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Philosophy of Science: Part the fourth

June 25th, 2010 · No Comments · Philosophy of Science

Do you get that hollow feeling inside when you’ve finished something you’ve been stressing about for ages? Just had that at my desk today, handed in my last assignment for the semester and was sitting there wondering what next to fill the void.

Maybe I should write some more.

Why Science? or, All I wanted was to destroy the world.

Scientists have an image problem. It’s not that we think we look fat in these pants (because we do) or that we are worried about losing our hair (because we are) but that society thinks that scientists are a bunch of mad, cackling, megalomaniacs. Your average person has an image of a scientist as some old dude with a crazy haircut, pale from lack of sun, shirt, tie, white lab coat, surrounded by vials of chemicals or mysterious machinery and totally apeshit bonkers.

Well, the truth is we’re not like that at all, no matter how much I always wanted to be. O! How I dreamed of being that man! I would defy the laws of nature (my acts already defy the laws of man), I would create life when there should be none (see above), I would have finally brought cruel order to this insane world. Under my iron fist we would finally have the trains run on time!

They laughed at me at the university! They called my theories mad! But I’ll show them… I’ll show them ALL! AH HA HA HA HA HA!!!

Unfortunately it’s not that cool; most scientists aren’t crazy and they definitely don’t get to make slightly ridiculous super weapons with which to hold the world to ransom. Bit of a pity really; scientists would make far better rulers of the world than politicians. Then again, I think my stuffed dog Ivan would make a better world ruler than politicians (Zing! – Ed) so perhaps there’s a little bit of bias in that statement.

Anyway, we’re usually found instead shuffling zombie-like around in labs and trying to figure out which strain will make a protein fluoresce, creating simulations of electrical power systems, modelling population movements or writing reports – wooooo! Next stop, excitement town!

Scientist in general are currently male (72%), of European ancestry (58%) and a bit over forty (as taken from the National Science Foundation census of science and engineers). They are also balding, slightly overweight and have a tendency to laugh manically to themselves. Truth to tell, most of them look like your nerdy uncle, that embarrassing one who tucks his t-shirt into his pants.

Luckily there is hope for us yet. Demographics are changing and more and more females and non-Europeans are engaging in science. Current student ratios in science based doctoral study are almost 50/50 female to male and the numbers of non-white doctoral students is quickly approaching the numbers of white doctoral students. This is great news! I can now hope that one day we will finally have scientists who can dance. There are few things more horrifying then a group of drunken geneticists attempting to do the boot-scooting boogie at 2am in Cuba Street mall. No matter how hard I scrub, the memory remains.

Another falsity promoted by the “classical” image of a scientist is that they work alone. Science is one of the most social endeavours in the world; you have to work with other people no matter how much you secretly hate them and remove all the lead shielding from their x-ray machine. There is no way anyone “knows” enough about an entire field of research to do it themselves. All scientists rely on the work of others to develop and frame their work and also to ensure a holistic view of the science is being considered. For good science you will also have at least one other person looking over your shoulder going “no you’ve got that wrong, give me that chalk you idiot”. This is called “peer review” or else “bloody annoying people who don’t know what they’re talking about”. You pretend to respect their viewpoint and then disregard it and give them cancer instead.

There is now a more diverse range of people becoming scientists but we still have a problem – the average age of scientists is increasing as the proportion of new enrolments in science-based courses has steadily decreased over the last several years. Apparently science is just not a sexy area of study and is losing out to business studies at attracting students. What’s so damn cool about being a business student I have to ask – just because they start on higher rates of pay and are normally promoted much further and faster than science graduates… But science graduates get to do cool stuff like getting crushed by angry cows (don’t ask why they’re angry) and Fourier transforms while business grads sit around cafes and sup their cappuccinos…

Shit. I so did the wrong degree.

Scientists aren’t paid well, are not the best looking, are kind of nerdy and neurotic and white… wow, suck. But they are, however, a respected part of society, coming in as the seventh most trusted profession (and just behind the armed forces and paramedics. And we won’t steal your wallet), while advertising execs came in as seventh least trusted just ahead of footballers and lawyers. With all that respect you can, well not do much really except run for public office or sell cars, which will send you zooming down the trust index pretty fast. So if we are going to attract scientists we need to answer the question: why would someone become a scientist?

One possible reason people follow a career in science is because they are interested in answering questions. Looking up into the giant web of space and wondering why the stars move? How do birds fly? What is the average rainfall in the Amazon Basin? Then we go to the Murphy’s Law’s quiz night and lose because they always ask stupid questions like “who was the hooker for the All Black team that played in the final of 1987 world cup?” Was it Dolly Parton, buggered if I know, which is the hooker? Is that the one that grabs the other guy’s nuts or what? At school I was too busy investigating basic anatomy by trying to sneak a peek into the girls’ showers (which is a neat trick at an All Boys school) to pay much attention to sport.

We have to find these young inquisitive minds before they realise that money is God and indoctrinate them with papier-mâché models of volcanoes and studies into the growth rates of bean plants. If we are going to attract new talent we need to stop being so scary and embarrassing. Put down that test tube, get some sun and for Christ’s sake pull your t-shirt out of your pants. My God man, who dresses you? Your mother?

Once the new blood have taken their first shaky steps into year 11 chemistry, physics or biology (yeah, yeah whatever) they too will realise the magnificence that is science and never escape! Science, you gorgeous whore, another innocent mind for your bloody altar. To be pummelled by grant applications and the bloody mindedness of the rest of the scientific fraternity, growing older and more bitter, never to be kissed by a girl/boy/ anthropomorphic blob of choice mawhahahahahahahaha!

So do science then, it’s a career choice.

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