We’re All Scientists

We’re All Scientists

Ariel Anbar, PhD, a Geoscientist with the American Geophysical Union and a member of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, gave this speech as a part of March for Science Phoenix this year.

Yeah, so today happens to be my birthday, and I have to say that the opportunity to speak to all of you is a pretty amazing and unique birthday gift. So thanks to all of you, and thank you J.P., and the organizers of this event.

I want to start by asking you all a question: how many of you are scientists? Show of hands. It’s a pretty good turnout. But I want all of you guys to raise your hands, because I think you’re all scientists. We are all scientists. And that’s because science is not about what you know. It’s not a bunch of facts and figures, words and formulas. It’s not really about complicated instruments and it’s not about fancy degrees and titles.

Science is about what we do. It’s about how we figure out what’s what in this world. Science is exploration, and exploration begins with just two things, two things that are really easy: ignorance, and a desire to stop being ignorant. (applause) So ignorance is pretty easy, right? We can all do that, we’ve all been there, and the desire to stop being ignorant – well, that’s pretty easy too, because we’re all born hard-wired to learn about the world around us. Every baby is born curious, and every baby is also born knowing how to stop being ignorant. Each and every one of us, everyone on the planet, learns how to stop being ignorant the minute they open their eyes and start crawling around on the floor. It’s why we open our eyes. It’s why we crawl around, and then walk, and then drive, and sail, and soar into the sky, and into space. It’s why we explore. We’re driven to explore because it’s through exploration that we replace ignorance with knowledge – each and every one of us.

Now somewhere along the way, we get a little more organized about it, and instead of just randomly exploring around, we start asking questions, questions that guide our exploration, and we’re hardwired to do that too. Why is the grass green? Why is the sky blue? How do plants grow? Where do babies come from? These aren’t complicated questions. Every child asks them because every child is a natural-born scientist.

So what do those scientists do to answer questions like that? She seeks out information. Sometimes that means going somewhere new, sometimes it means making careful observations, sometimes it means learning what others have already figured out. That’s what a scientist does – seeks out knowledge to answer questions. So I think about  it – what that means is that a scientist isn’t someone who has all the answers. A scientist is a person who knows how to figure out the answers, and then goes and does it.

A scientist isn’t someone who has all the answers – think about that for a second. Just really think about it. If you and I ask a question, but neither of us is sure that we have the answer, that means that we might disagree. We might debate, we might argue, so for the two of us, science becomes something else that’s really special. It becomes a way for us to manage our disagreement. Instead of calling each other names or trying to put each other down or writing all sorts of crazy things on Twitter, we can use the process of science to figure out which one of us is right.

So science isn’t just a process that helps us to figure out what’s what in this world, it’s also a process that helps us to get along with each other. It’s not just a way for us to perfect our knowledge of the world, it’s the way we create a more perfect world. The Constitution of the United States begins with these words: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…”. Science is a way that we do that. Science enables democracy, just as surely as democracy enables science.

So you don’t need to be an expert, you just have to want to be a person who is willing to replace ignorance with knowledge, using abilities that you were given when you came into this world, when you were born. Everyone can do that. 

And if you didn’t consider yourself a scientist before today, then I hope you’ll consider today your birthday as a scientist. You’ve always been one – maybe you just didn’t know it. So welcome. thanks.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Temple Emanuel of Tempe).


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