PNAS: What We Learn From Science

I've been intermittently profiling people with STEM degrees and non-academic jobs since 2009, as it turns out. One of the questions in the profile asks "What’s the most important thing you learned from science?" These have been some of the most interesting responses, so I thought it might be interesting, while I sit here and wait out a two-hour delay in the opening of the kids' schools, to compile those answers through the years.

These are in roughly chronological order, and I've left the names off because... Well, mostly because I'm being lazy, but I can invent a principled reason about how it really doesn't matter, etc., if you really want me to.

------------

What's the most important thing you learned from science?

An understanding of what science, at least physical science, is. I recognize that is not a very good answer because people either always think they understand something or that they never do. But I have problems saying that any one thing – whatever we may mean by ‘thing’ – is the most important. But then, that statement is part of what science is about as well.

------

Question everything. It is the people who ask questions such as “But how do you know that?” or “How does that work?” or “Why is that so?” that have made differences large and small in our understanding of the world around us. Critical thinking skills are important to your success
in science, regardless of your field. I also learned ‘don’t give up!’, which was and is very important when I encounter obstacles.

------

I guess it’s a way of approaching how you know what you know: respect the data, but be skeptical about how they were obtained and what they mean.

------

I think the most important thing I’ve gained is an analytical approach. I’ve realised I’m able to assimilate a large amount of data and assess its validity relatively quickly. It’s made me quite a good strategic thinker.

------

People sometimes say that the biggest long-term benefit of a university degree is that is teaches how to think. I disagree. I think the the benefit of a degree in the arts or sciences is that it enables one to discriminate what is worth thinking about. When you have decided what is worth thinking about, evidence gathered by measurement is worth more than a thousand opinions

------

Because of my science background I think I’ve come to naturally question things around me. I look at the world through an amazing lense that allows me to better understand and appreciate things.

------

Organised approach, problem solving, a big plant is the same as a lab only huge.

------

Critical thinking! It helps in all aspects of life, not just my job. It’s always useful to consider “how do I know that?” and similar questions.

------

How to reason. How to formulate and test hypotheses by experiment. How to learn from mistakes and failures. Well, I know that’s three not one, but they form a sort of orthogonal continuum. I rely on these on a daily basis.

If you are bright enough to finish a degree, you are probably bright enough to acquire or absorb the information you need at any time in any technical job. The critical skills are more meta – how to find information, how to integrate info into knowledge, and how to apply it, all of which are highly personal achievements and not really teachable skills. But you need teachers who lead you through the minefields that by Mother of Invention rules induce you to develop those skills.

------

The most important thing I’ve learned from science is to think critically about what’s presented to you. Are the facts correct? Is the reasoning sound? Are there any biases underlying the conclusions?

------

How to follow a chain of evidence and understand if an argument is well supported or not. In my line of work, I end up interacting with the public more than I though I would, and topics like the demotion of Pluto, Global Warming, alien life and the moon landing come up often. I always want to give accurate information to people, but short of knowing the information myself, it’s useful to be able to recognize when an argument is not supported by evidence. Even if you can’t give a good answer, sometimes debunking a bad answer is enough to make someone go back and do the research themselves.

------

The most important thing I’ve learned from science is that I don’t know everything. Seriously, though, I’ve learned to ask questions and to recognize that others have different knowledge than I do, and that we can create the best product by working together using our strengths.

------

The most important thing I’ve learned from science is *science*: knowledge about how the world works, and how to find out how the world works.

------

The most important thing I learned from science is probably the critical thinking/reasoning skills. If you can break down a problem into smaller problems, the approach becomes much simpler. Experimental method applies not only to actual experiments, but to the business side of things as well – if an approach you took didn’t work, ask yourself why? Change your approach and re-evaluate the results. You can’t really run controls in your social interactions with people, but since business development at the startup level involves searching out a lot of potential partners and investors, you do have the luxury of being able to tweak your approach.

The second thing I learned is that given a good library and 2 – 3 weeks, you can become reasonably well-read on virtually anything, and combined with the critical thinking and reasoning skills, there’s really nothing you can’t do. Experimental techniques outside your field might take some time to learn, but don’t be afraid to make lateral moves.

------

Everything can be done! The more you know, the more ways to do it will appear, and the more likely one of those ways will be feasible, using the stuff you’ve got to work with.

