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The best laboratory is in your head

An argument for Renaissance Man

Wilson J. Wall 31 March 2014

Uncharted territory: just use your brain

Unfortunately many scientists are little more than cooks working in an unusual kitchen

As we wend our way into the twenty-first century, the role of science has become somehow debased because of the way in which the term is bandied about. Not so very long ago it was easy to say that science was broadly made up of biology, physics and chemistry, with variations within and between these groups. Now the situation has changed and anything can be labeled a science, making any clear concept of what science is almost impossible to hold on to.

But at this point I will suggest that what science is really about is one thing – thinking. Let us be clear about this: it is not measurement, not putting data points on a graph or quantifying events, it is about thinking. Thinking clearly, taking information from one arena and using it elsewhere; better still, taking information and constructing a hypothesis about some unknown characteristic of the world and testing it. Remember that a tested hypothesis can become a theory and a theory is a cogent explanation of observation. A theory is not as some would use it: a guess, an unsubstantiated supposition. That is a hypothesis. Testing hypotheses is pivotal in science and to do that we have to be able to think clearly and use previously tested knowledge to point us in the right direction. Just collecting data will not cut the mustard in this.

The idea of thinking as being important in its own right is often lost. But while a great deal of background knowledge of the world about us is required to make a scientist, it is only when you have conducted research that it dawns on you what science is all about. It is not coincidence that the research degree people do leads to a PhD or DPhil, Doctor of Philosophy. Science really is as much about thought and thinking as philosophy is, but it is the tool rather than the end in this case. Much of what passes as research in the modern world is really just looking stuff up; it may be described as data mining or meta-analysis, but it is really just playing with observations.

Being a good observer is often an overlooked skill. Not, I hasten to add, ‘sitting in a café observers of people’ sorts of skills, but proper observation of phenomena and events taking place in the natural world. Observation is the cornerstone of good science and to observe, you often need to be able to measure the world at large, though not on a scale which takes it out of the arena of the comprehensible and into the realm that only machines can understand. To put it another way – it is just as important to know when to stop taking measurements as it is to know how to make the most appropriate ones.

This is especially important in the modern world where sampling rates of data are really not an issue. But the question arises: is gathering as much data as humanly possible really appropriate? This is in fact an analogous question to how many decimal places are appropriate in a calculation. It is possible to generate a computer result which has so many decimal places that it ceases to have any meaning. Rounding a result down or up is a technique which should be embraced, even if it makes the result look more like an estimate, because nearly all scientific result are just that – estimates of what is going on at the largest scale of populations and the smallest chemical and physical reactions.

It is a long tradition in science that observation is pivotal, and recording those observations for the benefit of others, equally so. It is no surprise that all those beautiful natural illustrations of newly discovered plants and animals were produced by naturalists and scientists who recognized the value of accurate records. We can go back even further with the biological illustrations produced by great artists. We might even suggest that it began with Giotto (c1266-1337) in the fourteenth century and his contemporaries who were trying to depict the human form and natural objects as they appeared in nature. This was not the first time that such attempts had been made, of course, since we have a spectacular legacy of three-dimensional art work from earlier civilizations, what was not so well refined, or at least has not survived as well as the painted images of life studies.

When the Renaissance in art and science started, accurate figurative work became essential, to some as an aesthetic pleasure and to others as an invaluable record. During the nineteenth century a biologist, Louis Agassiz said The best aid to the eye is a sharp pencil. This was very astute, as when a person draws what they see it renders more to the eye than simply looking. Move forward into the twenty-first century and another problem with observation and recording has arisen: the camera, more specifically the digital camera. Film cameras are not quite so intrusive because of the cost implications of taking a photograph, developing the negative and then printing it. The digital camera has somehow removed the intellectual component from observation and moved straight to just recording it. Consequently we are surrounded by images of things that no one has seen – they were too busy photographing it.

Reducing science to small and easily digested pieces has a detrimental effect on our progress both as individuals and as a society. Sadly, although the pub-quiz school of knowledge is very alluring, it is almost completely useless. I admit that in some cases stand-alone facts can be of value, such as your birthday. In general terms, though, it is understanding the world as a whole which allows us to function to our maximum ability. Unfortunately many scientists are little more than cooks working in an unusual kitchen. Their understanding of their work is limited to what happens if something is left out of their recipe, or too much put in. We should not over-estimate the laboratory. It is, for all the atom-smashing machines and DNA sequencers, a kitchen, but the standard of understanding demanded of and by the scientist is quite different. The difference is the same as between the mechanic and the engineer.

There is a tendency to believe that detailed following of recipes constitutes science and by implication, the collection of huge amounts of data is research. Stop. Stop and think. At some point more data will not help; the only thing which separates you from the simian next door is your ability to think clearly and penetrate the data for its meaning. You think.

We should not, of course, dismiss data collection out of hand; indeed it would seem that collecting things, material or ethereal, is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Similarly, cataloguing items in a collection seems to be a need. But there is a gulf between the collector and the scientist, which sometimes I fear scientists are prone to forget.