Young Scientist, Old Scientist

There’s a very interesting Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic about a scientist as a young woman and an old woman:

This is remarkably correct, and one sees it all the time. Science is, by its nature, the examination of things which is productive to examine in the way that science examines things.

Speaking broadly, this means that science is the study of things which are easily classified, or can easily be experimented upon in controlled experiments, or the relationships between things which can be measured in standardized units. By limiting inquiry to these things, the scientist can use a set of tools which has been developed over the centuries to analyze such things.

I meant that metaphorically, but it’s actually as often true literally as metaphorically. Scientists frequently use tools which were developed for other scientists; accurate scales, measurements of distance, radio trackers, microscopes, telescopes, etc.—all these things the modern scientist buys ready-made. (This is an oft neglected aspect of how what has been studied before determines what is studied now, but that’s a subject for another day.)

This limitation of investigation to such subjects as lend themselves to such investigation is very narrowing; most interesting questions in life do not lend themselves to being studied in this way. Most answers that scientists come up with are not interesting to most people. In fact, outside of science, the almost only people who study real science with any rigor are engineers. Even the degree to which they study the results of science can be exaggerated; the good old 80/20 rule applies where 80% of utility comes from 20% of science. But, still, it’s very limiting.

This is part of why scientists are so often stereotyped as hyper-focused nerds uninterested and incompetent at the ordinary business of living. The stereotype is actually quite often not true, but this is in no small part because science has become an institutional career in which the science itself is only one part of a scientist’s day-to-day life.

That said, the stereotype exists for a reason: science is just not normal.

There are two ways of dealing with this fact. One of them is to engage in the hyper-focus of science during the day and then to hang up one’s lab coat and focus on being a full human being at night. This is not really any different than a carpenter or a plumber putting away his tools at the end of the day and focusing on all the things in life which are not carpenting or plumbing.

The other way of dealing with this is to shrink the world until one’s narrow focus encompasses it. This is what the comic I linked to at the start of this article captures so very well.

The cobbler should stick to his last as an authority, but it is a tragedy of he sticks to his last as a man.

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