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Scientists at Work: How Their Questions Build Knowledge

Claire A.'s avatar


Friday, March 02, 2012


Science plays an important role in everything you see when you visit the Aquarium. We rely on our knowledgeable staff and outside experts to develop exhibit content that is both entertaining and educational while sticking to the facts. We also want to help visitors make decisions about how they live their daily lives so they can become stewards of our ocean planet.

But how does information compiled by scientists make its way to our exhibit walls? I sat down with Aquarium President and CEO Jerry Schubel to talk about how scientists build our knowledge of the natural world. Jerry is also a scientist. He has an extensive background in research and environmental affairs and has a Ph.D. in oceanography from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Claire: How do scientists work?
Jerry: Scientists are people who try to improve our understanding of the natural world or some piece of the natural world. I’m an oceanographer, so I study the ocean. Science is what a scientist does: Scientists ask questions, they pose hypotheses, and then they attempt to answer those questions and test those hypotheses by making observations, by collecting data, transforming the data into information, and then giving the best answer to the question or the best test of the hypothesis. There are all kinds of scientists who use all kinds of methods doing their work. Some are theoreticians, some are laboratory scientists, some are field scientists, some are very preoccupied with details, some are big thinkers, some are very emotional, and some are dispassionate; so the scientific community is a cross-section of society.

What qualities do you need to be a scientist?
I think to be successful as a scientist you need to be curious, you need to be determined and persistent, you have to enjoy exploration, and you have to be able to pick yourself up after a failure and continue to pursue a particular problem. A lot of the success in being a good scientist, whether you’re a physical scientist, a biological scientist, or a social scientist, is in being able to ask good questions—rich, deep, penetrating questions that you pose in forms that are tractable. When you get a Ph.D. you have many of the same tools in your toolkit. The difference is the ability to ask the right questions and to pose them in ways that are soluble. The other thing that I think applies is that you may have a favorite hypothesis that was your Ph.D. dissertation and some of us spend the rest of our lives doing nothing but pursuing that, even when it should have been discarded a long time ago. We all form opinions, whether they are political opinions or opinions about the environment, and we would be better off if we were willing to reject our opinions and hypotheses and move on. That I think applies to all of us, whether or not we are scientists.

Do regular people use scientific methods in their daily lives?
There are ordinary citizens who use the scientific approach in making decisions. They ask a question. If they’re going to buy a refrigerator they ask, what refrigerator should I buy? What qualities am I looking for? Which of my choices has the most of these qualities? Then they gather the data. They may read Consumer Reports or they may go online. They may consult with friends and neighbors. That is a scientific approach. So I think science has applicability in all of our lives and teaches us to ask questions, gather data, and come to conclusions.

Are there ever uncertainties in science?
There always is uncertainty in science—that’s what drives science. The fact that you never can quite get to certainty is sometimes used as an excuse for not taking action. I think climate change is one of those areas. There’s uncertainty in terms of how much the Earth’s temperature will rise and how quickly, and what the effects will be on local and regional levels. It is not uncertain that the Earth’s average temperature is rising. It’s not uncertain that we’re going to live in a warmer world with a more acidic ocean with a higher sea level. And we know a lot about what actions we we should take. When you decide to get married you don’t say, well maybe if I waited five years I would find somebody else who is better. Living with uncertainty is part of life and that’s what makes science exciting. At the Aquarium, we present climate change messages that represent the consensus of the vast preponderance of the community of climate scientists.

Climate scientist Michael Mann recently gave a lecture at the Aquarium as part of our Guest Speaker Series. He spoke about the difference between uncertainty in science and perceived uncertainty that emerges in the debates over topics like climate change. As he put it, “there are self-correcting mechanisms in science that lead us inexorably to the truth.” This doesn’t mean that everyone in the general public, or even everyone in the scientific community, accepts “the truth” that is embraced by the overwhelming majority of scientific experts on the particular issue.

The more the public understands the scientific process, the better we will be at making decisions and the faster we can make changes that will help the ocean and the environment.

Keep an eye out for ocean science articles on the Making Waves section of our website in upcoming months. We will be providing science-based educational information and news about projects and programs that impact the coast and ocean.

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