Gaddafi”), but I don’t think those are terribly successful.

  15. #15 reesei
    March 8, 2011

    ADD says: “That is a ridiculous statement. You can’t really believe that EVERY single good thing is a result of science. Certainly many good things have come from science, but the arts and humanities have produced some good things, too.”

    Sure, but they’re dependent on science just like scientists are dependent on the arts and the humanities.

    Painters get nowhere without pigments. Musicians get nowhere without instruments, developed by careful attention to the resonance of wood when impacted by varnishes or the position of a soundpost. Any orchestra sounds better in a hall constructed with a deep understanding of sound technology. Try any of the written arts/humanities without a printing press and see how far your ideas spread. Look at the intersection of science and athletics while world records continually drop – whether because of the impact of drugs on human physiology, or continual improvements in the equipment.

    There is a reason why many people believe in liberal arts educations, even for scientists.

  16. #16 Marc
    March 8, 2011

    People have different modes of thinking for different problems. When thinking about something like religion, politics or sport, people tend to be more concerned with other factors apart from truth (group loyalty etc) – and therefore think unscientifically.

    As to whether scientific thinking comes naturally, you’ve essentially proved the converse with this post. The scientific method would have called for you to look carefully into the physchological evidence (which clearly shows that the human brain is often flawed in systematic ways). However, you chose to summon one side of the arguments; those that supported your ‘emotionally’ motivated position that science isn’t a step apart from normal people (this bias is also obvious from the choice of student evaluation that you display – I should note that I recognise it because I feel the same way). If someone like you, with the best training and substantial intelligence, can accidentally grandstand instead of looking for the facts, I think we can conclude that anyone can.

  17. #17 Tom
    March 8, 2011

    I think a problem here is in casting the problem in a Boolean fashion, that some though process is either scientific or it’s not. I think the reality is that it’s more of a continuum. People can do, and have done for a long time, some very rudimentary scientific thinking. But we (as a species) have gotten easily sidetracked by superstition, which probably stems from a healthy dose of not realizing that correlation is insufficient to imply causality, and the lure of taking the easy path of ideology and dogma.

    To move on to the next level of scientific thought requires more rigor, which I think most people don’t naturally apply, and math.

  18. #18 Sphere Coupler
    March 8, 2011

    I’m in total agreement.
    Great write up!

    We are all Scientist at some level.

    Science is a quest that some choose to continually pursue and others get side tracked by other endeavors according to their specific situation.

    From pattern recognition and manipulation, such as a baby recognising crying gets attention to number recognition and manipulation such as an adult recognising Mathematics.

    Science is inherent to species on Earth equal to the individuals capacity and motivation.

    We are Scientist because we question and learn from the act of questioning, then in turn we ask better questions.

    Teach children to ask how…not *why*.

  19. #19 crowther
    March 8, 2011

    Chad, I agree that N DeG T sends the wrong message when he says, “Clearly, it’s not natural to think this way.”

    Monty Harper has a song called “Born to do Science,” the chorus of which is: “We are born to do science. A baby can do it and so can you. We are born to do science. Just figuring out what’s true.” If you agree with that perspective, you can download it as a ringtone from singaboutscience.org/ring/.

  20. #20 Sphere Coupler
    March 8, 2011

    It all goes back to the two people watching a rainstorm from the safty of their cave, All of a sudden a great Boulder came cascading down the mountainside.

    One caveman(sic) implied *why did that happen?* and true to the tone of his question, an unseen entity was infered.

    While the other caveman(sic) implied how? and proceeded up the mountain to attempt to roll his own rock.

    The quality of the answer is predicate on the qualification of the juxtaposition of the question.

  21. #21 utopia27
    March 8, 2011

    another vote for tyson.

    Most people, most of the time, don’t actually think at all about what they’re doing. They operate on autopilot.

    The skills to actually solve problems, never mind rigorously solve problems in a repeatable and confirmable way, is actually a fairly uncommon skill set. It is a skill set – it can be learned and taught (usually), but it sure doesn’t come naturally.

