So you want to be a scientist [Layman's Perspective]

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So you want to be a scientist [Layman's Perspective]

Postby kudayta on April 16th, 2008, 12:44 am 

I’ve studied a bit of science over the years, and I actually ended up scoring a bachelor’s degree in biology from a state university a few years back. Truthfully, I spent the bulk of my college years investigating the properties, psychology, economy and usage of cannabis sativa, but ever since I (more or less) sobered up, I’ve paid attention to the scientific method and how it’s applied by professional scientists.

One of the first things you have to face up to is this: No one cares what you think. That sounds harsh, and it is. We live in a harsh world, sadly. Now, many of the professionals you come across won’t put it as bluntly as that, but at the end of the day, they won’t care what you think. Really, these people are busy, they’ve worked their tails off to get where they are today, and they just don’t have the time or inclination to stoke your ego. Sorry.

If you’re anything at all like me, then you’re thinking “Well, what do scientists care about then?”. Evidence. Objective, verifiable evidence. These guys and gals like numbers a whole lot too, so much so that more than one professional scientist has told me that the language of science is mathematics. Hopefully at this point, you’re jumping up and down shouting, “But I’ve got evidence kudayta! Numbers too!”. Great. Let’s see it.

Many aspiring scientists at this point fail to note the difference between evidence and hypothesis. And some more fail to note the difference between a theory and a hypothesis. The latter failure is really a semantic error, one that I won’t bore you with. If what you have is a set of explanations of observed events, then you’ve got a hypothesis. If what you have is something brand new, that no one has ever observed before, you’ve got evidence. And we’re gonna want to see what you’ve got. Or hear, or detect in any way humans are capable of detecting things. Don’t try to hide behind the subjective experience of everyday life, that’s not science, that’s just your own delusions.

Now the next part is where it gets fun and/or tricky. Here’s where most people feel slighted by scientists and skeptics in all fields: Experimentation. If you’ve got a new hypothesis, one that we’ve not considered before, what we’ll want to do is test it against reality. And if that test fails, if your hypothesis doesn’t hold up, then we just discard it and move on with our lives. Brutal. Cold. Logical. Life’s too short to keep worrying about bad ideas. Don’t take it personally, everyone has bad ideas. Now here’s the really rough part. If your hypothesis passes, we test it again. And again. And again! Until it’s disproven or all of us die. Again, this isn’t personal. This is just making sure we didn’t screw up. Remember, everyone screws up.

One other thing you might want to remember as well, most professional scientists have heard lots of ideas in their time. So, they might just discard one of your ideas out of hand because they’ve already heard it and seen it disproven. Don’t take that personally either, just like you, a professional scientist relies at least in part on his or her own history. Just suck it up and try again.

So, to conclude, if you want to be a scientist, that’s great. But always remember that it’s a competitive field in which no one cares what you think and that all of your colleagues and friends are going to try to prove you wrong on a daily, if not hourly basis. But, hopefully, at the end of your career you can look back and show that you got it as close to the Absolute Truth as any human could ever hope for.
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Postby Lincoln on April 16th, 2008, 11:18 am 

I might add an anecdote. I have a graduate student of some reasonable competence. She's probably a 6-7 on an 10 point scale, with some promise to move upwards as her training continues. She'll likely be a professor some day.

Her professional and research credentials thus attested to, it is also true that she has a very bubbly personality. She has a passing resemblance to Katie Couric in her "perky" phase.

She tells me that she once presented an idea that didn't stand up to scrutiny, which caused her some anxiety. A professor bluntly and necessarily told her that if she wanted affirmation and bunches of "atta girls," she was definitely in the wrong field. Research is a nasty, brutal and Darwinian process, whereby ideas and hypotheses are slaughtered with wanton abandon.

She's still with us, surviving the lesson and with perkiness only marginally attenuated.

Don't enter research if you react badly to criticism. Also don't enter research if you are unable to dismiss your favorite hypothesis. Don't enter research if you are not hyper-critical of your own ideas and those of the people who surround you.

