In science world, TMI is a good thing

I’m probably the only scientist alive who doesn’t really understand what science is. I don’t know that for sure because I don’t know all the scientists alive today. I assume a lot of them know what they are doing. I just never did. 

I know all the stuff scientists say that science “is.” The thing is most of the early, big discoveries of science were made by people who didn’t have any clue about scientific method, tests of significance, or the National Science Foundation. I have a sneaking suspicion that chemistry was born from people having fun playing with fire and explosive materials. They were probably children. We don’t allow that anymore.

Most early scientists were amateurs pursuing some hobby or project that had little or nothing to do with making a living. They are the ones who developed experimentation and observational techniques and made hypotheses before hypotheses were cool. There are still a lot of these kinds of people around. It’s just that the real scientists usually don’t listen to them.

Nowadays you must go to school to be a scientist and meet standards like “defining problems in terms of criteria and constraints, generating and evaluating multiple solutions, building and testing prototypes, and optimizing.” That sure sounds a lot more impressive than what I ever did. 

Mostly I just read a lot of stuff and thought about things I had read. You can’t think about thinking without thinking about something. Sometimes I wasn’t so much thinking as imagining. That’s probably where I went wrong. Is there a difference between thinking and imagining? 

Anyway, thinking sometimes led to planning experiments. Of course, that led to doing the experiment. The truth is that “experimenting” is another name scientists use for playing around. I’ll probably be disbarred by the Scientific Bar Association for letting that little secret out. I’ll claim whistleblower status. 

I think I did discover something interesting out of all the playing around with my experimentations. I learned people always want to show others what they have been playing around with. Maybe not right away, but eventually we all want to share what we have been doing. It doesn’t matter if it is an experiment or a poem, a symphony or a computer program — we crave feedback. 

You’d think we would learn. Showing people what you are doing always leads to trouble. If you’ve been thinking about something, I guarantee that there is someone out there thinking about it differently. They are always more than happy to tell you about it and show you what they have been doing that proves you are doing it completely wrong. 

All this will cause you to go home and thoughtfully reflect about these differences. This is scientific code for “brooding and feeling depressed.” However, from this brooding and depression you might just think of a new way of playing around and start another “experiment”! 

My friend, Gary Stager, came up with an acronym for the “scientific method” that he called TMI. It never really took off, though, because most people thought it meant “Too Much Information” which is what most people associate with their science classes in school. 

Of course, it really stood for “Think, Make, Improve.” Stager is a computer scientist, and he saw that as the process for developing software. He liked it because it was a never-ending process that could be applied again and again forever. In computer science, this calling forth the same process is called “iteration” and is fundamental to programming. 

However, because TMI never ends, a new problem is created. It never ends! Look at the Apple iPhone, version 10, Microsoft Word 10, Beethoven’s’ Fifth Symphony. At least Beethoven knew to stop at nine.

More data! Everyone always needs more data. That means everyone needs more money. Wait! What if it’s the need for more money that generates the need for more data? 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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