    From the other direction, most people most of the time fall into non-rigorous thinking. As was stated previously – confirmation bias, emotional thinking, wishful thinking, reference to authority. None of these things seem to require any training whatever, and fairly concerted efforts to alter.

    So… I think that “rigorous scientific thinking” (even basic problem solving, or basic rigorous analysis) is not the natural mode for human cognition – I believe it to be a learned and cultural behavior. It also happens to be a survival-positive behavior, and societies that encourage a certain amount of it have tended to dominate those that discourage rigorous thinking.

    …and chad, I’d encourage you to evaluate whether your local sampling is biased.

  22. #22 Dan
    March 8, 2011

    Or to extend your argument Marc, if Chad is capable of grandstanding instead of looking for facts, then such a thing does not infer that one is incapable of scientific thought. Some people here seem to demand that one be rigorous in every facet of life before you grant him the title of Scientist. Truth is, everyone has their hangups, even great thinkers. You can point at all the evolution and climate change deniers you want, but you haven’t shown that any of them are incapable of thinking scientifically, just that they don’t on a particular topic.

  23. #23 Kaleberg
    March 8, 2011

    I think you are right in saying that anyone can think scientifically, but Tyson is correct in saying that most people don’t. Most people think in terms of weird idealizations that actually prevent them from thinking scientifically, and they will often deny the evidence of their own eyes. Fox News built its entire business model on this.

    Scientific thinking has popped up now and then historically, but with little long term impact. It wasn’t until the Reformation that it actually turned into a progressive force. Since scientific thinking tends to be disruptive, there are usually powerful forces working against it.

  24. #24 smaddox
    March 8, 2011

    I agree that anyone and everyone is capable of “scientific thinking”, but I don’t think it’s as simple at the core as you make it out to be. Personally, I tend to believe that what separates a scientist from your typical problem solver is meta-cognition. A scientist needs to be constantly questioning his or her logic processes, consciously allowing for alternate possibilities, and actively searching for out-of-the-box explanations. He or she also needs to constantly think about the various implications of a hypothesis, and how these implications can be applied to other problems.

    I think that meta-cognition is skill that is often acquired independently (without being taught), and I don’t think it is as common as the ability to solve problems. So, although I think anyone can “think scientifically”, which I assert requires meta-cognition, I do not believe that it is a skill possessed by most people.

  25. #25 Paul
    March 9, 2011

    Chad: “Science, stripped down to its essentials, is just a method for figuring things out: you look at some situation, come up with a possible explanation, and try it to see if it works. If it does, great, if not, try something else. Repeat until you find an explanation that works.”

    This is certainly not enough. Otherwise all the religions and myths would fit the bill. What is crucially important is that only explanations of a certain kind are acceptable – ones that do not ascribe human qualities or motivations to inanimate matter, but rather try to quantify the phenomena and find mathematical relations between those quantities.

    This is certainly not the default mode of thinking for humans and proved to be the largest barrier to scientific development – people simply settled for religious explanations as good enough.

    It was only when a few actual scientific explanations where discovered and their superior *utility* demonstrated clearly enough that others were motivated to look for similar relationships in different areas and actual science was born.

  26. #26 Greg
    March 9, 2011

    I’ll also concur with Tyson, and Alan Cromer.

  27. #27 Bob DeWitt
    March 9, 2011

    Chad, you keep using this word “scientifically”. I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    There is a critical qualifier in NDT’s statement that you have ignored: “as we practice it.”

    The mental process you are discussing is rational thought. Substitute ‘rationally’ for ‘scientifically’ and you are spot-on.

    When I do a crossword puzzle, I do not set up a control group of bonobos to solve the same puzzle. I do not perform an error analysis to determine the likelihood of alternate solutions. I do not submit my solution to my peers for review. But most importantly, I am not exploring the world of unknown knowledge. There is no answer key to the mysteries of the universe.