If these problems are for you, that's what the internet and the inane blogo-sphere is for....
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Postby realcomfy on April 16th, 2008, 2:13 pm 

This is very good advice for someone who has grand aspirations of being the next Einstein or at the least entering a highly competitive and technical research field. I have caught myself many times touting my ideas because I find them so highly pertinent to my life and the way I live it that I will continue to argue them even after holes have been poked in them. I find it difficult to fully reflect on my own theories and scrutinize them from every angle. To me, I see the beautiful detail from up close but refuse to take that step back to see the lumpy, deformed, truly ugly whole. I find only by striving for humility can I put up with the scrutiny and criticism put to me by the more educated and more experienced.

Among peers I often find a thorough scrutiny of my ideas (generally pertaining to theology and metaphysics) difficult since so few people in our modern world care to think about these things with any regularity and even if they do, they fall prey to this demon of holding their own ideas in to high of a regard to care about what I think. I can only hope that I myself do not fall victim and that I can continue to form and reform my ideas based on the new data I receive and the better understanding of the subject matter that I gain through experience and study.

Humility would be an ultimate feat if it could be achieved at such a level where were an idea worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as those of the great scientists who have lived throughout time were to mean to me that I am receiving recognition for work that was not of myself. If I could say that the prizes and the recognitions mean nothing to me, then maybe I could search through my own soul deeply enough to root out the remaining vestiges of pride and self-emulation and find that deep underlying truth of which I speak so often and purport such a belief. I have a feeling that most people here will help me along this path, after all, you are scientists.

Correct language is more important.

Postby conquer on May 12th, 2008, 2:44 am 

It is ironic, English is not my first language and I am claiming in this post that scientists must use the proper language in their articles, declarations, and explanations.

I will try to explain why I am writing this message here.

Lets use any topic of science, lets open a book and read that the dinosaurs were extincted 65 million years ago.

Excuse me?

A honest scientists won't say that. A honest scientists will say, "we believe that 65 millions years ago this and that happened", or, "it is assumed that the dinosaurs were extincted 65 million years ago."

So, to become a scientist will require more than knowledge in the field of science, but a proper and adequate language to express the scientific discoveries.

Lets go a little further.

A scientist looks at the former horse and the current one and says that the horse has evolved.

But, by counting the physical organic and functional characteristics between the two specimens ( the Hipparion and the Equus) we find out that the this species has suffered degeneration, because the losing of the former characteristics are greater than the appearance of the new characteristics. This event in Biology is known as "degeneration".

We have that the species of the horse has degenerated, not so evolved.

The word evolution in Biology is a technical word, this is to say that this word evolution cannot be used as the layman's word evolution which means different than "the changes of species through generations".

In the layman's language, the changes implied in the word "evolution" do have an arrow,or a certain direction. In the technical meaning of the same word in Biology, there is no arrow or direction. We have by consequence a huge difference between the two meanings of the word evolution which cannot be ignored but respected.

We also have the verb evolve which applies to the layman's word evolution only, because the verb evolve also refers to changes with one direction or arrow and not so to the technical meaning of the same word. We have the scenario where every time a scientist says that the horse has evolved, this scientist is committing JARGON.

The scientist must say, "the horse has passed through the biological process of evolution" which is one of the ways to express what the technical word evolution might apply in Biology, but for sure the use of the verb evolve applied to the technical word "evolution of Biology" is JARGON.

JARGON calls for confusion, and scientists are not suppose to confuse people but to provide the correct available scientific information, and the use of JARGON in their releases are the cause why people rejects the theory of evolution.

As an example we can say that we use the former telephones which have no dial numbers and that using cables we must have to contact a telephonist in a central building to talk with others, instead of the current cell phones, we cannot say that our communication system has evolved, because such is nuts, because being cordless and having dial numbers, the fast communication speed, the long distance reach and more new characteristics are greater than the former characteristics of the old telephones. To go back to those old phones is to devolve or degenerate.

Honesty is one of the most high approaches that the new scientists must have try to reach, and is in many cases missing or ignored when some scientists want to be correct at all costs.

The new generations of scientists must be trained first to acquire civil moral lessons before learning the basics of science, because -I know that many will disagree with this, but I have evidence of it- several scientists are openly lying to the people with their imaginations as if they were scientific facts.

No doubt that a "change" or a reform must be done in science, because our new generations are falling in a world of misinterpretations of illusion because some scientists are not being honest.

The advice of realcomfy is very helpful, its application, however, it requires more than experimental data and observation, it also claims for honesty and dignity, and other civic moral principles.

