A Ben Carson note

As the presidential primary season rolls on, we discover that Ben Carson’s accounts of his life history seem to have a certain amount of embroidery in them. Meanwhile, Carson continues to espouse some very odd beliefs. Here’s one that NYT columnist Gail Collins greeted with amazement back on September 10th, in “A Presidential Primary Cheat Sheet”:

Ben Carson has been surging! It’s easy to understand his popularity. He has a compelling life story about raising himself up from poverty to become a brain surgeon, and he was the least needy-looking candidate in the first Republican debate. On the other side, it is kind of unnerving that he doesn’t believe in evolution. Most Republican candidates try to fudge that one, by changing the subject or saying something like “I am not a scientist.” But Carson really doesn’t believe in evolution. And he is, you know, a scientist.

Well no, there are medical scientists, but Carson isn’t one; he’s a clinician, who provides practical treatments for people’s conditions — using what is known by (medical) science, granted, but not advancing our basic knowledge about how the body works. Skilled clinicians perform wonderful things, but they’re not scientists.

Still, it’s bizarre, in fact distressing, for a clinician to deny basic findings of science, like evolution.

A few notes.

Scientists try to discover basic truths about the way things work, using methods of inquiry designed to provide testable support for their findings. Clinicians do something different, and engineers do something else again — designing and implementing schemes for achieving practical ends (using what is known from various branches of science). Skilled engineers perform wonderful things, but they too are not scientists. (Nothing prevents clinicians or engineers from also doing science, but their clinical or engineering practice doesn’t require it, though their practice does require that they keep abreast of science if they are to be good at what they do.)

Scientists come in fields, and an expert in one field (physics, say) is not thereby qualified in another (linguistics, say). Something similar is true of engineers and clinicians: a structural engineer is not thereby qualified to design and implement computer systems, and a neurosurgeon is not thereby qualified for obstetric practice (or, even more remotely, for clinical practice in child psychology).

Scientists also engage in different approaches to their work. Some collect data systematically, with the  (eventual) aim of testing hypotheses on those data. Some are experimentalists, confronting hypotheses more directly. Some are theoreticians, proposing general frameworks that would unite known phenomena or predict new ones. A scientist inclined towards one approach might not be particularly comfortable with another.

So there isn’t such a thing as being a scientist, period — the AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) is a house with a great many rooms — though you can argue that many people doing important and valuable work deserve a different label.

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