    Mr. Tyson is absolutely correct here. People do not think scientifically. Whether this is an indictment of the human population’s shortcomings or an indication to scientists as to why their profession does not garner the respect they desire, or both, or neither, is the discussion I’d rather have.

  28. #28 dheisenberg
    March 9, 2011

    Anyone can think scientifically if they have enough training, but science isn’t the same as logic or trial and error or cynicism or falsification, although they are each an aspect of it. Science does not come naturally, but after a long development over centuries, can now be easily learned. Suggest two books – one, Bronislaw Malinowski’s Magic, Science and Religion, and the other, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discover, which, although, of course not perfect, shine a light on scientific thinking and how it is different than other types of thinking.

  29. #29 Phil Evans
    March 9, 2011

    I agree that ‘most’ people think scientifically. The distinction lies in the term ‘scientific thinking’ cf ‘scientific method’. Scientific thinking is as much about the inferences that are made from current knowledge as it is about verifying that current knowledge. What doesn’t come easily to many people is the curiosity that drives the application of their ‘inner scientist’.

  30. #30 James K.
    March 9, 2011

    I’m with you Chad, and I cringed at the same quote from Tyson. At the very least, everyone participates in thinking that might be termed proto-scientific to distinguish it from the more formalized version practiced by today’s scientists. The one thing I would add, is that it seems to me that even this proto-scientific thinking is always characterized by an implicit methodological naturalism, even amongst the most magical thinking of people.

  31. #31 Phil Evans
    March 9, 2011

    In one sense this is an empty argument.
    We all have language skills: everyone is a linguist
    We can all recognise a melody or rhythm, and tap out some semblance of a beat on the table: we are all musicians
    We all use numbers to some degree: we are all mathematicians
    We can all draw doodles while we are on the phone: we are all artists — and the list goes on.

    We all engage in scientific thinking: but where on the continuum each of us sits, well, that is another thing.

  32. #32 B
    March 9, 2011

    I think the idea that “science is hard” really comes from the fact that science is hard to teach. It seems to me that there are people out there that are “bad at math and science” who may never have had the benefit of a proper teacher and they attribute their difficulties to their own perceived lack of ability. Just a thought…

  33. #33 Taylor M.
    March 9, 2011

    I can’t stand the logical fallacy this statement “Clearly, it’s not natural to think this way; otherwise, we would have been doing it from the beginning.” Many people convince themselves of incorrect statements using this flawed sort of logic.

    On the topic of everybody thinking like a scientist, I think this is a great philosophy to promote! Is everybody a scientist? Definitely not. But we all have the capability to think like one! All that really separates a bona fide scientist from the Joe Schmoe is the repetitive and rigorous nature of actual science/research. I don’t think there’s any harm in convincing more people that they’re like scientists, an it may even be beneficial in recruiting new young minds to the field.

    You may have actually stumbled upon some really great recruiting posters for science: “Have you every cooked? Then you can think like a scientist!” Somebody needs to get on that campaign!

  34. #34 Evader
    March 9, 2011

    Very interesting read.

    I believe that it would be very beneficial to explain scientific thinking and method to children, at a younger age. Hopefully that will reduce the people who grow up to distrust scientists.

    My friend likens scientists to preachers… *facepalm*. His argument is that because he can’t do the equations/ calculations/ experiments himself, he has to have ‘faith’ to believe the scientists. He seems to think scientists have a hidden agenda; possibly to RULE TEH WORLDZ!!1!

    I told him that one of the great things about science was that IF HE WANTED TO, he could learn how to do the equations/ calculations/ experiments himself – and he’d find the same results. Would that lessen his distrust? I don’t know. I genuinely think he dislikes science because it makes his LSD-based theories seem less likely to be the explanation for what is really going on.

    So yes, it’s an uphill struggle convincing him that science/scientists are worthy of trust. He loves the “well scientists have been wrong before” argument a lot. I’m not great at arguing/debating, so it’s always a cyclical argument.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling. I would love to see more pro-science thinking taught to kids. I believe it’s a wonderful tool that they can make better decisions with!

