How to be a Scientist

Anyone can think like a scientist, and I urge you to try it because there is precious little good scientific thinking around.

By Ted Mitchell
Published June 16, 2005

As part of mainstream society, science is being marginalized, not only from the various groups that see it as a threat, but from within the field itself. To demonstrate, I will work through some recent attention given to pesticides and the science behind this.

A scientist requires only two real characteristics:

  1. The ability to ask and answer the correct question.
  2. Total objectivity.

The ability to be well versed in technical understanding is secondary and can actually detract from the two key attributes. You might call it not seeing the forest for the trees.

In the pesticide debate, the scientific community itself is guilty of the first point: addressing the right question.

Currently, the government pest management review agency (PMRA) is releasing a statement on the use of the herbicide 2-4-D for control of nuisance lawn weeds. They review a bunch of observational studies and conclude there is no evidence of harm: therefore, it is okay to use the chemical as directed. With this conventional approach, you have to agree with the conclusion.

But wait a second: they didn't ask the right question. In order to prove safety, you need something more statistically robust than observational studies. You have to use humans as guineau pigs in order to really prove the effects of this chemical are completely benign.

Anyone for signing up their children? As you might guess, studies like this would never pass ethical review. That means they cannot be done, which leads to a permanent lack of proof of safety for this or any other similar chemical.

The default then becomes use of the chemical. This is not a scientific issue, but an ethical one. The scientists have dropped the ball: either they have not noticed this, or not bothered to mention it. In this instance, the argument for use is entirely vain: the cosmetic appearance of your lawn. Is that worth any sort of risk to human health? This is the bottom line, and it is not a scientific question.

Enter the pesticide lobbies for a blunt example of the second point. When pesticide people start quoting science, be very scared. Here you have severe bias, since much of their business depends on using chemicals. Do you think they will quote a balanced review of the scientific literature, or even understand it?

Whenever there is bias, there is pseudoscience. You should just walk away. It is difficult enough to find scientists who are honestly open to all possible outcomes and who will not taint experimental findings with their own shades of preconception.

Then there is marketing deception. The euphemistic "healthy lawns" means keeping only a couple of non-native grasses in your lawn to the exclusion of all other species. If you have taken a biology course, you should realize that such a situation is highly unnatural and unstable, and will take serious effort to keep it in this state. Tons of water, and frequent manual or chemical weed removal.

Anyone can think like a scientist, and I urge you to try it because there is precious little good scientific thinking around. You don't have to understand the technicalities, and it has a certain benefit not to: this enables you to see the big picture more easily. Sometimes the little voice asks the most important question of all, like the little boy, the emperor, and his new clothes.

Lastly, don't just think it, but do it. Ask the simple question that perhaps nobody else has asked.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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By Jess 11 (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2008 at 13:31:40

hi i am an 11 year old girl and i need to find out what a scientist dos eand any everyday jobs they may get?

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By Jess 11 (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2008 at 13:33:16

hi me agen forgot to say i need it for homework so i rele need it lol lyl xxx

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By amy (anonymous) | Posted March 29, 2009 at 10:38:27

i a 11 years old and i want to find out how to be a scientist. what kind of levels do you need is it a levels o levels or both?

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By take the future (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2009 at 02:13:17

to be a scientist you should like science, doing simple qustion and simple experiment you have now the foundation to become a scientist.......

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By time limit (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2009 at 02:15:09

life is science you can be a scientist if you love science....

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By what do you do? (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2009 at 16:43:24

hi,i'm nine years old and i want to be a scientest.i bought a eco science set the other day and i've always did experements but it looks extremly hard!what do i do?you have to make a solar powered wind thingy and i bought it because i care about the enviorment around me please!

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