July 7, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Bad Students Can Be Good Scientists

Are we recruiting scientists the wrong way? It takes a lot more talent than the ability to memorize and pass exams.

On June 26, the Trump administration changed a long-standing policy that some of his cabinet consider ground-breaking and revolutionary: hiring federal employees based on merit rather than degree earned. Supporters feel this will open doors to talented candidates who have skills not measurable by test scores alone: things like common sense, on-the-job experience, and perseverance (hear respondents at the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting held June 26, after 1:55:00, especially at 2:03:15). Without neglecting certain minimum educational requirements, from now on, the administration will look at skill and character—”what you possess and what you can demonstrate”—instead of degrees alone in federal hiring.

In a similar way, scientists could shift their focus away from measuring ability based on how many hours a student has sat in a classroom chair, or how good they are at passing multiple-choice exams. Some people just have better natural ability and savvy than others. It’s called abductive reasoning, and many great scientists possessed it. They’re like the proverbial mechanic who just has a “knack” for observing a problem and knowing how to fix it. By contrast, a student can have spent years earning college credits yet not have the drive, character, or abductive sense to make a good scientist.

Merit-Based Science

Jessica Hamzelou at New Scientist posted an eye-opening headline: “Medics who changed history wouldn’t get into modern medical schools.” That’s right; some of the greatest doctors who revolutionized medicine would probably flunk out of medical school today. Why?

Many of the people behind the most significant medical discoveries of the past 300 years wouldn’t have got into medical school by today’s standards, because they either studied the “wrong” subjects, got low grades or didn’t follow the rules.

The finding highlights how the education system wrongly favours academic achievement over other important traits, like persistence and creativity, says David Jenkins at the University of Toronto, Canada. “We have to be much more flexible in how we accept young people into medical school or any other profession or activity that is their goal,” says Jenkins.

Historical medical school flunk-outs include Edward Jenner, the man who invented the first vaccine, and Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin’s role in treating diabetes. Jenkins was motivated to look into this because of his own experience having been penalized because he couldn’t read very quickly. He observed that many students in medical school spend hours reading and memorizing facts that will be useless in practice.

Jenkins and his team looked at 100 of the most innovative medical scientists and doctors in history and found quite a few had failed or been expelled from school.

“We assume all great medical innovators would certainly be accepted to medical school,” says Jenkins. But his team found that, by today’s standards, only 24 per cent would meet entry requirements.

“Almost a quarter of them would not be accepted to medical school today,” says Jenkins. The remaining innovators fell into a grey area, and would not be guaranteed a place, either.

Academic achievement is not necessarily a good predictor of success in medical science, the team found. What should be done about this?

Educators need to find better ways of assessing student achievement, says Jenkins. “I think we’re missing out on a lot of people who might have diverse ideas and come up with different solutions,” he says. Rather than focusing on subjects and grades, assessors should consider how students perform in project work, he suggests.

Such an approach might be as revolutionary to science as it will be in federal hiring practices.

Jenkins’ study is a good start, but it left some qualities out, and didn’t evaluate the negative impacts of groupthink. In the sciences, students are trained in the reigning paradigms of the day. This is especially true in evolutionary biology: graduating seniors and postdocs sound like ducks that all quack alike, saying that such and such “evolved millions of years ago to” accomplish some function. They fail to realize what a ridiculous assertion that is; nothing “evolves to” do something functional by a chance-driven process. Yet they repeat it like proud kindergarteners reciting a maxim that Miss Teacher taught them to say on stage. Students should be required to take a classes in the Sociology of Science and the Philosophy of Science – even, if possible in the Rhetoric of Science – in order to be wary of how they can become manipulated into a mindset that stifles insight.

The History of Science is another discipline that students should learn something about. Many great scientists were trained as theologians and earned their expertise by the sheer love of learning and discovery. The fathers of many branches of science developed their own methods and terminologies. Some great scientists were mavericks, bucking the consensus; some were persecuted until vindicated. These fields can dispel the myths of “settled science.” This is especially the case today when bucking the consensus can mean the end of one’s career or funding.

Two indispensable abilities for a scientist are not taught sufficiently in textbooks. One is good reasoning. What does the observation mean? A scientist has to do more than just plot data points; any lab trainee can do that. Rare is the scientist with the flash of insight to see the significance of an outlier or a stray value, or even the significance of a non-finding when one was expected. Can the scientist debate an opponent and succeed based on evidence and logic? Oh, for some common sense among evolutionary biologists who think that “Stuff Happens” constitutes a valid scientific theory!

The second indispensable ability is character. Without integrity, there is no science. The successful scientist must be willing to admit if years of work show the theory or model is wrong. He or she must not be swayed by peer pressure and groupthink. The great scientist must have courage, too, to follow the evidence where it leads when everybody else is trying to dissuade.

Along with those indispensable traits, there are other character qualities such as creativity, determination, perseverance, and humility. One more is awe: is the scientist filled with wonder at the behavior of nature? Does the ornithologist love birds? Does the lepidopterist stand amazed at butterflies, and the paleontologist at extinct life? If it’s just a job, it can be a very disappointing one. These skills and qualities can be more important possessions for a scientist than a degree. Anyone can go back to the books to brush up on background knowledge, but science is a human endeavor calling forth the best in one’s personal skills and character.



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