Michael Battalio

Friday, October 09, 2015

Serious conversations (part 63): What is science - part 1

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

This first post merely defines the question and serves as an introduction to this longer sub-series.  So what is science?  And related:  Who is a scientist?

I’d like to take a paragraph to talk about the science of meteorology.  Recently, I put some thought into this because I know a lot of colleagues who have gone into forecasting or broadcasting and consider what they do science and themselves scientists.  Don’t get me wrong; many of them are actually practicing science.  Forecasting in and of itself is science, even though it is very repetitious and monotonous, in the same that grunt lab work is still science.  Many of the good ones actually review the models and observations on their own without the help of the National Weather Service, and some of them ignore the NWS altogether.  Some of them are better at forecasting than the local NWS office.   That is science, but many others just want to look pretty on camera.  Delivering science isn’t science itself.  They are not scientists.  In their forecasts, they merely copy what others have said.  Distribution of science is not science in and of itself.   Summarization is not science.  It bothers me that those people think what they do is science.  It is demeaning to other meteorologists or atmospheric dynamicists, physicists, and chemists.  Meteorology is fluid dynamics, which is applied physics.  When a lot of people enter broadcast meteorology, they don’t realize that you have to take a lot of math and physics, but they are so enamored with the potential fame that they somehow squirm their way though the math and physics with C’s and think that they are scientists at the end even though all they did is temporarily memorize some formulae to pass a test.  (This is a bit of a rant against people who have mediocre grades yet still get the degree thinking they’ve accomplished as much as those that did with GPA’s close to 4.0’s.  This is elitism, but I have no problem calling myself an elitist.  Society doesn’t reward high grades enough.  Once you get your first job, they no longer matter.  That’s sad, especially since I have worked so hard [at times] to get them over the last 20 years.)  

I also want to take a moment to comment on the hierarchy of science.  In my academic career I’ve gotten the general impression that physics looks down on the other sciences as being lesser, easier, and derivative.  This is somewhat true as all the other sciences are in some way or another applied physics.  (I also feel the disdain of pure theorists who look down on experimentalists.  That is a different conversation.)  One reason I’ve always been drawn to physics even though I’m reasonably happy as a atmospheric dynamist is that I feel that physics is somehow a higher pursuit, and at times I still regret having gone into atmospheric science in the first place when I think I would be much happier in particle physics or astrophysics.

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