  35. #35 Sue
    March 10, 2011

    I agree with Josh! The scientific method is distinctly different from “scientific thinking”.
    Josh’s quote below:
    It’s probably just semantics, but I agree with Tyson that scientific thinking is hard. Anyone can think logically and do their own experimentation, but to take that an extra step and say everybody thinks scientifically is a bit of a stretch. Thinking scientifically also means going where the data leads you, regardless of your preconceptions. From religion to climate change, people just do not do that too often. Even professional scientists can struggle with that.

  36. #36 quasihumanist
    March 10, 2011

    My weakest students (fairly good but not top SLAC) cannot consistently keep three ideas in their head at once.

    This means that they cannot understand a sentence of the form

    “A causes B in the absence of C”

    without special effort, because keeping A, B, and C in their head at once requires special effort.

    It’s not surprising that science is hard for them. (All their other college courses are hard for them too.) We try hard to make them better at keeping three things in their head, but that’s a big cognitive deficit to overcome, and we can’t really slow down our classes to cater to this minority.

    Now remember that I am at a somewhat selective school, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it took most people special effort to keep three ideas in their head, and some people even have trouble keeping two ideas in their head.

  37. #37 Omega Centauri
    March 10, 2011

    Science is hard in two ways. You’ve already read a score of comments about how following good epistemology just doesn’t come naturally. Our default mode typically defers to “how would my peer group judge my results?”. But there is a second sense where science is hard.

    The second way science is hard, is exactly the same reason riding a bicycle is hard. With a few lessons, practically anyone can learn to do it at a low level. But, if your goal for bike riding is to make a living at it, then it becomes really hard, because you got to beat out a zilion others with the same dream -and there aren’t that many places at the top. So in that sense, science is hard, we’ve had enough people doing it for long enough that just learning the foundational stuff to become say a Physicist takes at least a decade of hard effort. It has to be that way, because somehow we got have to weed out the other 99+percent of aspirants.

    But, what we want to do as a society, is to promote understanding of the epistemolgy, so people can be better citizens by having some rational basis for judging the ideas that are presented to them. In this sense, it can be done by 90plus percent of the population. All they really need is some mental discipline to follow where the evidence leads them, especially when it doesn’t lead to where they wanted to go in the first place.

  38. #38 Peter R.
    March 10, 2011

    The problem with the term “scientific thinking” is in the word “scientific” which is such a vague, wishy-washy word that can mean almost anything to anybody. First of all, is thinking “scientifically” any different than just “thinking”? Or by “thinking” do we actually mean “reasoning”? What context does the word “scientific” actually add?

    In one sense, it refers a particular subject, such as physics, chemistry, etc., or about a specific phenomena to explain. What we mean by “scientific” is then extremely context dependent, and has nothing to do with the “thinking” part. Physics is not chemistry is not geology is not biology–all have different ways of approaching a problem. The phrase “scientific thinking” therefore refers to science as something with a monolithic, singular identity, which it does not have.

    The word “scientific” is also historically impossible to pin down–it has had as many different meanings in the past as it does today.

    I argue to my students all the time that the thinking/reasoning that goes on in science is no different from everyday reasoning. The difficult part is understanding the _concepts_ of science, which are often far removed from everyday experience, and then applying everyday thinking to test them (or to draw conclusions, if you are an inductivist).

  39. #39 Kevin
    March 11, 2011

    As this thread seems to have become largely polarized, I’ll throw my lot in with Orzel. I once had a debate with a fellow physics major during my undergrad work about what it takes to be a physicist. Her position was that you couldn’t call yourself a physicist until you had a PhD and were doing “professional level research.” I countered that there have always been countless amateurs who enjoyed doing physics (I even threw in a bit of my Latin training and started talking about love of subject). We never came to an agreement.