------

That’s a hard one. There are so many things I’ve learned, including the ongoing fascination with learning how nature works. Related to work, I would say developing problem solving strategies would be at the top of the list. This includes not giving up on a seemingly intractable problem, but to always look for another angle, another approach that will make the thing work. To keep trying different things. Related at some level, is the drive to keep learning different things. If you have not developed a love for learning, working at a top level in a technology field like software is going to be difficult because one is always racing to learn new things and keep up the pace with progress. Chance are though, if you’re in physics, this is a drive you already have.

------

I’m not really sure how to answer this question. The science classes I took in college and graduate school definitely helped me understand the connections between different concepts. My scientific training also helped me learn how to think logically and how to reason out things I don’t know off the top of my head.

------

Hypotheses can be wrong. Build your worldview from observables. Change your hypothesis to fit the data, not the other way around.

------

Expect the unexpected.

------

Science has taught me several invaluable lessons. The first is that science is a process, not a thing. From day one, I try to get my students to give up the idea that all that stuff in their textbook is science. The second thing is the value of being able to say “I don’t know” and realizing that is what drives scientific endeavor, the desire to answer unknown questions. Finally, science has taught me how to use my brain, to observe and analyze in the process of learning.

------

Always keep learning and always be inquisitive.

------

For me, it is how to define and decompose a problem, and then solve it. Another thing is collaboration and teamwork in tackling a research problem.

------

That reality is independent of our wishful thinking or what bring us comfort. Let the data take you to the most probable conclusion even if you don’t like it or appears to not be beneficial. In the end you’ll be better off.

------

The importance of logical thinking and mathematical analysis.

------

How to spot to the crux of a problem among the mess of extraneous details.

------

I‘m wary about crossing a line and getting too political, but I think some things in our society have become controversial when they shouldn’t be. Many people have a vested interest in muddying the waters, for example, when it comes to global warming, even though the science is not ambiguous. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting pseudoscience, but for the general public it’s like distinguishing Latin from Greek. Science teachers are in a privileged position: we know the stakes involved, we have the tools to critically assess information when making decisions on scientific issues, but unlike most working scientists, we also have a captive audience in great need of these skills. Many of them may not take another science course after ours, so it’s one last chance to teach them what they really need to know, which is how to think scientifically.

------

Patience and persistence are key qualities in success.

------

The most important thing I learned from science is the critical thinking. Knowing the ins and outs of one field of science is not as important as being able to look critically at multiple areas of research.

------

Document everything! In fact, I really need to get a humidity meter and start recording that in my logs, because I think it may account for some of my unexplained variations. Also, while this is only tangentially a science-sourced lesson, one of the first places I learned it was the story of Alexander Fleming: Sometimes your greatest successes are things you weren’t even trying to do in the first place.

------

Negative results can be just as informative as positive. And, ultimately, biological materials never, EVER, behave the same from day to day or batch to batch. The organism always wins!

------

That’s a tough question. I’d say it’s how to quickly test concepts for ‘reasonableness’ – how to do back of the envelope calculations to see if something should roughly work, or quick mental tests you can apply to see if a concept might work theoretically.

------

How to step back from a question to examine as many aspects as possible to arrive at an answer and to be aware of how unconscious biases can influence my thinking.

------

The skills from science that serve me best now are the ability to analyze and research a problem, to be able to brainstorm potential solutions, and then to question and test the results of the solutions developed to find what is really the best solution.

------

I think the most important thing I’ve learned is a deep understanding of the scientific process. The ability to isolate and test individual variables, look for possible causes of unexplained behavior, and have a healthy respect for both the usefulness of data and how easily it can be misinterpreted, has been useful to me in my HPC projects.

------

Analytical skills

------

The ability to break down a complex system, look at the bits, see how they relate to each other, and put them back together again.

------

Systematic problem solving, trying to figure out why something works a certain way is what scientists do (the joke that an astrophysicist is someone who sees something working in practice and wonders how it would work in theory.) A lot of what I do is trying to figure out how some piece of software works, or does not work, so I can improve it. Being able to work out why a piece of software or equipment is misbehaving requires the same sort of approach as an ideal experiment and, of course, is part of the experimental process in the real world. This job is ideal for the kind of person who enjoys that aspect of science.

