A final rant for SyBit: the education of scientists

June 15, 2011

I promised you all a final rant. Well, here it is: university science education doesn't produce scientists.

What's a scientist anyway? Someone who pipettes all day, or stares through a telescope? That could just as well be a technician, and often is, even if hidden behind a title of "postdoc" or "professor". Let's take some folks who are scientists by any estimation: Newton, Linnaeus, Mendele'ev, Darwin, Boyle, Einstein. We could easily add an astoudingly diverse range of names. On the flip side we can name many who were appalling scientists, such as Watson and Crick, Thomas Aquinas, Lysenko, or any of the proponents of "intelligent design" that plague us today.

What separates these two groups? It's not that one worked on a particular thing or in a particular way. The day to day methods of Darwin were much closer to Lysenko than to Newton. It's not intelligence. Newton was indubitably a genius, but so was Thomas Aquinas.

It's a question of virtue.1 We utter "Lysenko contaminated his science with ideology" and "Watson and Crick stole data" and "Intelligent design beggars the question" in tones of moral outrage. These men are epistemically evil, just as Boyle and Darwin are epistemically virtuous. The virtues vary --- objectivity was not one of Mendel's great virtues, nor generosity with ideas one of Newton's --- but all acted in a manner which embodied some range of epistemic virtues.

So: a scientist is an epistemically virtuous individual.

Now look at the graduates of science departments around the world. They aren't particularly epistemically evil, nor very epistemically virtuous either. Virtue is a question of habit. Decisions make ruts in our minds and repeated action, virtuous or evil, digs ruts a man can't easily escape from. There are no such ruts impressed into the minds of most of the children emerging from university with their degrees. They have memorized some facts, perhaps learned some technical skills, but we cannot call them scientists.

Some of them go on to graduate school, where they may be shaped by an advisor, but it is just as likely that they will be ignored, and who knows what ruts will develop? In some fields, such a molecular biology, this has gone on for generations, and it is only by chance that you may happen upon a professor who is a scientist.

This is all very depressing. If lecturing the children and making them do laboratory experiments does not produce scientists, how can it be managed? We must drive some ruts through their minds in desirable directions, which can only be accomplished my making them do some science, and do it in such a way that they are not merely technicians but actively make and take responsibility for decisions with epistemic consequences.

They still need technical skills, or they won't be in a position to act at all, virtuously or not. Some degree of the following are needed for a scientist:

Once we have a student with these prerequisites, how do we drive ruts through her mind? We must give her role models and guidance, and then put her in situations where she must apply epistemic virtues.

The role models needn't all be present, or even alive. A scientist who hasn't read the founders and great investigators of her field, and understood how and why they approached the problems as they did, is at best a dilettante. A physicist who has not read Newton and a neuroscientist who has not studied Cajal are both pitiful creatures.

Someone does have to guide the student, though. Someone has to choose problems big enough to challenge her but not so large as to swamp her or make it too difficult to act virtuously (remember, we must be sure we lay ruts in the right places). Someone has to be a colleague to the student as she tackles the problem, and critic when she has finished. The written works of dead men don't suffice.

And what kind of problems should the student get? I'll offer some ideas which cover epistemic issues I think all scientists should address:

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it provides the student with a chance to exercise many epistemic virtues, and to find those which suit her best.

Unfortunately, this kind of education would require restructing the universities and firing a large number of professors. Since that is unlikely to happen, however desirable it might be, I'm afraid it's just going to be a studiously ignored ideal.


  1. This idea isn't mine. I stole it from Daston's book Objectivity. ?

  2. For an example, see http://apocalisp.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/structural-pattern-matching-in-java/http://blog.tmorris.net/understanding-practical-api-design-static-typing-and-functional-programming/ ?


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