Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How to be a scientist

These words came out of my mouth in class last Friday: "Use your imagination and have a little faith...that's what science is all about!"

My original intent was quite literal, and it was only upon hearing the words outloud as I spoke them that they sounded funny and ironic. So often, we use science to trump imagination and faith, but you really can't do science without imagination and faith! Science has hard facts, science has proof, science always tells the truth...but there would be no elegant experiments without imagination, and many a researcher has succeeded only because they had faith in their science when others didn't.

Medicine, too, benefits from imagination and faith. When confronted with a list of signs and symptoms, it often takes some imagination to figure out how they fit together. Medicine is not all miraculous cures and grateful patients, either, and a little faith that in the end, it does matter that one is a doctor, can make the daily grind more bearable.

Finally, education. What use are imagination and faith in education, especially education at the professional level? I often qualify my level of comprehension with the words, "I can imagine how X would interact with Y to produce effect Z." I mean that I am not confident X and Y do interact, but based on the knowledge I am confident in, effect Z would follow logically, if, indeed X and Y interact. Faith's role is in saying outloud what it is I imagine. I have faith in some prorportion of my knowledge on any given topic, I have faith that my logic is correct, I have faith that even if I am wrong next time, in the future I may be right, and, most importantly, I have faith that saying something that is wrong outloud is okay.

Many of my peers seem reluctant to hazard guesses when asked questions that probe the outermost extent of our current knowledge. I don't know if it's because they don't use their imaginations to arrive at a possible answer, or if they don't have faith that guessing wrong is okay. I'm sure in some cases, it's both.

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