The STEM Disciplines

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And why are they important? They are regarded by many as being important to the economy and to our country. It is much easier to justify funding for these disciplines than for non STEM disciplines.

Here is where the fun begins. It is generally clear what is included in engineering and technology. But what constitutes science? Many people think that scientists wear lab coats and work in laboratories. They think of physics and chemistry first, then perhaps molecular biology and zoology. But what about the social sciences?

First of all, it needs to be understood that science does not refer to any particular discipline. Rather, science refers to a type of thought, a discipline we impose on our thinking. Moreover, all scientific thinking is constrained by empiricism, by collecting facts that can confirm or refute theories. Now there are two general methods of conducting science. One involves systematic observations of nature. Examples are astronomy and natural history. Astronomy involves observations, often with very sophisticated instruments of the universe. Natural history involves the systematic observation of nature. Both support the development of theories and both rely upon empirical observations to support these theories.

The other involves conducting systematically designed experiments to quantify the effects of variables. Experiments are common in chemistry and physics. Some of the experiments in physics are quite expensive. These experiments support or refute theories.

There are shortcomings with naturalistic observations because the scientist cannot systematically control the variables of interest and these variables are often confounded so it is difficult trying to determine what variable affects what, and how the variables interact (affect each other). Addressing these issues requires statistics and experimental design. A knowledge of statistics and experimental design is essential to science.

Although I am biased, I think psychology provides one of the best means of understanding science because it is applied at so many levels. It is applied at the level of the single neuron where recordings are taken. It is applied at the level of individual behavior. It is applied at the level of human cognition. And it is applied at the level of groups of people. Each of these areas develops its own methods, but they are all based on the fundamentals of the scientific method. And they all require a knowledge of statistics and experimental design.

In my professional life I have been surprised about the lack of knowledge in the areas of statistics and experimental design by some professionals in the non-controversial STEM areas, namely technology, engineering, and math. I was surprised by this when I saw the efforts of some engineers and mathematicians trying to design an experiment. They were pathetic. Essentially they were familiar with the limited parts of statistics and experimental design that were used in their disciplines, but could not generalize beyond them. Unfortunately, most people think that people with strong mathematical backgrounds are knowledgeable in statistics and experimental design. Although their backgrounds should facilitate their acquisition of statistical and design skills, the knowledge must be acquired. I have seem engineers running simulations that would have profited immensely by a good experimental design. What is worse is that, generally speaking, they are unaware of and will not acknowledge their shortcomings. I have lost track of the large number of projects that could have benefited from my assistance, but was not requested because they saw no need for it.

There is a general problem regarding the employment of Ph.Ds. Funding is provided for their education, but largely disappears when they are pursuing their careers. So they end up being a migratory work force pursuing post docs or pursue careers remotely related to their training.

Personally speaking, I have had a good life and have remained gainfully employed. But I have fallen way short of what I know I could have accomplished had I been in the right situation with adequate resources. And I believe that our country would be much better off without this underemployment of Ph.Ds. Some might argue that there too many PhDs. I argue that there is insufficient funding from government and industry.

But there is a much larger problem. And that has to do with the rejections of the findings of science and to the reluctance to use science to solve problems. There are internal political forces of ignorance and darkness. I believe that these forces present a larger danger to the United States than terrorists or hostile countries.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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