Saturday, April 05, 2008

What is a scientist?

Any discussion of academic or university malfunction has to begin with at least some mention of the nature of being an academic, and the raison d'être of a University. Universities exist for only one reason: to add to human knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge through publication and teaching. A scientist is an academic who uses the scientific method.

Extreme cases are always useful. Assume we have a university employee who accepts money, in exchange for fronting scientific findings "produced" by others. Assume further that the employee is disabled from verifying those findings (which might have been falsified). Assume too that this person attempts to persuade others to do the same. Most sensible individuals would agree that such a person would not fulfil the minimal trade description standards for being an academic or a scientist. At what point does an scientist cease to be a scientist? At what point does a University cease to be a University?

To quote Carlo Suarès (French writer, painter and Kabbalah author):
This table has four legs.
A table with a broken leg remains a table.
But a table from which the four legs have been removed becomes only a flat piece of wood.
At what moment did it cease to be a table?

Is Professor Martin Keller of Brown University a scientist? At what moment did he cease to be one?

And are some fields more "scientific" than others? This might depend to some extent on the nature of the field itself. It is very difficult to be a successful unscientific physicist. By contrast, branches of "alternative" medicine may reject the need to evaluate hypotheses, and are unscientific by definition. However, in most fields, integrity is determined by the leadership of the field, and the extent to which those leaders care about honest science. The health of a discipline or an institution is most clearly revealed when things go badly wrong. The leadership of the field I know best (osteoporosis) consists of a mixture of excellent scientists and some scientifically discreditable individuals. To paraphrase Dr. Stephen Leader it is at least in part a field
"whose goal it is to turn bullshit into airline tickets".

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1 comment:

Radagast said...

When did the Great Genius who is Professor Martin Keller cease to become a scientist? Well, let's speak hypothetically, seeing as he hasn't been demonstrated to be a fraud in a court of Law.

I think he ceased to become a scientist the instant he held something up to be true that he didn't entirely agree with, or hadn't tested the validity of (assuming, as I wrote, that such an incident has taken place).