Postby Removed user on May 12th, 2008, 5:27 am 

Some, or even many, scientists might be in it for the accolades they hope to get or from an overwhelming desire to help humanity or for the money they expect to earn from the patents on the discoveries they make but a good number are just in it for the fun – they have always liked discovering and learning things and if someone wants to pay them for doing something they would do anyway, well so be it.

We mammals have internal “reward” centers in our brains for biologically important things such as eating, reproducing the species, caring for the young… and also, for many of us, learning. Many scientists become addicted to the process of learning in much the same way a workaholic or gambler does. Have you never been so engrossed in a book that it’s “just one more page” until you pull an all-nighter? The same thing goes for science; many a time for me it’s been “just one more gel, one more subroutine, one more micrograph…” until I finally noticed that the sun wasn’t going down – it was coming up.

But like with any addiction you sometimes can go more than a little nuts about something you are working on, especially if you’ve put long months into coming up with and developing an idea only to have someone come along and “attack your baby.” The knee-jerk reaction to criticism is the “rat backed into the corner” one – attack back. It’s difficult to calmly and courteously accept even well-meant criticism, much less all out attacks by someone who thinks they are evolution’s gift to the species. Of course, there’s a world of difference too in the demeanor of the fighter jockey versus the transport pilot and sometimes it’s the arrogant so-and-so’s that nobody likes that are the one’s needed to get the job done.

I’d say that if you are interested in science then do it, in spite of the possible pitfalls.
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Postby Lincoln on May 12th, 2008, 8:08 am 

Metis...was that supposed to be a response to conquer?

Conquer...with all due don't know what you're talking about.

Or, more correctly, I substantially agree with you, but you've neglected an important parameter.

In order for a scientist to have their words read by others, they must be published. Published means a publisher. And a publisher is not in it for the purity of the spoken word, but rather to make money. And they select manuscripts that will sell more copies rather than less.

If you read a journal article, or even a textbook for specialists, they are full of qualifiers, addendums, and nuances. However as you start looking at more general textbooks and especially for text written for a lay audience, the nuances and qualifiers are mercilessly stripped off, until the writing becomes much more concise, confident and brooks no discussion.

You have entirely neglected the consumer, for whom nuanced and qualilfied prose becomes tiresome. The consumer wants it quick, clear and confident.

And I even take exception with your own text on the the dinosaurs. It is true that we would say "dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago" and that "we believe that dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago" would be a marginal improvement. However a much better improvement would first explain why we believe that dinosaurs existed at all. We would then go on to say something along the lines of "There is a theory describing the death of dinosaurs that suggests that they were killed by a large meteor strike in what is currently the Yucatan peninsula about 65 million years ago. This theory is currently consistent with data, which includes a world-wide iridium layer, a deficit of dinosaur fossils above it and a plethora below (although there seems to be a decreasing presence as one approaches the layer, which may be accounted for by the Deccan Traps, or possibly is nothing more than selection bias.) Further evidence consists of a soot layer, consistent with a global wild-fire, tectite deposition in the Caribean, with a radial distribution consistent with having originated from Chixculub. Further, the geographical location of the proposed meteor strike was in the offshore calcium carbonate depositions, which would suggest extensive carbon release due to chemical processes, initiated by the energy of the strike, combined with an essentially unlimited supply of water...."

And so on.

"The dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago" is a distillation of the wisdom of thousands of papers and extensive knowledge gathered over the centuries. It is no less true than the extended version and it allows for people to gather (and remember) more facts. This compendium of facts, stripped of their nuances, allows people to draw even further and more broadly-scoped conclusions....broader and over-reaching ones...say having to do with the probability of future Earth/meteor interactions, etc.

Nuanced scientific communication is very important for those willing to dig into it. But the consumer of most popular science writing is not so willing. They want their knowledge neat, compact, pre-chewed and easy to remember.

It's not optimal, but consider the alternatives....
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Postby Removed user on May 12th, 2008, 8:15 am 

I was responding to the original post -- it was only after I posted did I realize that it was from some time ago and that the thread had taken off in another direction.

Or maybe I was just suggesting that would-be scientists try to have fun and keep their good humor, no matter what others may say and do. You don’t always have to be on the dog-eat-dog cutting edge of things either -- there is plenty to be done in the area of applied science where tried and true methods generate useful data with the potential for immediate application in problem solving.
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Postby conquer on May 12th, 2008, 9:55 pm 


Yes we have some methods to obtain data, but did you ever have tried to verify them?