    Let’s replace “physicist” with “scientist.” What does it take to be a scientist (even in an amateur capacity)? It takes applying the scientific method to problem solving. Whether that problem solving is fixing the faucet, or finding a Grand Unified Theory (there are orders of magnitude of difference in mathematical effort, of course, among other things). I think the faucet analogy was solid; it just wasn’t taken far enough. Let’s say you are a homeowner who isn’t schooled as a plumber (scientist) who sees a leaky faucet (scientific conundrum, as yet unsolved – as far as you’re concerned, the knowledge in the faucet repair book you don’t have doesn’t exist). You have a basic idea of how the faucet functions, so you guess that changing the washer could stop the leak (hypothesis – educated guess). You replace the washer (experiment) and the leak stops (analysis and conclusion). Here is where the analogy holds pretty well, but a lot of folks seem to be jumping ahead. You used scientific thinking to come to a solution, but further investigation (more trials, control groups, et cetera) are not necessary, because you were just trying to stop that damn leak! If you had a really big house with a whole lot of leaky faucets, you may not fix the next one so easily, and have to keep experimenting! Given time, you could arrive at a general theory of faucet fixing based on several trials (and staring at leaking “control” faucets, waiting to see if they stop spontaneously). I know I’m beginning to stretch the analogy, but the point is, thinking can be scientific even if the end result isn’t a rigorous scientific theory.

    Data gathering is an indispensable part of science. Take a look at the AAVSO. Children enthusiastic about astronomy can be taught to gather images and generate light curves for variable stars and submit them to a real scientific organization to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge at large. Doing science (in this case, not just “thinking scientifically”) is still challenging (most things worth doing are), but it can be presented to young students as real science that they can do, so they don’t get the message (even if unintended), “Science is probably too hard for you.”

    In support of the idea that amateur scientists make a difference, see the article by F.M. Mimms:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/284/5411/55.full

    And what about the argument that scientific thinking doesn’t come naturally? This is where I disagree with Tyson the most on point. It has to come naturally otherwise it never would have evolved as a survival advantage. One reason that is less obvious now is that scientific thinking– well, nearly any kind of critical thinking – isn’t a survival advantage anymore, at least not to the same extent that it used to be (if you haven’t watched it before, see Idiocracy – mind numbing, but worrisome at the same time).

    And remember, even professional scientists aren’t thinking scientifically about everything all of the time. I’d say most are probably driving on “autopilot” on the way to the lab.

  40. #40 Anne C. Hanna
    March 11, 2011

    This strikes me as a pretty interesting question, enough that I decided to write my own blog post about it too (here, if I’m allowed to blogwhore a bit; I’m sorta new to this).

    I guess my take on the subject is somewhat similar to what Omega Centauri says above. I think Chad and Neil are both right at some level. On the one hand, the basic components of scientific thinking are present in pretty much every human, and probably even in some other reasonably intelligent animals. But the ability to apply scientific thinking consistently and systematically across any significant percentage of one’s life requires a great deal of training and practice, as well as ongoing engagement with a community of like-minded practitioners, and even most scientists never manage to really completely master the process outside of their own comparatively narrow field of study.

  41. #41 Peter Gluck
    March 11, 2011

    Perhaps scientific thinking can be defined on the basis
    of my taxonomy:
    http://egooutpeters.blogspot.com/2011/03/modes-of-thinking-my-taxonomy.html

    Logical plus supralogical for the premises, logical to the conclusions; exclude prelogical, extreme care in using small doses of postlogical thinking.

  42. #42 JT O
    March 11, 2011

    A thousand yeas and counting: and with methodological reiteration, that adds up to some kind of knowing. Loosely speaking, what we call science is natural, and neither good nor bad nor god nor devil: and it certainly is no ‘ideal’. Slime mold finds what works, and settles in on exploiting it. Such is life – science is an adaptation. It’s clearly been decisively successful, but time isn’t through with us. Our descendants will thrive, or not, based on how well human behavior allows for the consequences of further ‘adaptation’ (now in ‘irony’ quotes to indicate a more metaphoric use of the term) It strikes me that this discussion plays into a bigger one: will human culture (itself a plurality of natural behaviors) survive the much more recent origination of modern science – science on steroids?

