We Are All Scientists

USA Today had a story last week  about a state environmental official in Indiana, who had made a joke in a text message, and was harshly criticized for it. The story led with a fascinating sentence: “Keith Baugues is not a scientist, but that didn't stop him on a recent wintry day from expressing skepticism about global warming — something that is broadly accepted in the scientific community.”

Let us set aside for the moment whether Mr. Baugues is a scientist or not (he reportedly has an engineering degree, which requires knowledge of advanced mathematics, and understanding the fundamentals of physics and chemistry). The sentence would seem to imply that only “scientists” (however the reporter defines it) are allowed to be skeptical about scientific theories and that, not being one, Mr. Baugues should have been more circumspect in his text messages.  Moreover, the statement that “global warming” is “broadly accepted in the scientific community” is so vague as to be meaningless.

That the earth has been warming over the past few centuries since the end of the Little Ice Age in Europe is uncontroversial. That carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (essential to life on earth) which can thereby potentially amplify atmospheric heating is similarly so. And that being the case, few would dispute that humans are having some non-zero effect on the climate as a result of our use of fossil fuels (as humans have through their actions for millennia via their technology, such as Saharan deforestation).

But that is where the “broad acceptance” ends. There is no scientific consensus that we must dramatically cut back on fossil-fuel use to avoid environmental catastrophe, despite the implication of that sentence and, in fact, the very notion of a “scientific consensus” is an oxymoron. That is not how science works.

Which brings us back to the question of whether or not Mr. Baugues is a scientist, and what qualifies him to be skeptical about other scientific work. What is a scientist?

First let's establish what doesn't define one. An advanced degree in science does not a scientist make nor, while it can be and often is a profession, does someone paying you to do “science.” For instance, Einstein (while despite myths that he was bad at math or didn't have a degree – he had a PhD in Physics at the time) was a patent clerk when he came up with the theory of relativity. He was doing science.

Science is not a degree, or a paying job, or even (as many mistakenly believe, and sadly how it's too often taught in school) a compendium of accumulated knowledge, but a way of thinking and learning about how the physical world works.