Scientists Not Always Trained to Be Critical Thinkers

A trainer of graduate students at a prestigious university wants to put the Ph back in PhD.

Can scientists be good at detail work but dumb at logic? Gundula Bosch thinks so. She directs the R3 Graduate Science Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. In Nature, she says she’s on a campaign to “Train PhD students to be thinkers not just specialists.” She explains an alarming trend in graduate schools that betrays the historic purpose of a top-level education:

Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.

As a result of the pressure, “That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific.” Without formal training in philosophy of science, scientists can become very skilled at detailed lab procedures but clueless about logic. Can they recognize a logical fallacy? Are they being forewarned of the pitfalls of flawed research?

Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

Some blunders are not so hilarious. There can be societal consequences for not thinking ahead. But some serendipitous discoveries are hilarious, like when Kekule said he discovered the structure of benzene after dreaming about a snake eating its tail. Cases like that led to Murphy’s Technology Law, “All great discoveries are made by mistake.” Don’t omit the corollary: ‘The greater the funding, the longer it takes to find the mistake.” There are lists of these, like the one at Mental Floss, which lists 24 serendipitous discoveries of everything from Velcro to Viagra.

I was startled by the oft-expressed opinion that scientific productivity depended more on rote knowledge than on competence in critical thinking.

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