    The modern variant is really the old but distilled – maybe even synthesized into pure crystalline form – for its raw discursive power. I’ve argued for years that science, in the broadest sense, happens any time we methodologically check our (quite natural and common) ‘mental maps’ against some specifiable object (event, occasion, thing …). It’s a useful tool, it’s served us well. And its rarified form is a truly impressive post-biological natural adaptive apparatus. But as such it takes on its own weight. Science as Whiggish presumption that is then acted out in an economic culture, is destroying our natural world, and may well destroy at least one more species than we can plan for. More science is not the only answer; rather we need a broader social understanding of what science does.

    All this said, I prefer flush toilets to shitting in a field. And dentistry saves lives. And I have no intention of starving for an inability to happen upon a sufficient food supply, deaf dumb and blind. So continued and better science it is – but I think we need a science that includes aesthetics on its crossword game, as well as all forms of sausage grinding. For ‘there is no revolution with out sausages’, and there’s no point in identifying far stars, when there is no one left to follow.

  43. #43 stefan schalk
    March 11, 2011

    I agree that everyone can perform science in some form or capacity but I disagree that science is a relatively new idea. If science is as simple as figuring out a strategy for solving a crossword puzzle, certainly then science has helped our species survive long before it became a formal system of problem solving. Science as a systematic process officially studied to progress society has been around only for a few hundred years because of tyranny. The dark ages or medieval times of war dominated the world for well over a thousand years. The dark ages were filled with radicalistic thinking fueled by faith and supernatural explanations to explain phenomenons. The Renaissance, or rebirth, was a time of new thinking and scientific growth. It was the beginning of an age of unrepressed thinking led by the arts. New ideas emerged which helped society to think in a manner not mandated by the church or another form of oppression. Galileo Galilei is an iconic example of such scientific ideas breaking free of the church’s explanation for logic. His work to prove that Earth was not the center of the universe, as claimed by the Catholic church, was a step up on the ladder of science.
    Although science as we know it is a modern idea broken free from thought suppressing organizations, it has certainly been around long before the Renaissance. Even organizations like the old Catholic Church used science in its efforts to suppress thought. After all, there is science in the efforts to inflict critical amounts of pain into truth spreaders.

  44. #44 Thisbe
    March 12, 2011

    People LOVE to feel special – love to feel like they’re members of an exclusive club that does things in a special and better way, or a group that cares about the things that are REALLY important while the rest of humanity wastes time on trivialities, or just a group that works harder and is maybe smarter because the work they do is just more difficult.

    This feeling is probably appropriate in some circumstances; there really ARE situations like that.

    But reading many of the comments here reminds me with conversations I have had recently with other people about knitting. Knitting is trendy right now, and you go to a knitting store and people will tell you very seriously about how the techniques are hard, and maybe a new knitter is not READY for a project that’s too hard yet.
    My invariable response is, “It is not that difficult. Illiterate peasant women have been doing it for thousands of years, and they were not any smarter than you on average. You can do it! It just takes a little work.”

    The huffy offense that this gets from people who are really invested in the “difficulty” of their chosen hobby, and hence their superiority for being good at it, you can imagine.

    If you can’t, just re-read most of the earlier comments about how wrong Chad is.

  45. #45 L.P.J.
    March 12, 2011

    It seems that someone ought to put forth an operational definition for “scientific thinking”. I agree that most people think scientifically in that they form explanations for certain phenomena/problems and then test those explanations. Is this scientific thinking? If yes, then of course most people think scientifically. However, perhaps thinking scientifically is really an art. Not just forming a hypothesis to explain a phenomena/problem, but taking the time to think about the phenomena/problem and what might actually be causing it, logically considering what method would work best to test the hypothesis, critically reviewing the results of the test, and confirming the results with other tests.
    Just as a rat can learn through trial and error, humans can learn how to solve problems (such as a crossword puzzle), is this really scientific thinking?, not necessarily. I will agree that scientific thinking is much more than that. It requires logic, imagination, and perseverance.

