Home2018-2019Personal essay: Science is simple, scientists aren’t

Personal essay: Science is simple, scientists aren’t

Laura Polkinghorn,
Guest Writer

At the end of the day, science is a relatively simple process: observe, question, hypothesize, test, rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, scientists are neither as simple nor as linear as this process suggests. Scientists are complex, emotional and deeply passionate human beings who look at the world through a specific lens. That might seem obvious to say, but the fact of the matter is, many people — including scientists themselves — forget that they too, are human. I know I did.

Here’s the problem: science is objective. People are not. Science is a process of obtaining knowledge in as objective a manner as possible, not a subjective identity in and of itself. You cannot be science, much like Donald Trump cannot be the entirety of institutional government, no matter how hard he tries. However, you can practice science, love science and spread it far and wide: just remember that science is not who you are, it’s what you do.

That was something all too easy for me to forget during my first two years at Willamette. As a chemistry major, I threw my heart and soul into the movement of electrons and the balancing of equations, which is fine when things are going well. But when things go wrong, like a bad grade on an exam or an unsatisfying experimental outcome, I would internalize that score or that result as a direct reflection of my ability to do science.

From there, things would generally spiral: tears would be shed, self-confidence would be shattered and I would make adamant promises to myself to never ever fail an exam again.


“Here’s the problem: science is objective. People are not.”

Laura Polkinghorn

Then I would start over. Rinse. Repeat. I never gave myself the space to realize that science did not have to consume my life and dominate my mood. In fact, I didn’t give myself that space in academics until my junior year.

At the beginning of junior year, I decided that the “all the science, all the time” mentality was not for me. I couldn’t very well abandon it all together, though, because a faith in science has sustained me ever since I was eight when I decided I would single-handedly save the world from climate change. Instead, I compromised: I changed from chemistry to biology and declared my anthropology major.

Enter the golden years: both biology and anthropology were not yet closely aligned with my self worth, and I had become self-aware enough to actively prevent that from happening. My strategy mostly consisted of repeating to myself over and over again that science was not a substitute for selfhood. I am more than the science I create and the experiments I run; I am more than an objective, linear framework for obtaining knowledge.

And let’s be clear, this is not a problem unique to science. Academics, scientists and even politicians all fall into the trap of identity politics. It’s up to everyone to make sure that this doesn’t happen, because the result is the increasingly rigid and polarized world we find ourselves in today. The best way to prevent this is to talk to each other, pure and simple. No fancy mechanisms or cool gizmos or shiny new theory: all we need to do is talk to each other, across disciplines, as human beings. That’s it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past four years at Willamette, it’s that nothing is as simple as it seems, least of all myself. I think I probably would have learned that without obtaining a degree and going thousands of dollars into debt, but then again, maybe not. I wanted to share with you my own journey as both a scientist and anthropologist in the hopes that, instead of drifting further and further apart, humanity can begin to knit itself back together, scientist by scientist, person by person.

lepolkinghorn@willamette.edu

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