Michael Battalio

Friday, January 22, 2016

Serious conversations (part 67): What is science - part 5

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.

Part five continues what part four started by exploring examples of who is a scientist.

Is a lab tech a scientist?  If a tech is merely acting as a sophisticated machine, they cannot be a scientist.  Transferring samples from one place to another or pushing some buttons does not make one a scientist, but performing moderately complex tasks does.  I almost think I would have to be given examples of mundane lab tasks and explain each as science or not.  I’m not sure I can put into words a concise, general rule for if a task is science.  Following a rote procedure that is laid out is not contributing to science, but at some point even repetitive tasks with clearly defined procedures become science-like if they are complicated enough.  Perhaps I should say that repetitive tasks become science if they require independent thought and adaptability outside of established guidelines to perform.  But then I get the question how complex does a machine have to be where operating it becomes science in and of itself.  The techs in the control room of the LHC are scientists, right?  Or no?  I’m not sure.  Experimentation is the key; is the person developing the experiment and changing the methods based off of the observations or are they merely the tools others use to perform the experiment?  If they are the ones actively adapting their methodology according to observation then they are a scientist; if not, they are merely part of the instrumentation. 

The complexity of science almost requires teams of people – a primary scientist with helpers around them that are quasi-scientists that contribute to the endeavor.  Are students of science scientists?  I would argue that grad students are scientists because even though they are doing the grunt work of a tech, they do it with the goal of learning.  And as I’ve said before, those who are performing their own personal science are still scientists.  They are learning the process of science, which I would call science.  I would argue that even the grunt undergrad laborer is also a scientist because of their intentions.  They are attempting to expand their own knowledge.  This is distinct from a lab worker who might only be working for the pay.  This leads me to speculate on levels of a scientist.  We sort of do it already.  A professor or research scientist at a government lab or private enterprise is at the top, followed by associate scientists/professors and so on, then post-docs, grad students, undergrads.  The professor is more of a scientist than an undergrad (within the same field).  This will lead us to part six.

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