Friday, September 08, 2006

The Myth of the Professional Scientist

It’s rare that I get to combine my professional practice as a research analyst with my own research. Today I got the chance.

I spent part of the morning working with one of our new hires. In explaining our process of creating research notes I was able to glean some insight. We never reference outside sources (even if we use them) and we always try to provide very explicit guidance to the reader. Far from being impartial observers and commentators, we take an active role in encouraging clients what to do. And they pay us well for our opinions.

Compare this mode of operation to the standard machinations of scientific writing. Consider the ranks of cited allies and the removal of the author through the passive voice. Scientific writing never tells people what to do. Instead, it presents a set of “facts,” determined through a myriad of empirical (and rhetorical) devices, and lets the reader set his own course of action.

The scientist is always an amateur because she never has to put her name behind a particular pronouncement. Half-baked ideas and hypotheses are weeded out of scientific discourse well before they ever have a chance to hit the journals. True professionals don’t have this option. A civil engineer must publicly state that a particular structure will support the loads placed upon it. They then gamble—in a calculated manner, certainly—that their opinion will be born out. The stakes are their professional reputations and the lives of the people that use the structure. If it ultimately fails, people die, the engineer is investigated and likely loses their license to practice, and is probably sued to within a nickel of destitution.

The professional engineer can’t use the tricks of the amateur scientist. He can’t recruit a long line of citation allies that say the propositions are supported. Well he can, but the litigants won’t be taking action against Galileo or one of the Bernoullis! The engineer must stand on their own and accept both the risks and the rewards. In contrast, the scientist seems to face relatively muted risk.

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