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Ravens:Writing Desks, Plumbers:Scientists

December 8, 2010

Or why did you bring a one shot harpoon to a triton fight? Can't you let the sea people just live in peace? Okay so the picture is non-related (but cute, right? The joys of squid legos).
I can't stop thinking about this post, Why Plumbing Ain't Science, over at Machines Like Us by Massimo Pigliucci. The author starts the argument from this point:
And of course the title of this entry is a reference to Jerry Coyne’s occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence.
Pigliucci tries to argue that in fact plumbers are not scientists. That there is a difference. And of course I agree. But I think there's something lacking in the argument. The author first states that just because a profession uses empirical evidence and reasoning does not make it science because this would apply to almost anything we as humans do or the daily choices we make in our lives. Then there's this:
What separates science from other human activities is, I suggest, its extremely more refined methods, its sociological structure, and its historical context. Let’s start with the point about the method. If plumbing really was a “science” in any interesting sense then it would be baffling that we force wannabe scientists to go through years of college, years of graduate school, and years of postdoc, to do something essentially analogous to fixing your bathroom. Ah, you might object, but the amount of technical knowledge necessary to become a biologist is much higher than that necessary to become a plumber. True, but if you think that all that young scientists learn, especially in graduate school and during their postdoc is more facts, you have never been in a real science lab.
I think that it's a red herring to look at number of years in education as some sort of marker for how scientific or how advanced something is. More important is that biology training tends to be extremely theoretical while plumbing is very hands on and practical. Past undergrad and graduate classes however graduate and doctorate training as well as postdocs tend to be more like an apprenticeship and therefore, I think, very similar to the way a plumber might be trained. You learn the experimental techniquies of your lab much the same way a plumber learns from hir company or mentor. Much of it you learn on the job and much of it you teach yourself from papers/tech manuals. I grant you biology is still much more complicated and involves a much heavier theoretically basis but I think looking at the initial training in each career is a bit misleading.
Second, science is a particular type of social activity, certainly as conceived and practiced today. It has a complex — and necessary — structure of peer review, edited journals, funding agencies, academic positions, laboratories, and so on. Of course science has not always been practiced this way (see my next point about history), but a good argument can be made that it has evolved into a mature discipline precisely when these sort of social structures came to be implemented. Indeed, philosopher Helen Longino has made a very good case that modern science is a quintessential example of social knowledge. If you were stranded on a deserted island, you could discover things by means of conjectures and refutations — to use Popper’s famous phrase — but you wouldn’t be doing “science” because, among other things, there would be no peer group to check on your potentially crazy ideas about the nature of the universe (remember that neurobiological research shows the human brain being incredibly good at rationalizing, more than at rational thinking).
I'm not sure having a laboratory and a peer reviewed journal should automatically qualify anything for science. This seems a very tenure-track-centric point of view where published papers are the way science is advanced. I think we all have our own ideas what "science" is. It's not incredibly clear what makes it an all inclusive category though. Or opinions vary. I think lumping it all in and trying to separate it as a field from other fields is dangerous.
Science is a multi-billion dollar industry, which means that it matters very much who can claim to be doing “science.”
I think it's pretty misleading to lump all of science in as a "multi-billion dollar industry." People don't go into math or physics to become millionaires. I gather the author means more along the lines of medical science or pharmaceuticals. And that's fine, but it's sort of like saying "[building stuff] is a multi-billion dollar industry, which means that it matters very much who [we let build stuff]." It's not the individuals doing science or not doing science so much as how we make sure these things are safe or proven when we release them to the public. We have an FDA that verifies drugs work as proposed and in theory does not allow drug manufacturers to make claims beyond proof. But the same could be said for car manufacturers. We have safety ratings for our cars and design goes into them to be safe as well as the government verifies things like the horsepower or miles per gallon that the manufacturer claims. Does that make car manufacturing/engineering design scientific? I think so.
And we dismiss plumbers because they don't design plumbing components, they are the technicians who install them in your house or troubleshoot. But we don't reserve the title of science from them because there's no "Plumbing Science" journal out there. Their day to day work is using their expertise to install equipment and try to fix your problem. Looked at in that sense, it's not so drastically different from a medical doctor, right? Not all medical doctors do research, and many might approach a problem with a patient the same way as a plumber. Investigate what they can, find the problem, try the proven methods to fix the problem, be more creative and test other methods if that doesn't fix the problem. But you wouldn't say a doctor is not scientific, would you? Is it his knowledge of physiology vs a plumber's lack of knowledge of physics and water flow?
I guess I'm trying to say, the act of plumbing is not science. But then doctors, or myself as an engineer, don't always "do science" on a daily basis. We are practitioners. But I doubt people would say our fields are not science. The reason we don't expect more training from our plumbers could be both because it is not necessary or because it is not as crucial. But in my mind they aren't radically different from "scientific" technicans working in science labs across the country. I think the difference is a doctor or engineer occasionally does science. There is occasion where a new component must be designed or evidence must be tested or a controlled study must be conducted. And I bet there are plumbers out there who do science. Just not most plumbers. Blue collar careers don't always lend themselves to the time and creativity necessary to be more than just a practitioner. And holding ourselves up as "scientific" is useful when we're making sure quack medicine men don't trick people into accepting subpar treatments or when we require people to prove the claims they make. But I think it's harmful if we overlook certain professions as not being scientific. Because as a whole, we want our society to be more scientific. We want more hobbyists and creative people who look beyond their day job and develop. So whatever definition we make for science should be sure to uphold its ethically high standards without excluding creative and investigative people.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2010 5:49 am

    I think plumbers make more money than me. If I only knew how to plumb.

  2. December 8, 2010 6:20 pm

    Yes, what Fluxor said. I don't see much difference between plumbing and science, except that plumbing is generally useful in an immediate sense, and science usually is not. I think the reason some people like to argue for a hierarchical divide between Science and Everything Else is to help insulate their denial. They deeply want to believe that they are better, smarter, more deserving, more noble, and that all of their hard work and low pay was somehow worth something invaluable, however intangible. While they sit and watch the plumbers make more money than they do. This may seem unrelated, but I swear it's not: there's a great article in Nature about creativity: me there are a lot of standout points in there about how creativity is its own special thing, separate from what most people are doing most days.

  3. December 8, 2010 7:16 pm

    I agree with those points. And it's funny you both bring up pay. I agree a plumber's hourly rate is comparatively high but I bet much of that goes into equipment and overhead costs of the business. Also the fact that people might become doctors or lawyers "for the money" but not usually plumbers. It seems to me like a physically demanding, uncreative and often thankless job. But MsPhd you have a great point that we try to place ourselves above it. Therein perhaps lies the seed of our frustration that as highly educated people we might earn less. And yet, the entry barriers to becoming a plumber are likely far less than what we all went through for our educations. And yet we don't see plumbing as a viable alternative career.

  4. December 9, 2010 5:18 am

    Someone takes an engine and runs it through a standard set of tests. Oil is leaking. Based on his experience and knowledge of engines, he goes through a systematic series of steps on figuring out the origin of that leak. A recommendation on fixing the problem is then made.Someone comes to your house and runs it through a standard set of tests. Water is leaking. Based on his experience and knowledge of piping, he goes through a systematic series of steps on figuring out the origin of that leak. A recommendation on fixing the problem is then made.The former we call a test engineer. The latter we call a plumber.

  5. December 9, 2010 4:35 pm

    Exactly. Though some might not consider an engineer a scientist, or at least not in everything they do. But it's telling how we view an engineer vs a plumber.

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