Who Are We?!
An analytical scientist’s constructively fallibilist reflection on the meaning of “analytical scientist” – and how to avoid mental traps
Csaba Szántay Jr. | | 13 min read | Discussion
In terms of taxonomical ranking, I am a member of the species NMR spectroscopist within the genus analytical scientist belonging to the family scientist. More than that, I am a rather rare kind of specimen that belongs to both the subspecies applied NMR spectroscopist and the subspecies theoretical NMR spectroscopist. During my career, I solved thousands of molecular structural problems and fiddled around quite a bit with the physical/mathematical theory of NMR. I learned from personal experience that there is a huge difference between the meaning of “scientific truth” depending on whether it relates to structure elucidation or theory. I learned that the “science” of structure determination is a completely different mental universe from the “science” of theory. I made mistakes, I uncovered mistakes made by others, and witnessed others uncovering mistakes both in the world of structure determination and in the world of theory.
My personal experiences, along with several studies published by others, have shown that there are shockingly many erroneous structures published in the scientific literature (see, for example, reference (1) ) – very often not because of a lack of good experimental data or a lack of technical expertise, but because of psychological reasons – or mental traps. Similarly, despite NMR theory being a robust intellectual construct, it is interwoven with a surprising number of misconceptions, even regarding the very fundamentals of that theory, which have become widely accepted by the scientific community – as has been pointed out by several NMR theorists (see, for example, references (2)(3)(4)(5)(6)(7) ). Again, the reasons for this can be traced back to various mental traps.
I developed a keen interest in – and explored – the nature of these mental traps quite thoroughly (8). In doing so, I also learned that people hate to admit and talk about their mistakes (which is why errors are very seldom discussed in publications). People are also frustratingly resistant to changing their false convictions. I also learned to hope that this should change – after all, the human mind is both inherently brilliant and inherently fallible, and no real progress nor real innovation can happen without making a fair number of mistakes. I steadfastly believe that, besides learning how to avoid mistakes, one of the essences of good scientific thinking is self-revision – the ability to overrule our own convictions. But I recognize that self-revision is an incredibly difficult feat from a psychological point of view because our convictions are an integral part of our identity; changing our identity can be a painful inner metamorphosis.
But who else should lead the way in embracing our fallibility and channeling this understanding into a constructive direction if not scientists themselves – principally (self-)endowed with their quest to search for truth? It is in this spirit – and it is through this perspective – that I wish to put forth a few ideas below regarding the concept of analytical science.
In his book, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, the famed mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed the following piece of penetrating wisdom: “Just as the easiest bodies to see are those that are neither very near nor very far, neither very small nor very great, so the easiest conceptions to grasp are those that are neither very complex nor very simple (using ‘simple’ in a logical sense)” (9). Let me rephrase this idea to convey an even more generic notion: Just as it is more difficult to see objects that are either very far or very near, so it is more difficult to understand concepts that are either very unfamiliar or very familiar.
Albeit “difficulty of understanding” is a common denominator in these two scenarios, there is a fundamental difference between them; namely, we are typically aware of not understanding a very unfamiliar concept, but we are also typically unaware of not understanding a very familiar one (8). For us, analytical scientists, our own taxonomical label “analytical scientist” can all too easily fall into the latter category. After all, by doing analytical science day in, day out, and by seeing a representative member (the same member) of the species each time we look in the mirror, the very gist of being an analytical scientist becomes so familiar to us that we tend to develop a sense of obviousness about the apparent meaning of the term, thereby rarely pondering upon its true meaning.
Well, what does it mean? At the obvious level, the analytical scientist is a person whose job is to perform the task of physical/chemical analysis – may it be any segment of this broad field. But at a deeper and less obvious level, both words “analytical” and “scientist” carry further important layers of meaning, as I will point out briefly below, starting first with “science,” and following with “analytical.”
