Looking back my undergrad education, and equipped with some new knowledge, I started wondering if I was actually educated to be a scientist after all.
Some background is needed here: I studied a bachelor’s and master’s in chemical biology, at a quite decent university in Germany. Chemical biology is basically a sub-discipline of biochemistry, so let’s just stick with that for the sake of the argument. Biochemistry is a science program, and presumably, one would expect to be trained as a scientist there, right? Well, maybe. But not really. Let me disentangle that in this post, by deciphering (A) what is science (B) what was it that I actually studied and (C) am I a scientist?
(A) Science is still philosophy
Humans have always asked questions about the world, and often attempted to answer them. We would call them philosophers. The subset of those that dealt with the natural world, as opposed to less tangible subjects (for example ethics), were intuitively called natural philosophers. At some point during the renaissance, their method shifted to purely empirical work, led by big names like Newton and Copernicus, and became what we know today as natural sciences. And still today, the scientific method for studying the natural world is pretty much a philosophical effort, which we often forget about. Also, the scientific method changes ever so slightly, but with great impact. Philosophers of science (often not natural scientists themselves) study how knowledge can be generated from empirical data, and conclude how one can attempt to make a true statement about the world from mere observation.
Today, science is a big industry with thousands of labs worldwide involved in research on physics, chemistry, biology and everything in between. We research, model, test, reproduce, peer-review and publish. All following the rigorous criteria of the scientific method to make sure, that our senses are not fooling us, that we are not misreading our data.
(B) Biochemistry is a lot of bio, and even more chemistry
This brings me to what I actually studied in my program. There were all the basics on molecular biology and chemistry. Basic chemistry (what is stuff made of?), molecular biology (how do cells work?), physics (how does stuff move?), analytical methods (what is this stuff?), preparative methods (how do I make stuff?), and a bunch of other methods like a bit of coding and … more biochemistry. What I did not learn, was the philosophy of science. And before I go on to rant about that, I want to make clear that I did receive a fantastic undergrad education from my university; a similar one as you would receive it at any university in Europe. My teachers were great (mostly), and my studies gave me the opportunity and possibility to participate in science around the globe.
And in all those five years, I not once heard the words ‘inductive and deductive reasoning’, ‘model building’, ‘testing of predictions’. I have not heard about Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, about the hypothetico-deductive method, about potential flaws with scientific inquiry. Neither did I learn about the history of science, let alone of chemistry. I briefly touched upon outdated theories, like Bohr’s atomic model and saw it as a flawed science instead of what it really was: An ingenious approach to describe the interactions by elementary particles inside the atom. I never learned what the scientific method actually entails, and what makes it so reliable as a tool to study the natural world; and where its limitations are.
I was raised to believe the current scientific system is everything, and all the rest is inferior, at best. Especially philosophy, the so-called study of everything that can never answer its own questions [sic]. It is this kind of hubris among scientists, that is created by the lack of exposure to the philosophy behind it. Had I learned the methodological background behind the scientific method early on, maybe I would have developed more respect for other disciplines.
Don’t get me wrong, the marathon of success of the scientific method is simply astonishing, but it can in no way be appreciated without admiring the philosophical effort leading up to it. As scientists, we are not only workforce in research of natural sciences, but we are also philosophers, attempting to unveil the true nature of reality. Research can seem very industrialized sometimes, and the scientific method so streamlined, maybe because of its tremendous success. What I am advocating here is, that we have more science methodology in our undergrad programs (because any is still more than none). It is not just about appreciating the complexity of philosophical effort in science, but about understanding why we are doing the way we do it. Only a thorough understanding of our method can allow us to advance it, and prevent us from more making mistakes in everyday research as we already do.
(C) Am I maybe even a philosopher?
Natural science and philosophy go quite separate paths these days. Contact is mostly limited to philosophers of science, and even that seems minimal to me. If philosophers try to touch upon natural sciences, I feel most empirical researchers largely ignore any such attempt. It would be absurd to call any natural scientist a philosopher, since we have such a strong demarcation today. Instead, I suppose I can call myself a scientist today, since I am actively doing research and publish it, if possible. Was I educated to be a scientist? I was certainly well-trained to work in a lab and produce a research output, and eventually I caught up on my lack of methodological education. I hope that makes me more a scientist than human lab robot.
To those being offended now, by my ignorance of their scientific achievements despite a lack of philosophical education, I say the following: In our current scientific system, one can be very successful, and generate new knowledge and technologies, even without considering the formal methodological background. Our work is streamlined enough that we almost intuitively know the Dos and Don’ts for good research. But once we leave our bubble, if we want to speak to the public, and educate about the applicability of scientific data to everyone’s lives, if we talk to to policymakers and explore the limitations of our scientific knowledge, even if we argue with conspiracy theorists in the YouTube comment section about the truth claim of a scientific study, then we greatly benefit from understanding the methodologies and assumptions that our scientific system is based on. Even if you never cared getting into philosophy of science, I promise, it is worth it.