  46. #46 GreenCaboose
    March 12, 2011

    If you have ever repaired anything– a car, a dripping faucet, a blown fuse– you have the mental skills needed to be a scientist.

    Not clear. For many decades I’ve worked with people in a variety of professions who were, at their core, problem-solvers. One thing I learned is that most of the most talented problem solvers did not operate logically so much as heuristically. That is, they approached every problem the same way. It so happened that their heuristics evolved to match their profession well. They learned to, for example, first perform diagnostic test X every time because that works 99% of the time.

    But put them outside their comfort zone and most of these “top talents” struggled mightily.

    It’s rare that I’ve found someone who could adapt his or her approach to the problem at hand, and even more rare to find someone who could recognize at the start that a different approach was needed (usually even the best ones start the way they always do, then after that fails step back and re-think the approach).

    This is where science is different than problem-solving. You’re looking for the right answer, not the quickest way to what is probably the right answer. You don’t use heuristics which automatically trust or discard information based on the source, you verify everything.

    Problem-solving is what got humans to the Iron Age. Science has taken us beyond that.

  47. #47 Nicole
    March 12, 2011

    Your concept that scientific thinking is simply a way to figure things out is very intriguing. When you put it that way, I see how relevant scientific thinking is to daily life. Also, I agree that there is a difference between a scientific thinker and a scientist. The latter is where society derives the stereotype that science is hard, while the former implies a person who tries to find answers, which can apply to anybody. Personally, as a high school student, science hasn’t been my strongest subject—history is. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be doing something science-related, I would not have believed you. However, my dream is to be an archaeologist, and archaeology is considered a social science, and it does indeed require scientific thinking in order to understand the past. All in all, quite a thought-provoking post.

  48. #48 JH
    March 13, 2011

    I think that when discussing this topic scientific thinking needs to be separated from the actual practice of science. The essence of scientific thinking is, as Mr. Orzel stated, problem solving. However, the actual practice of subjects and activities considered scientific requires the understanding of a variety of very complex topics that are put to practice through the use of scientific thinking. It is the complex topics that most people associate with science when they state that science doesn’t come easy to them. People know that becoming a doctor, engineer, or practicing any other science related career takes years of schooling and academic success; they therefore associate science with being difficult to master and not a topic that comes natural to most.
    Having said this, I am not sure that actual scientific thinking always comes easy to people either. Scientific thinking is what is on standardized tests, and what is most commonly encountered in life. However, the science sections of standardized tests are what students often consider the most challenging, and the more critical thinking related problem solving that goes on in daily life is not considered by most, “simple.” The fact is that the science taught in school is much more based on scientific knowledge than scientific thought, and because of that the scientific thought process doesn’t come as naturally as it should. If you consider scientific thought simply problem solving than I suppose that comes naturally. However, the scientific thought required in the actual practice of science does not come naturally to most.

  49. #49 Jesse
    March 13, 2011

    Late to this, but I must say that I agree that Chad is glossing over some necessary distinctions that deGrasse Tyson was making, but I also think Chad is right, partly.

    Carl Sagan, in The Demon Haunted World agrees with Chad in that people do science (of a sort) whenever they buy a used car and don’t take the salesman’s word for it that it is good.

    But at the same time, human brains weren’t really evolved for scientific reasoning in the way that Newton or Einstein or any of the countless professionals and amateurs would have done it.

    Humans hunted (and were hunted) on the savannah. We learned how to solve certain problems, and we were designed to solve stuff in a quick-and-dirty fashion. So certain kinds of very basic trial-and-error reasoning evolved into the stuff we use every day.

