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  • Writer's pictureErik Herman

Identities in Science. It's not about us.

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

There's this weird thing that happens in science. How science becomes about the person who made some connection. Like Newton and the apple. Like Galileo and the moons of Jupiter. I suppose it's because our human minds need to make things part of a narrative with a main character. In the extreme case, we literally thought that everything in the universe revolved around us. We resisted the notion of a heliocentric model of our solar system until we couldn't possibly make the observations and predictions fit the model anymore. I should say we even kept resisting it then. But anyway.

There's an excellent book by Clifford Connor, a People's History of Science. The theme throughout is how plenty of ordinary everyday people were doing science before these superstars made the headlines. On the one hand, "Thanks Galileo!" Someone needed to run the baton through the finish line and elevate the topic. On the other hand, you are just a messenger. A starry one.

We don't do science a lot of good by making it seem like the sole work of a handful of geniuses. The white hair, the lab coats, alone in a room of fragile fancy stuff, yelling eureka when a new idea comes to mind. Science, like exercise, is something we can all do. And it doesn't have to only occur in designated space. You can do science in your garden or kitchen, or with your bird feeder, or insulating your home.

Framing science as something that has to do, first and foremost, with identity is problematic. A study by Marjorie Rhodes et. al. examined how the level of engagement changed as a function of how the activity was presented. Everything in a simple age-appropriate sensory scientific activity was the same except that some students were told at the beginning "we're going to be scientists" versus in another group "we're going to do science." Girls, in particular, stayed engaged when told "we're going to do science". Something about having it be an action versus an identity makes an important difference.

Humans like to group things into categories. Maybe it makes thinking about things easier. It certainly helps organize a workshop if the nuts, washers, screwdrivers, and nails aren't all in a pile together. But it certainly gets more difficult when the things we're organizing don't fall cleanly into one group or another. On the upside, it forces you to think. A wonderful example of this is the Anomasticon of Amenope. An Egyptian dude in the second millenium BCE got so excited that he could read and write that he decided to make an exhaustive list of all things that exist. If you try this yourself you'll find out pretty quickly that you have to start grouping things. You'll lose your place in the list if you don't lose your mind first.

Ok, number 5493, "pebble"...wait, did we do pebble already? Or was that "rock"?

You'll end up making categories whether you like it or not. And next thing you know, through the exercise of categorization, you'll be doing science. Earth, Air, Fire, Water--now there are some nice clean categories, right? But shit, where do we put ice? Mendeleev probably would've been Amenope's true hero.

One of the wonderful things about science is that you inevitably run into paradoxes with your categories. Especially when your categories are binary ones. The universe is full of them. Light acts like a wave and a particle. Electrons act like particles and waves. Shroedinger's cat is dead and alive. The biggest breakthroughs in science have been when we question some of the core assumptions. I am at rest...but in what way am I in motion? I am opaque...but in what way am I transparent? I am solid...but in what way am I empty space? I am on dry land...but in what way am I at the bottom of an ocean? Think about some foundational assumptions about yourself right now--things that seem totally obvious at first glance--and then think of in what way the opposite is true. It's kinda fun, actually. Careful on a road trip with friends, though. They may leave you at the next rest stop.

An excellent interview with Dr. Wendy Smith, professor of organizational behavior, discusses how reality is usually somewhere inbetween two opposing ways of thinking. When two parties to a dialogue are both stuck in thinking "I'm right and you're wrong" neither gets closer to the truth. The truth is likely more fascinating than either of the people could've come up with on their own.

Anyway, getting back to the point. Putting things into groups in your bedroom, backpack, or a workshop will tidy things up. When we categorize with humans, though, it can get more messy. We'll put all the people who like basketball over here, and all the people who have red shirts over there. To make it even more confusing, through the act of being grouped, the human can change, and through putting humans into the group, the group can change. You'll also find that--of the categories you could try to sort people into--scientist is pretty general. It isn't like "anteater". I think that even if you asked a card-carrying bona-fide scientist, there would be no defined moment at which she became a scientist. She just maybe did a lot of sciencing and became more and more sciencey? Or is what's implicit in this thought experiment that she has a PhD? Or a job that has the word scientist in it? But wait, biologists and chemists are scientists, right? But then aren't they biologists and chemists? Astronomer anyone? Also a scientist? Tomato, tom-ah-to, let's call the whole thing off.

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