What is science?
Theory of evolution
So, You Think You're a Scientist?
By Richard Gallagher - The Scientist, Apr. 21, 2003 - original
The recent, vigorous debate occurring in our pages regarding whether it's necessary to accept the theory of evolution1,2 (also, see Letters) as a prerequisite to studying the sciences has set me thinking: What exactly is a scientist?

Albert Einstein--who better to guide us--had some forthright views. In an address to the SocietÓ Italiana per il Progresso della Scienze on occasion of its 43rd meeting in Lucca, Italy, October 1950, he implied that science must be all-consuming:
"... apart from the knowledge which is offered by accumulated experience and from the rules of logical thinking, there exists in principle for the man of science no authority whose decisions and statements could have in themselves a claim to 'Truth.'"
This was part of Einstein's "confession of our convictions." He continued:
"... a person who devotes all his strength to objective matters will develop, from a social point of view, into an extreme individualist who, at least in principle, has faith in nothing but his own judgment."
What proportion of today's researchers would recognize themselves in Einstein's description? A very small one!

Can the rest of us still consider ourselves to be scientists? I would think so--we can't all be Einsteins. So long as we apply scientific tools and methods to appropriate topics, namely the understanding of natural phenomena, we qualify as scientists.

Of course, while I still consider myself a scientist, I am not at the bench. According to at least one source,3 this makes my view highly suspect. Wrote Percy Bridgman some 50 years ago:
"It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it."
For Bridgman, science in the trenches amounts to seeking the correct answer to a particular problem; checking exhaustively for exceptions; guarding against mistakes and preconceptions of outcome; and avoiding wishful thinking and personal bias. It also means to be completely free to adopt any course that ingenuity suggests. "In short," he says, "Science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists." This is a populist manifesto, but it is not the full story. The scientific method of observation, formulation of hypotheses, prediction of new observations, and experimental testing underlies all true science, even if subconsciously. And to be a scientist requires application of the method to natural phenomena, without exception.

Returning to whether the theory of evolution must be accepted, my conclusion is that it must be, in the sense that it is a useful theory. It may not tell us exactly what the world is like, but nonetheless, it allows us to make meaningful predictions. However, asking for an affirmation along the lines of "we know this to be true" is neither necessary nor helpful.

And unfortunately, this appears to be where the debate is stuck.

Richard Gallagher, Editor


1. B. Palevitz, "Letters of recommendation: From God or Darwin?" The Scientist, 17[5]:16, March 10, 2003.

2. Evolution and recommendations," The Scientist, Letters, 17[7]:18, April 7, 2003.

3. P.W. Bridgman, On scientific method, in Reflections of a Physicist, New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.