As you may or may not know, I’m currently at work on a book called How to Think Like a Scientist. This raises the fairly obvious question in the post title, namely, why should people think like scientists? What’s the point?

In a sense, this is (as Ethan Zuckerman pointed out at lunch the other day) the underlying question at the heart of the whole endeavor of science communication. I mean, I’ve written two books about modern physics for a general audience, and when I have time, I write this blog aimed at non-scientists. What’s the point of doing all that, anyway? What is it I hope to achieve by all this?

There are, of course, many answers to that, from the cynical (if more people were enthusiastic about science, our funding would be more secure) to the personal (I think modern physics is about the coolest thing ever, and want to share that with others). Neither of those really cover the big picture, though, or make as satisfying a justification for a book about scientific thinking in general.

In the end, the core justification for everything I do in terms of trying to bring science to a broader audience comes back to the idea that science isn’t a collection of facts, it’s an approach to the world. Stripped to its essentials, science is a four-step process: you look at something interesting in the world, you think about why it might work that way, you test your idea with further observations and experiments, and you tell everybody you know what you found.

The formal, institutional version of this is relatively recent, but the basic practice is as old as humanity. The central point of the book-in-progress is that this kind of thinking is something that everybody does, often without even knowing it, in pursuit of various hobbies and interests. The hope is that by helping people recognize their ability to think like a scientist, they will be more conscious of scientific thinking, and this will encourage them to apply it more widely.

But why bother? Why do I think this is an important goal? Well, the simple and obvious answer is to point to all the wonders of modern technology that are only possible through science– airplanes, the Internet, antibiotics. That’s a little glib, though, because it’s perfectly possible to use those devices without understanding how they function. A lot of people will also answer in terms of specific policy goals– if more people understood science, they would be more likely to accept the science involved in particular set of public health and safety issues, and would vote for policies that address. That’s also a little narrow, and runs the risk of turning people off on tribal grounds– if you tell someone “You should learn about science so you will abandon your cherished beliefs and cultural practices,” well, that’s not the most persuasive technique.

The bigger, more philosophical answer, for me, anyway, is that I think the world would be a better place if more people thought scientifically because, ultimately, science is an empowering and fundamentally optimistic approach to the world. And we could all benefit from a little more empowerment and optimism.

That might seem like a funny thing to say, when the scientific position on a host of modern issues involves telling us we’re all going to die– crushed by flaming space rocks, killed by drug-resistant diseases, roasted alive by global warming. But I’m talking about a somewhat more abstract form of optimism, here (and anyway, all of those scientific doomsday scenarios are at least partially avoidable, given knowledge of the problem…). The whole foundation of science is the idea that questions have answers and that we can find those answers. Even more than that– an essential part of the scientific approach to the world is the feeling that not knowing is not acceptable.

One of the most frustrating things I encounter in my job is the person who says “I don’t know,” and regards that as a final answer. Mostly, this comes from students asked what the next step of some problem is, hoping that I’ll just tell them what to do. It’s especially infuriating, though, when it comes from colleagues on the faculty and staff. I’m not saying that we have to instantly know everything about everything, but I find it maddening to hear “I don’t know” and not have it followed by “… but here’s what we can do to figure it out.”

That, I think, is the empowering and optimistic side of science– the idea that there isn’t any question that can’t be answered. When you hit something that you don’t know, scientific thinking is a tool you can use to figure it out. It may take a while, and require meticulous planning and testing, but given time and that look-think-test-tell process, you can get an answer to just about any question that’s worth asking.

That’s an incredibly powerful idea, and it’s something that huge numbers of people would benefit from. You’re never forced to stop doing anything because you don’t know how something works– you have the tools you need to figure out whatever it is that you need to know. And once you know how it works, you can often use that knowledge to make it work better, improving your life in the process.

