Science: Appreciating the process, not just the products

One evening, about a year ago, my wife returned home from some church function or other and said “I just saw a juvenile baboon beg to handle a mother’s baby.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. Where had she seen a baboon? Had she gone to the zoo instead?

In truth Tracey did not see an actual baboon. What she saw was an adolescent female human approach a new mother in an attempt to handle the mother’s newborn child. This behavior is not restricted to humans. It is seen in other primates, such as baboons, something Tracey and I had both recently learned about through Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics. Seeing the girl try to get the reticent mother to allow her to hold the offspring reminded Tracey of the same behavior seen in our baboon cousins.

This is only one example of the way in which an understanding of science can change the way you see the world. A true understanding of science is not just an idle collection of memorized factoids. It is something transformative.

I was thinking about this last night after I read a snippet from Randy Olson’s new book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, attached to a preview on Carl Zimmer’s blog;

But still, it would be nice if [scientists] could just take a little bit of the edge off their more extreme characteristics. It’s like asking football players not to wear their cleats in the house. You’re not asking them not to be football players, only to use their specific skills in the right place.

I can only imagine that Olson meant this in the context of communicating science effectively, but it made me think about what it is to truly be a scientist. A scientist does not those that identity when they leave the lab or field site anymore than a quarterback stops being a football player when he steps off the field. It is not as if all science-related thoughts and activities are blocked out until the researcher shows up to work in the morning.

No, science profoundly influences how we see the world around us. I personally find it impossible not to wonder about nature even when I am not actively participating in anything that could be called “science.” It is this curiosity and creativity which scientists express that many people never see. More often the public sees researchers talking about the “products” of science, not the process that is really at the heart of what science is.

I have no doubt that the skirmishes over how scientists should present their findings to the public will continue for some time, but should we only focus on fine-tuning scientific dispatches meant for public digestion? It seems to me that we have been arguing over a depersonalized version of science. We are bickering over how to get the public to accept results, not how to get people to understand what science is and how it works. The latter is a more difficult task, but it is dangerous to ignore it.

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