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.