------

Being able to take a somewhat scientific approach to a project or a problem is probably the best overall skill that I learned from science. After learning about how the physical world functions you can get a better idea of estimating what is reasonable or unreasonable to expect from a project. Then as you go forward on the project tracking your progress becomes an important part of achieving or at least refining your goal. It’s also important to realize that sometimes your initial goal or endpoint isn’t really and ending but just a stepping stone on to future stepping stones in a continually developing process.

------

I think that my training in science has taught me to be observant, questioning and detail-oriented, traits that I find useful in all areas of my life.

------

Logic. During my 1L course on statutory interpretation, I seemed to be the only person in the room who understood the difference between “and” and “or” when used in a list. (It’s pretty important because if a law, especially something like a criminal law, says “A, B, _and_ C,” that’s really different from “A, B, _or_ C.” And the law is full of multi-part tests.)

Relatedly, my experience with computer code makes legal code easier to understand. Jokes on the names aside, the two forms of writing have a lot more in common with each other than either does with fiction.

And like I said, the language of science is pretty damn important. Especially when you’re dealing with engineers giving depositions.

------

That events occur for a reason: there is a cause for every effect. I find that to be quite comforting. The universe is a pretty uncaring place overall but it is at least fair: the same rules apply to everyone and everything, all the time.

------

How to analyze data and extract useful information from it.

------

From CS: an ounce of planning prevents a pound of late night development misery. From science: check your assumptions.

------

Science has provided me with the framework for my problem-solving skills. It is logic-based, and has taught me how to approach everyday problems in a straightforward manner by asking questions like “What is the problem? What is a logical way to address this problem?” etc etc. It also has helped incredibly with my time management skills, as science in general is one of the more demanding majors so organization and time management is a skill I gained through my education.

------

Probably the general problem-solving skills are the most important — how to approach problems, how to ask the most relevant questions to allow you to define problems in a solvable way, and how to simplify problems in a way that illuminates the important behavior of a system rather than getting bogged down in irrelevant details. Next would definitely be having some experience/knowledge in a wide range of areas (from heat transfer to electronics to fabrication to mechanical systems to software).

Specific technical knowledge is the certainly the *least* important. I don’t think anyone in our group is doing work that’s exactly what they were trained in school to do. One guy has a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences. Another’s Ph.D was combustion studies. Another’s was on piezoelectric devices.

------

That I’m not always right…in fact I’m wrong often and that keeps me on my toes. Also much of what I have learned in physics as well as medicine is counter-intuitive. One can’t be thrown off by that.

------

Yeah, no idea how to answer this one that doesn’t sound like something out of a bad fortune cookie.

------

The most important things I learned from science is how to tackle a problem, and the confidence and determination to continue digging deeper when the first, second or third things that I try don’t solve the problem.

------

There is nothing more dangerous than good old common sense.

------

Read attentively and critically; write clearly and mindfully; think openly and playfully; experiment carefully and rigorously.

------

I’ve learned how important it is to think about the impact of my assumptions. With most problems in science, business, and probably life, you have incomplete data and need to fill in the gaps or simplify the problem by making assumptions. What informs your assumptions? Are they reasonable? What if they were different? Are they overly simple/complicated? Science has taught me to keep all of these questions in mind.

------

How to think deeply about a problem, to understand it inside and out, to be able to propose many different possible solutions, and to know how to judge between them.

------------

Anyway, there you go. Lots of people who no longer work in academic science, offering their take on the most important lessons science has to offer for their current jobs. I think there's some really good stuff in there, and was struck by how universal most of this is-- the set of profiles includes lawyers, managers, doctors, teachers, developers, and many others, but despite the breadth of occupations, they all take similar things away from their scientific training.

Which I guess probably ought to prove a point of some sort. Now I need to scientifically investigate how the hell I'm going to get my car to start so I can get to my academic job...

Categories

More like this

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic…
For those who know my blog well, you might think this is going to be another apology for a lack of posts. Surprise... it isn’t. No, honestly, I’m just pondering the nature of time and complexity again, or at least how it applies to this thing we call life. It seems like we’re obsessed with being on…
Matt Reed, who will forever be "Dean Dad" to me, has a post on "new" topics that might be considered for "gen ed" requirements, that is, the core courses that all students are required to take. This spins off a question Rebecca Townsend asked (no link in original), "Should public speaking be a…
(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too…