What does “science” mean in general? And what does it mean in the context of analytical science in particular? Defining science is not an easy undertaking. If you look up the term in, say, Wikipedia, you will find the following statement: “science is a systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” True enough! But, as with most attempts aimed at condensing a complex and even somewhat elusive concept into an overly concise description, although true, it falls short of grasping many crucial aspects of science – perhaps even to the point of becoming misleading. For example, does this sentence indicate what type of knowledge constitutes scientific knowledge – or more basically, scientific truth? Does it convey the idea that there is a scientific way of arriving at that knowledge? By the same token, does it tell us who, of all the different kinds of “knowledge-builders,” are truly scientists? Also, given the fact that there are significant differences in how people – including the knowledge-builders themselves – interpret the meaning of “science” and “scientist” both in practice and in principle, does this sentence provide sufficient academic guidance for resolving these different opinions? Hardly!
Let me have a go at a single-sentence portrayal of science that drills somewhat deeper into the matter – at the cost of becoming outrageously knotty, while still suffering from many shortcomings:
“As opposed to our apprehension of the natural world resting on non-evidence-based faith, science is a mode of investigation – the ‘scientific method’ – that aims to expand our knowledge of the universe by providing valid descriptions of the laws and facts of nature (in the form of verbally and/or graphically and/or mathematically formulated theories, models, or statements based on certain premises) that are applicable within certain boundaries, are created with a view to having both explanatory and predictive power, and are developed or validated through hypothesis testing involving sufficiently reproducible, precise, accurate, and unambiguous experimental data together with data-interpretation using deductive and/or inductive reasoning, with the process and the conclusions being thoroughly documented and shared with the global scientific community so as to be open for further verification, falsification, correction, modification, or advancement.”
Well, that’s admittedly quite a mouthful. But the reason I dwell on this issue (with such outlandish philological consequences) is not because I have some self-serving fixation on semantics, but because I firmly believe that a proper and collectively accepted (as much as the vision of such acceptance is not some impossibly idealistic ideal) understanding of the crux of science has a direct bearing on our identity as a scientist. And that identity truly matters!
For many people, anything that has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal carries scientific content by definition (otherwise how could it have possibly been published?). Also, for many people, the concept of science is associated primarily and simply with special technical expertise, precision of thought, highly developed and reliable methodology, and elaborate instrumentation, rather than with the quest of generating new knowledge. Though this broader interpretation of “science” seems to prevail, the truth is that the vast majority of papers published in scientific journals are derivative (evolutionary) research based on known ideas, methods and technologies, and only a much smaller portion of the papers exhibits really innovative, seminal (revolutionary) ideas (10). For me, it is the latter that constitutes genuine science in its purest sense. One of the essential identity-defining aspects of science is that it strives – via the scientific method – to stretch the limits of our knowledge with a view to attaining new universal wisdom through new ideas. By “new universal wisdom” I mean new insights and new theories about the way the universe works, new facts about nature that are of universal relevance, or new methodologies that can help us gain a wider and deeper understanding of nature’s workings and provide better control over influencing nature-related systems (such as designing drugs). Consequently, a true scientist is not only a bearer of special expertise and high-level cognitive skills that they use to solve problems within the realm of our existing understanding of the universe, but someone who is constantly on a quest to expand that understanding. The difference can be huge in terms of mentality, attitude, and risk taking!
Of all the sciences, analytical science carries a special duality that is of particular relevance regarding the above considerations: analytical science is both the science of the analyte and the science of the analytical method. The vast majority of all analytical scientific activities are directed towards uncovering some information about the analyte via known analytical methods. A much smaller proportion of such activities focuses on advancing the theory and methodology of the analytical method itself. Published papers involving analytical science dominate in analyte-focused results, while method-focused discussions are far rarer. Of course, the two themes can be intertwined, since often it is a challenging analyte that calls for novel method development. Nevertheless, the difference between “analyte science” and “method science” can be sharp. Gaining knowledge about the analyte may or may not fall in the category of new universal wisdom, but, either way, it is the information about the analyte itself that is new, separately from the road taken to access that information. Often the analytical methods used and needed to extract that information are well established, and no innovative thinking nor new scientific insight is required on the part of the analyst beyond their technical expertise. Nonetheless, such cases – when published – are widely regarded as “scientific” due to the novelty of the information gained on the analyte. The quest for advancing the theory and practice of analytical methodology is an entirely different story. Here, new universal wisdom truly emerges based on innovative scientific thinking. That is where analytical science gains a broader significance than that associated with the investigation of a particular analyte. Again, it is this aspect of analytical science that I regard as science in its truest form.
