Thursday, June 6, 2013

What's wrong with science: academe

One of the things I hated most in elementary school was reading comprehension. It went like this: read a passage or short story and then answer a bunch of questions about it.  But there was a rub: not only could you not quote from the story, you had to explain your answer.  This irked me no end because the correct answer was almost invariably sitting right there, stated baldly and directly within the text. And being in third grade, try as I might to paraphrase it, there was no way I was going to come up with a piece of prose that stated the same thing quite so well.

I find a lot of life is like this: trying to explain to people things that really should be self-evident.  And part of the reason that people are so unreasonable is the mental gymnastics they have to go through in order to earn marks in school.  This of course continues well past college: college just sets it like concrete.

Are you searching for that virtuoso, three page proof that will win you accolades among your peers and hopefully win you a professorship?  The purpose of science is not to make things complicated, rather it is to simplify them.  The real beauty is the one-liner that makes you snap your fingers and say, "Aha!  It's so simple..."  I went into physics because it is simple, unlike psychology: because understanding a particle in a box is simpler (one hopes) than understanding a human brain.

I realized early on in my science career that it's probably far easier for an intelligent person to forget about jumping through all the hoops they set for you on the way to becoming a verified, card-carrying, official, professional, bona fide, authentic Scientist (TM) (C) B.S. M.S. M.D. Ph.D. and just focus on making some really big discovery. Once you do that, qualifications mean nothing.

Of course, if you are doing this, this means you are actually working on difficult, interesting problems. As a scientist, even a scientist in training, isn't this what you should be doing? I'm not saying that the two are mutually exclusive, that you could be working on difficult, interesting problems at the same time as you are working towards a degree. But in practice, they often are.

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