On Scientists

For whatever reason, scientists have reached some sort of weird, pop culture phenomenon where they’re humorously hailed as saviors of humanity. As incredibly intelligent people who will ultimately be the ones who offer us some kind of utopia.

Being close to the NIH, I hang out with many scientists, research fellows and the like. And I listen to their tales. Their frustrations, their daily lives. And let me assure you that despite whatever the internet tells you, they’re as ordinary flesh-and-blood human beings as you can imagine…

No, no really.

No, no really.

First, let me point out that scientists frequently have to get used to being wrong. The entire soul of the scientific method is in proving a theory to be correct or not. It only takes one small detail to be off for the theory to require correction and improvement. A theory is just a working model of reason that is meant to be improved upon and corrected until it’s a fact, or disproved entirely.

It requires a pragmatic mindset that is willing to follow the data and facts, regardless of where they take you and whether or not you like the results. Anyone with an agenda can and should be questioned by his peers. And jumping to conclusions is a fast track to losing all credibility. And let me assure you, there is such a thing as scientific misconduct.

Second, scientists are usually pretty bright people, but not full blown geniuses. They’re inclined towards a keen interest in knowledge and how the world works in general, much like how a man who loves cars might gravitate towards learning how engines operate. You could say they have a strong sense of philosophia (a love of knowledge/wisdom), geared towards our material world.

Sure, sometimes you get that genius-grade scientist, who can recite every element in atomic numbering order, or fully and accurately explain bio-molecular details to a T. But for the rest of them, they have the periodic table, text books, research journals with complimentary search engines, Google and a heuristic inclination to seek the information when they need it.

There are also foolish scientists.

I’ve heard horror stories about bad scientists, like Melvin pictured above. At best, they stay out of the way. At worst, they took sloppy data results, allowed samples to become contaminated, messed with calibrations and settings and all around made the lives and work of their fellow research teams pretty miserable. A hot mess doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Now, while scientists certainly deserve a healthy amount of credit for their work, a new fact or discovery is most critical when it can be applied to our daily lives. For that, we need people who can take a discovery and find ways to apply it, amplify it and in some way, distribute it. We need engineers too.

Look, the investors need SOME kind of bang for their buck, alright?

Look, the investors need SOME kind of bang for their buck, alright?

For example, take a look at the Haber-Bosch process. The chemical process pulls nitrogen from the air, which can be then be turned into ammonia, and fertilizers. The chemical conversion is only half the battle however, as the other half was an engineering feat that permitted the wide scale production of this process. To this day, the Haber-Bosch process feeds the world.

While the chemical process was valuable, it still needed to be amplified to be of use, hence the need for engineering. It’s a two way street where the scientific discovery is as necessary as the means to act upon it. Knowledge isn’t enough, there’s just so much more to it than that.

Then we have the religion versus science arguments. The stereotypical belief is that all scientists are atheists, firm proponents of Richard Dawkins. It’s all nothing new, going back at least as far as Galileo, although I’m sure others could find earlier examples of religious persecution for scientific curiosity and assertions. But these days, it might feel somewhat the other way around.

Children, children… it’s time to start playing nice.

Religions can offer a set of moral beliefs which we, in theory, act upon. Both sides can have a hard time with the live-and-let-live approach. Embryonic stem cell research, questions of evolution versus creationism versus intelligent design. We have a hard time leaving it be.

But let me assure you that there are scientists out there who are practicing their faith. And no, their spirituality does not interfere with their work. Nor does their faith disprove their findings or facts. People lie but verifiable data doesn’t. You don’t have to believe in God to just be respectful of others who do.

Still, whether one is religious or not, I think it healthy to constantly step back and ask oneself of the moral implications of a decision or act. Science is inviting for its sense of nobility, but one should always question whether the ends justify the means, lest we all end up as lab rats.

Another point of concern for scientists is the subject of reporting of results. It might take a hundred, if not a thousand, failed tests before getting the appropriate data, but not all failures gets reported upon. Science remains a fairly results oriented process.

In the ordinary world, we don’t need a million recipes of how not to bake a cake. But such errors can be useful for scientists, at least in determining before experimentation what does not work or has been investigated before. Hence the value of extensive research. And that is a lot of mind numbing work.

At the end of the day, such details might stymie the romantic and heroic suggestions of an occupation whose focus is about improvement and progress for humanity. I just think we got a bit carried away praising particular people who are just as interested in get drunk, paid and laid like the rest of us.

But neither should we deny them their due credit. Their work is frustrating, but important, and with respect to morality, ultimately makes life better for all of us. Just remember, they’re as human as the rest of us.

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