What does it mean to be a scientist?

5 11 2009

I write this blog not just because I want to be a scientist of organisations. I write it because I’d like you to be one as well.

It doesn’t involve a white coat or a microscope (although I borrow the imagery liberally, as you might have noticed.) What it involves mean different things to different people, but I think it comes down to a mindset.

It means being curious about why things happen and why they don’t happen, and setting out to find out more about both. It means pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, one tiny piece of data at a time. It means not believing anything that can’t be sufficiently proved AND replicated, and being prepared to challenge and revise your beliefs when new information shows that they may be mistaken. It means, as both Isaac Newton and Google Scholar like to say,  standing on the shoulders of giants. It means never taking anything for granted. And it means never being really, absolutely sure of anything. It’s scary.

It doesn’t, to me, mean having a PhD, or an MSc, or even an A-Level. It doesn’t mean ever darkening the door of a lab. It does mean being aware that, while the human brain is a phenomenal information-processing machine, it has a number of inbuilt bugs that mean we can’t always rely on experience and what we know instinctively. The first and single most important step you can take, as a scientist of organizations, is to care how well things are done – to care enough to try to find out what’s known about the best way to do things. If you have ever searched for research or reviews on hiring or organizational change, you are an organizational scientist.

But it’s not enough just to care, and to look, because the volume of information in all sectors we’re now faced with is overwhelming, and sadly, some of it is of far higher a quality than others. (Here’s a hint; don’t take information on health from the Daily Mail.) If you have the mindset – if you care – then the next most important thing is to refine your skills of evaluation; to know where to go and how to evaluate the information that you find. It’s my goal in this blog to give you the tools to evaluate what is known.

If you’ve never taken science, you could do far worse than to start by reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science book and blog. You’ll find them funny, practical, and informative on how to evaluate research and make what you do know more effective. I’ll be building up a toolkit for the aspiring and existing scientist as this blog goes along, so watch this space.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably a scientist already. Good luck and have fun.