Everyone Can Do Science – You and Me Included

Let’s roll back the video a bit. Say, just about eight years. Frustration at the Bush Regime has bubbled over, and MySpace can no longer accommodate my political rants. ETEV is born.

And it wasn’t about science, then. It was a potty-mouthed political blog with quite a bit about fiction writing thrown in. I gleefully bashed pseudoscience, and occasionally posted bits on science that had caught my eye, but I did not by any means consider myself a science blogger. Loved me my science, but me, a scientist? As if!

SF had forced me in to writing science. Like I said in an interview for Scientific American:

Fantasy brought me to science, strangely enough. I didn’t just want everything to be magical – boring and far too easy. So I started reading cosmology, astronomy, and physics. Worldbuilding forced me to take a closer look at how our world works. And then I had to face facts: if I’m going to have aliens, I must know how they evolved, no matter how much I despised squishy stuff like biology. So I went spelunking on the intertoobz and came across PZ Myers, who introduced me to the whole evolution vs. creationism debate, which got me hooked on hard science and even made me adore biology.

Then came the geobloggers. It took me a long time to accept being one of them. I’m no scientist. I considered myself an SF writer, a dabbler. I didn’t think I could do the hard science stuff, until after a long time reading science blogs. Books hadn’t done it. They helped – I’ve learned so much from books, I can’t deny. But books never got me reading research papers. Science bloggers did.

If you’d told me eight years ago that I’d be considered a certified member of the geoblogosphere and end up writing for Scientific American, I’d have scoffed. I’m a layperson, not a scientist! I can’t do science! I haven’t even got a college degree! And all of the other things I used to say before I realized the measure of a person’s ability as a science writer is not the degree on their wall, but the verdict of the scientists out there in the field. The people who do this stuff for a living are qualified to judge. If they judge me worthy, it’s a peculiar kind of arrogance to tell them I’m not.

Most of you know my story. You know I went from believer to atheist, from science dabbler to science writer, from SF to geology, without expecting any of that to ever happen. I’m treading this well-worn path again for a reason, though, and it is this: I’m not unique. You can follow me.

Even if you’re not a writer. Not all of us are. That doesn’t mean you can’t get involved in science. Citizen Science. Taking kids out on nature walks. Volunteering at museums and events and such. You may not have a formal degree. You may not know enough math to balance a checkbook. It’s okay. There are still talents you’ve got that science can use, and you can understand science, and you can contribute. Ordinary you.

If you feel science sucking you in, dive deep. Go under. It’s glorious. It’s so fantastically beautiful, delivering awe and wonder daily. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it can frequently leave you confused, feeling like you know absolutely nothing about everything. But keep diving. Take a breath and dive right down to the bottom. When you come up for air again, you’ll discover that those incomprehensible things are things you can understand, and share.

It takes a certain amount of humility. You’ll never know everything. Unless you return to school, do the math, and buckle down to a single subject, you’ll very likely never be an expert. You’ll misunderstand some things and get some other things wrong. Always keep in mind that even the experts screw up: you are in no way exempt, and that’s fine. Embrace your imperfection. Use it to drive you to deepen your understanding, correct your mistakes, and listen to the working scientists who do this stuff for a living.

Science is a process of discovery. Its answers are always provisional. Even settled science, like evolution and plate tectonics, might experience some revolutions around the edges. I’m not talking about complete overthrow: the evidence is too strong to think either of those theories will be completely overturned. It’s just that we haven’t got every single detail. We may have an Einstein of the geological or biological world drop by and go, “Hmm. Great theory. I can fold it into this and make it even greater.” Newtonian physics didn’t die the day relativity was born, you know.

So if you encounter someone who claims to know what no one else does, who says well-established science is completely wrong, who doesn’t doubt they’re right, who isn’t striving to verify their results with their peers, consider that a warning flag. If you start believing you’re perfectly right, that you’ve made a remarkable discovery those working scientists are too stupid to recognize, that you’re more brilliant than they are, pull back. You’re on the verge of becoming a quack. And you love science too much to fuck it up, don’t you?

That’s how I’ve steered myself. That’s how I’ve found scientists I can trust, how I’ve learned to recognize pseudoscience. Scientists have taught me how to search for converging lines of solid evidence before I declare something provisionally true. They’ve taught me how to say, “I don’t know.” They’ve taught me it’s okay to say, “I think, based on my understanding, that this is possibly x, but I’m not certain and will change my mind if further evidence shows it’s actually y.”

Some people claim science is arrogant. They have no idea what arrogance is, then. Science is just on good terms with reality. Scientists have got an excellent method for sorting truth from bullshit, and thus get annoyed when bullshit continues to spew forth pretending it’s truth. But scientists, for all the things they’re pretty sure about, are still among the humblest people I know. I’ve never seen a bunch of folks get so excited about being proved wrong, not just right.

And if you, my dear ordinary person, think being proved wrong isn’t a terrible blow to the ego, but merely a super-exciting opportunity to discover something even better, then you’ve definitely got science in you.

Embrace it. Don’t let your lack of formal qualifications hold you back. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it. You can, and you will, as a citizen scientist, science writer, or someone who goes back to struggle through a degree program in order to become the scientist they never thought they’d be.

Image shows me standing under a lip of massive basalt, in front of streaky sandstone rocks that the basalt overlies.
Moi showing off the lovely contact.
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Everyone Can Do Science – You and Me Included

2 thoughts on “Everyone Can Do Science – You and Me Included

  1. 2

    What Trebuchet said.

    I do have formal training in science, and about once a year I would go to my wife’s kindergarten class and play Mr. Science. After we blew up some stuff and played with liquid nitrogen and dry ice for a while, the kids would inevitably ask, “How old do you have to be before you can be a scientist?” I used this prompt to reiterate the part about the scientific method from earlier in the ‘lesson,’ and explain that as soon as you are old enough to check any results or ideas against the real world, probably around 3 or 4 years old, anyone can be a scientist. They were surprised, but after they thought about it a while, they agreed.

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