(Now, I don’t want to go completely overboard into arrogance, here– using science to improve things can be taken too far, and we need to be mindful of the consequences of any scientific project. And there may be projects that are just too expensive or impractical to take on. But even there, the way we know about the costs and consequences is through science and scientific thinking…)

So, ultimately, I think we need to communicate science to a broader audience not because it enables practical technologies, or serves specific policy goals, or helps people get good jobs. We should communicate science to a broader audience because scientific thinking turns “I don’t know” into “I don’t know… yet.” That’s an incredibly liberating tool, and the world would be a better place if more people were comfortable using it.

Comments

  1. #1 Chad Orzel
    March 20, 2013

    (This, like a lot of the blog, is basically a zeroth draft of something that will end up in the book…)

  2. #2 Ian Liberman
    March 20, 2013

    As you know there have been a few studies recently indicating the literate you are scientifically, the more you are likely to abandon religion. That in itself is a major reason to start using critical thinking skill to examine everything around you and start learning science which enhances those skills.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    March 20, 2013

    I’d put that in the narrow policy goals class of justifications, where it’s a prime example of the dangers of tribalism.

  4. #4 Ori Vandewalle
    March 20, 2013

    “(Now, I don’t want to go completely overboard into arrogance, here– using science to improve things can be taken too far, and we need to be mindful of the consequences of any scientific project. And there may be projects that are just too expensive or impractical to take on. But even there, the way we know about the costs and consequences is through science and scientific thinking…)”

    This, I believe, is a very important sentiment. You see a lot of resistance to science and technology in the form of… well yeah, but what about the risks? What about nuclear plants melting down, or airplanes crashing, or economicists causing depressions?

    And the only reasonable answer is that, of course there are risks, but we can only properly determine what those risks are by doing more science. The alternative is to be limitlessly afraid of all things that might be dangerous.

  5. #5 Ori Vandewalle
    March 20, 2013

    Somehow I’ve forgotten how to spell economist.

  6. #6 Kenneth Sandale
    March 20, 2013

    For the most part you cannot teach someone to think like a scientist. Perhaps next you can try to teach dogs how to think like humans.

    Ironically, someone writing a book to make people think like scientists himself is unable to think like a scientist.

  7. #7 Brent Neal
    March 20, 2013

    The parenthetical paragraph in this post isn’t really necessary, IMO. You may be falling into the trap of conflating the dangers that arise from technology with the scientific method. This is bad logic that I really hope we can get away from in public discourse.

    Fire burns you, but it will do so independently of whether you study combustion chemistry and dynamics…

  8. #8 Wilson
    March 20, 2013

    This – what you said in this post – is why I’m so excited for this book to come out. I’m looking forward to foisting it onto people, by lending it, giving it as a gift, etc. Your posts along this line are the ones I’ve shared on Facebook.

    It’s also, however, why I disagree with the title. For my druthers, I’d call it You Are a Scientist or Why You Think Like a Scientist or something along those lines. To me, the title How to Think Like a Scientist implies
    a) that scientific thinking doesn’t come naturally and
    b) that scientific thinking is something to which they aspire.

    I think that (a) is in direct contradiction to what you’re using the book to actually say, and that (b) is going to be a turnoff to the kind of people – the typical religious fundamentalist comes to mind, but also some of my friends – who actively avoid thinking scientifically, and who might be more likely to read (and maybe even be subtly influenced by) a book whose title accuses them of doing so.

    All that said, it is, of course, just my opinion and if you and the marketing people feel that the title you have is the best one, I’ll still buy the book. I just think it’ll be a harder sell to get some of my friends to read it.

  9. #9 Chuk
    March 20, 2013

    You Are a Scientist would be a good title. Possibly for a different book though.
    You have codified things in this post that I sometimes attempt to string together and explain to people. Usually I just get overcome with science-squee though and end up digressing somehow.

  10. #10 Ori Vandewalle
    March 20, 2013

    Kenneth Sandale: You seem to be ignoring the science that tells us how plastic the brain is.

  11. #11 Kenneth Sandale
    March 20, 2013

    “You seem to be ignoring the science that tells us how plastic the brain is.”