The implications of these ideas go beyond being mere philosophical musings on the meaning of analytical science, and even beyond the issue of defining our identity on the basis of that meaning. In fact, there is a very real and very big difference between “analyte science” and “method science.” One crucial aspect of this difference lies in the concept of proof. Sure enough, in “analyte science” one can make faulty deductions. But if data is available in sufficient amount and quality, and if the problem is handled with sufficient expertise, the deduction can be considered “proven” for all practical purposes. The analyst can sleep well, with a smile on their face. Not so in the world of theories. This is the intellectual realm of inductive thinking, of constructing models, of simplifications, of gray zones of interpretations, of complicated (hard-to-see) mistakes. Nothing can be proven here with absolute certainty.
By venturing into the world of theories, the analyst must face nightmares revolving around whether they have made the right kind of simplifications, used the right kind of mathematics, and not overlooked something of fundamental importance. No matter how good the theory looks at the time of publication, there is always a chance that someone will point at the analyst publicly, saying: “Hey, this is where you did not take this-and-this into account!” This is the world of taking perpetual risks intellectually as well as in terms of self-esteem. Also, this is the world of true science, in all of its magnificence and painfulness. And understanding this aspect of analytical science places even more importance on becoming well versed in mental traps!
In the context of the above considerations, the word “analytical” has a dual meaning: a technical and a mental. An analytical scientist is technically “analytical” because they perform analytical tasks. An analytical scientist is mentally “analytical” because they think analytically. Analytical scientists are very good at that – principally they are the epitomes of analytical thought. By the very nature of their job, an analytical scientist approaches and surrounds every statement with a healthy dose of analytical “lore” (involving such terms as accuracy, precision, reproducibility, systematic error, random error, limit of detection, limit of quantification and so on) that reflects this way of thinking. For an analytical thinker, a statement such as “the current outside temperature is 23 oC” makes no sense. The analytical thinker would regard the statement as correct only if it is properly embedded in the necessary analytical rhetorical framework: “The current temperature is measured to be 23 oC by such-and-such a thermometer that works with such-and-such accuracy, precision, systematic error, random error, and so on.”
As for structure determination, a statement about the structure can range from “truly proven” to “the proposed structure is consistent with the available spectral data.” Any good analytical scientist working within the realm of “analyte science” learns to think this way. Still, mistakes can happen.
For example, believed to be true can be all too easily confused with proven to be true (11) (12). In fact, one of the main reasons that lead to erroneously assigned structures is the confusion of belief with fact. And that is why it is crucial to take analytical thought to a higher level, sensitizing oneself to mental traps. Things are much more subtle in the world of theory, where the whole concept of “a mistake” can become much less tangible than with facts. It is in this mental realm where analytical thinking is truly challenged, further raising the need to increase our acuity regarding mental traps. I truly believe that to preserve and advance the essential values of scientific thinking – and for this kind of analytical thought to have a ripple effect onto everyday thinking (which the world seems to need more than ever) – we not only need to understand and avoid our mental traps, but we need to embrace our fallibility in a constructive, open, and honest manner.
Based on the above ideas, I would invite all analytical scientists to share their experiences regarding the mistakes that they have made and the misconceptions that they have harbored. Let us learn from each other both technically and attitude-wise! Let us become better in being “analytical,” as well as in being “scientific!”
Credit: Images sourced from Unsplash.com and Pixabay.com
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