Scientists probably overrate scientific thinking


Scientific thinking is assumed–especially by scientists–to be a good thing. And not just any good thing. It’s one of those rare “too much of it can be wonderful” good things. Everyone needs more of it at all times and in all circumstances. Leaving aside the fact that no one can really define scientific thinking, I wonder if it really deserves all the hype. Are there instances thinking like a scientist actually gets in the way of more important ways of thinking?

Let’s revisit this paragraph from the Slate article on our need for more doctors:

As for postgraduate training, Emanuel and Fuchs attacked the increasingly common requirement that residents and fellows complete laboratory or clinical research projects. They don’t buy the popular ideal that every doctor must be a “physician-scientist.” Referring specifically to surgeons, they wrote, “The most important factor in becoming a competent surgeon is high volume—performing specific procedures many times over. A research year does not add to surgical volume and skills building.

So deep scientific reflection may actually be a hindrance for some doctors. Especially since we need more doctors and fast, rote application might be better than developing (largely useless) research skills. Understanding does not have to be the not the only pedagogical goal.

Of course practicing scientists live and breathe scientific thinking. They (we?) have to think scientifically most of the time. It’s somewhat understandable, if misguided, to believe that something so critical to our own success is generalizable. But precisely because academic research is, well, so academic, the mindset it cultivates might not be relevant elsewhere. Heck, great scientists don’t always succeed as advisors or administrators in the same field. So why should we expect scientific thinking (still undefined!) to transfer elsewhere?


  1. Hi Praj – aren’t all kinds of thinking supposed to be based on laws of logic? Maybe scientists “think” in categories which are not familiar to non-scientists but it should not make it qualitatively different. As for the definition, the Wikipedia redirects to the article on “scientific method”, the method used in research in sciences as opposed to pseudosciences like astrology.

    1. Hi Nikolai. Thanks for the comment. And sorry for the slow reply. I see what you’re saying about all kinds of thinking having a common underlying approach. However, I would say that scientists themselves insist that scientific thinking is qualitatively different. In this particular example, many doctors (but by no means all) and scientists believe it is helpful to get research experience. And so scientific thinking becomes more similar to “think like a researcher.” I was highlighting that there are other dimensions to medical practice (e.g. rote practice plays an important role in surgery) that do not comport to what most people mean by scientific thinking. And those other dimensions might be very important. Thinking like a researcher may be helpful at times. But it’s not always so.

  2. Makes sense, I think. There are some doctors who do scientific thinking (infectious disease doctors or diagnostic medical sleuths [diagnosticians]), but on the whole there is a lot of rote or repetitive work that still requires high skill. My sense is that a lot of people (including myself) would love to have more doctors that employ scientific thinking (treating me like a specific individual and thereby better diagnosing my situation or admitting uncertainty) than statistical or probabilistic thinking which is what happens with most of us {and we know those cases with someone with a special diseases sees doctor after doctor because we, as doctors, mostly go with probabilities}. In reality, conditional probabilities is what doctors should use more which would lead back to patients being treated more like individuals and finding problems sooner.

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