Lets see, you have an old tree and you cut it in half, after that you take a sample to check its age through the Carbon 14 method.

The results come and you read that the tree is 2,900 years old.

Can you trust the Carbon 14 method of measure?

Well, you count the rings of the tree, and you obtain the amount of 2,794 rings.

Congratulations! the Carbon 14 method of measurement is verifiable!

Now well, you take the sample of a dinosaur bone and check the "iridium" rate of decay encrusted in it or in the surrounding rocks, but, how can you verify such measurements?

Excuse me, but as long as the method used cannot be verifiable with another method of measure, you still are assuming the veracity of the results and the data given by the method you have used cannot be considered as accurate and neither factual.

For this reason, the 65 millions years calculated for the extinction of dinosaurs is no more than a conjecture.

New scientists must be conscious that they cannot be indifferent to the communication media spreading incorrect information around. The correct path is to be honest with the layman and allow him to learn right from the very beginning.

I have visited the Zoo in Washington DC, where the drawings of the assumed human ancestors show men and women with hair in all their body's surface, and the legend says: "This is an educated guess of the appearance of the early humans..."

The guys working in the Zoo are doing the right thing, because such drawings are no more than that, a representation of our assumptions about how the early man did look like.

You are correct that publishers cut here and there the scientific information in order to make their publications more profitable, but I don't buy the idea that the authors of the articles cannot do anything about it.

And, for this reason, I stated that a reform must be made in order to review the current theories of science, because I see no problem at all with science itself but with the theories which are so old and obsolete that must be discarded instead of being updated with more erroneous data.


I think that I am very fortunate to have been working in a job that for me is more an entertainment that a job. I love what I do, and I do my best efforts to do it right.

I think that new scientists don't need to be passionated with science, but that they must look always the horizon as a goal to be reached as a continued complement with others.

Light is originated from chaos, and knowledge in science must come out the same way in order to illuminate others to keep walking in the same path.

My former message was directed to keep honesty up in every step given, because from the new scientists will depend the knowledge shared to the rest.

Postby Removed user on May 13th, 2008, 2:24 am 

I think you are just picking at straws here. In an introductory science text you don’t have to spend thousands of pages covering each and every bit of scientific minutiae. You present a well-documented fact as a fact and back it up with references to key papers that the readers can then use to trace the information back to the original research.

Dendrochronologists have now mapped (in some regions) a continuous record back for almost 10,000 years and, as you said, verified carbon dating with this. However, I don’t see why you would think that other radiometric dating schemes would be problematic to the point of producing dates that are only mere conjecture, especially for relatively recent dates such as 65 million years ago – do you think that only carbon 14, of all radioactive isotopes, has a measurable half-life?

Radiometrically-determined dates obtained by using various isotopes are checked against each other and then cross-checked by using a combination of many other things such as noting the location, depth, and composition of strata, the types and species of fossils present, and the record of cyclical meteorological, geological, and astronomical events. All of these methods are used to cross-calibrate and verify dates. ... 132141.htm
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Postby Lincoln on May 13th, 2008, 7:56 am 

Conquer is just doing pretend science, substituting gravitas for knowledge and attempting to lecture beyond his or her mastery.

As Metis has said, there is a huge vista of knowledge, with cross-checks galore, apparently none of which conquer has learned. Nobody will put all of the caveats, uncertainties and codicils into every sentence.

Enough with the pontification. Learn of what you speak before you lecture. Pompous and uneducated self-importance just doesn't cut it.

You know, I am always getting crap by regular readers for being overly patient with the scientific posers here on this board, but even I don't have patience for this supercilious nonsense....

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Postby BioWizard on May 13th, 2008, 10:46 am 

Conquer, you clearly do not know how scientists work. You're preaching to the wrong choir. There is no lack of cross validation in the example you've given (ironic huh?), and when/if there is, scientists are usually never reluctant to put it out there. Your posts strike me as less honest as you claim them to be, which is again ironic, given that you're lecturing others about honesty...

Also, your beef might be more with the media and scientific reporting rather than with the scientists and science itself.
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Postby BioWizard on May 13th, 2008, 1:43 pm 

And just so you don't think my previous post was an invitation for further discussion, I'm locking this thread.
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