    I think that there are limits to the plasticity. Some people juist will not be able to think very scientifically, no matter what is done.

  12. #12 William Hendrixson
    March 21, 2013

    A few thoughts:

    “Thinking like a scientist” is not an absolute, it is most certainly a gradiant. It would seems that the benefits are accordingly, also a gradiant..

    There are really at least two questions being asked. “Why I should want to think like a scientist”, and “Why I should want you to think like a scientist”. I think unless you are approaching it with a hive mind, there are going to be different answers to these questions.

    I think much of this question comes back to the empowerment aspect. The search for truth crosses into many disciplines, but science appears the only one to actually do anything about it. Perhaps, as important a reason as empowering people to tend towards knowledge (truth), it is as or more important to dis-empower the spread of ignorance.

    Looking forward to the book.

  13. #13 jane
    March 21, 2013

    “you can get an answer to just about any question that’s worth asking” – Only if you define any question you can’t answer as “not worth asking.” Also, I know in my own field that many questions that would be theoretically answerable given infinite resources are in fact not going to be answered in the foreseeable future because the resources simply aren’t available (and in my opinion, aren’t going to be). Does thinking like a scientist require a particular set of values, or an unquestioning acceptance of the myth of progress?

  14. #14 jane
    March 22, 2013

    One more comment – having “tell” as a fundamental part of the scientific method assumes membership in an elite group of professional practitioners, unless you just mean that people should chat about anything they do on Facebook. The sorts of experiments that average people can do at home, as they have always done, can almost never be published in journals, as the methods are not elaborate enough and the results too particularistic to be of general interest. The use of logic (another basic cognitive toolkit) does not require that you tell others about your conclusions or have an available audience to do so, so neither should the use of science on the domestic or informal level.

  15. #15 C J Kennedy
    March 23, 2013

    Chad,
    I think my Border Collie is already thinking like a scientist! I started reading your relativity book to him and he is enjoying it very much. But he is wondering how to reconcile various statements you have made about time dilation. In one part you seem to say that each observer sees the other clock run slower even though one is in motion and the other is not – essentially because that very concept is relative and they can each claim the other is moving. Okay fine – but then you say in the final analysis, one clock will be behind because it had accelerated and the other did not. The problem my dog is having is that the acceleration is happening at a different time than when each are in relative non-accelerating motion. So during that constant velocity phase, is the moving clock carrying some sort of “memory” that it previously accelerated and will affect how the clocks view each other during constant velocity, or is the time slowing effect purely due to the acceleration phase and what’s seen during constant velocity just an appearance of clock slowing? Help!! — He won’t stop barking!

  16. #16 C J Kennedy
    March 27, 2013

    Oh, well – don’t worry Chad. You wouldn’t be the first physicist who is unable to answer that relativity question. I guess I will write Cesar Millan for advice on suppressing my dog’s curiosity. I do wish you continued success with the coffee cup research.

  17. [...] Why Should You Think Like a Scientist? – Uncertain Principles. [...]

  18. #18 Geraldine P.
    Germany
    April 5, 2013

    This post spoke me from the heart !
    In my current living situation, is science one of the most important things for me, the more complicatet my live goes, all the more I start, reading books about theoratical phisiks and astronomy.
    Science is something which enthusiasticed my since I am a little child, my mother allways has to read my the books about the solar system.
    And because my live is currently very chaotic, I whish often that more people start thinking scientific, because it is, as you told a very positive wise to think. Everytime I read something about black holes, super symmetry, dark energy or something other complicated interesting phisik topics, I can often feel the passion which them they wrote it and I feel so comfortable reading all this, because it gives me hope that I can do somethimes the same. Because this is what I love to.

    For the last, I am 13 years old. And my problems are not the problems of a normal teenager. I really can not understand how they seriously can make a big deal out of it that somebody wears the same shirt, or has the “wrong” haircut. I think about more but I have to deal with it because this is live…

  19. [...] Why Should You Think Like a Scientist? – Uncertain Principles [...]

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