    To give a real-life example, people believe what other people believe — even when it is demonstrably wrong — because at a deep level there’s the part of your monkey-brain that says “my social group believes X about Y. They are all surviving and if I start operating as though Z is true, I might die.” This is pretty useful in a group of chimp-descended creatures who have to figure out that fruit A is dangerous and fruit B is not. (If lots of your buddies eat fruit B it is probably OK, since they didn’t drop dead. If you risk eating fruit A, you might).

    The same kind of reasoning applies to predators. If you see something large, furry, with teeth, you don’t ask yourself about whether it is just like the other large, furry, toothy things, you just run like hell. Or, pull out the spear and get ready to stab it. If lots of your peers are running, it is generally a good idea.

    So, we come up with quick-and-dirty solutions. It was only relatively late that humans started sytematizing this kind of stuff. And it is only very late that we started using the hypothesis-investigate-theorize method of inductive reasoning made famous by Newton and Galileo.

    Most of our reasoning is deductive. And that’s fine because otherwise you’d be trying thirty different liquids to test for potability before you picked up a glass of water.

    All humans are capable of basic logic. But I agree that thinking in a deeper fashion — certainly developing the mental habits to do it a lot — requires practice, and patience. It’s a skill like any other. Lots of baseball players have strength enough throw 100 mph fastballs but it takes a lot of time and practice to learn to throw a cutter, circle change and curve. Throwing a ball like that is a very unnatural motion — it puts a lot of stress on the shoulder and elbow.

    Lots of people are plenty intelligent enough to learn science. But I have noticed that to do it you need to learn certain mental habits. That’s the hard part, I think. And that’s where you have a situation like pitching. It is unnatural to ask yourself where your own logic might be wrong. Getting beyond the quick-and-dirty solutions just isn’t what we as a species did for a really, really long time. Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken so long to invent the bow and arrow. Or the wheel. (And the scientific method is interesting as well because the knowledge increases exponentially each go-round, as theories are built on other theories and open up new lines of inquiry).

    Most of the time people reason based on thousands of little rules of thumb and intuition that “seems” right, but that isn’t scientific thinking, though it works pretty for most things.

  50. #50 cagey
    March 13, 2011

    Excellent discussion! I may get roped in to spending an afternoon at one of the local elementary schools explaining what I, a scientist, do (unless I can “persuade” one of my junior colleagues). While I haven’t given it a great deal of thought I have tended toward the p.o.v. that we are all scientists — we observe, we question, we formulate hypothesis, and we test those. However, I am beginning to lean toward the idea that perhaps all _young_ people are scientists (budding) and that unfortunately the complexities associated with lives of older individuals tend to grind away the native inquisitive nature of children.

    - kg

  51. #51 Min
    March 14, 2011

    I think that it is true that scientific thinking does not come naturally. What comes naturally is finding confirmation for our own ideas. Scientific thinking is doing your damnedest to disconfirm your own ideas. That does not depend so much on skill as on discipline and emotional control.

  52. #52 Eugeny
    August 29, 2011

    Thanks for the article. I admire scientists. I do not agree with author that we are out of laziness, in particular, do not want to get knowledge. The makings of scientist are formed in elementary school and then it becomes clear who will take path of a scientist.

  53. #53 Neil
    September 23, 2011

    WHY PEOPLE DO SCIENCE?
    Unselfish love for Nature and Truth
    The beauty of the laws
    curiosity
    The desire to benefit
    Need for approval – a thirst for authority – vanity
    Aureole of success, hero worship and desire to imitate them
    fear of boredom

  54. #54 bal
    December 11, 2011

    I think that you and Tyson have very different definitions of “thinking scientifically”. The hard part of thinking scientifically is the continual self-doubt – skepticism towards your own observations. The really hard part is knowing when to quit being skeptical :). As other commenters said, people are very good at being skeptical about others’ observations (see, for example, all of politics ever), but much less good about what you might call enlightened self doubt. In teaching lab classes, this is the hardest thing to get across to students

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