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WHAT IS A SCIENTIST?

July 09, 2017

This page is dedicated to the science of daily life. But what is science, and who is a scientist? Some people venerate scientists as wizards; others resent them as myth-busting scoffers. Even so, there is no consensus on what makes a scientist. “Science” is from the Latin verb, “scio-scire” (“to know”). Anyone who seeks knowledge is a scientist. More to the point, science is knowledge about our material world: abstract thinking about things immaterial is more akin to philosophy/speculation than to science.

We emphasize “knowledge” because science is all about what one KNOWS for a fact (not what one believes or wishes). Accordingly, science is evidence-based. Hence, a scientist is the ultimate in open-mindedness, reserving judgment/belief until the evidence is in. And that evidence must be unambiguous, reproducible, and consistent with all known facts, thus enabling new predictions.

A common misconception is that anyone who invents things is a scientist. Not so! Invention does not make one a scientist: otherwise, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham-Bell, Bill Gates, etc., would rank among the world’s greatest scientists. An inventor is a maker of things that work. In other words (and this is crucial in an age when many smart people are developing useful practical skills), the acquisition of skills (be it in engineering, medicine, or what-have-you) does not make one a scientist.

A related misconception is that a scientist must be a famous person. Not so! If you hew to the paramountcy of evidence-based knowledge over mere belief, you are a scientist. The bedrock of the scientific principle is skepticism, which is the antithesis of doctrines. A scientist does not accept conjectures which are unproven or unprovable, and he will abandon any theory the moment it fails even the minutest of tests. In other words, a true scientist recognizes no eternal truths. A “self-evident truth” is suspect to a scientist because a presumed “fact” may change on closer inquiry!

That, of course, means a true scientist does not accept any “fact” on authority: he does not accept the idea that a claim must be true if a big-shot authority or holy book says it is! The most famous scientific skeptic in history was Galileo Galilei. In his time, EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE WORLD believed the sun traveled around the earth. Galileo begged to differ, instead proposing the contra-intuitive idea that the earth moved around the sun. He nearly paid with his life for stubborn “heresy” but in the end Galileo was proved right; everyone else was wrong!