MD vs PhD

Mark Brandt, Ph.D. mark at
Tue Jul 1 21:20:52 EST 1997

In article <Pine.GSO.3.96.970630185345.18895A-100000 at elaine5.Stanford.EDU>,
amit mehta <amehta at leland.Stanford.EDU> wrote:


>         The common high sounding claims of pursuing scientific truth are
> about as meaningful here as those of medical philanthropy.  Scientists
> also seek invidious comparison but of a different sort.  First, the
> surrounding community usually does not penetrate the quasi-mystical screen
> of esoteric terminology, and the scientists do not really give them the
> respect which ostentatious displays would indicate.  Hence, in a
> meaningful sense, scientists are more vain than physicians. In fact,
> little interaction with the surrounding community is required.


Tell me, how would you explain, for example, the molecular details of
protein synthesis, without using "esoteric terminology"? 

Is it possible? Yes. 
However, it either takes a great deal longer, due to the necessity to
establish a common language by including the required definitions, or it
lacks details. If too many details are left out, the "science" becomes
indistinguishable from pseudoscience, which may defeat the purpose of the
discussion in the first place. 

There is a second problem; individuals in the "surrounding community" tend
not to be *interested* in the details. For a comparable example, if I
happen to mention baseball to a (scientist) friend, her eyes tend to glaze
over. Lack of interest, not lack of understanding of "esoteric
terminology", result in the lack of communication on the topic.

>The currency of the scientist is the all-important publication
> and the prestige it affords, again of no relevance in the "real" world and
> to the culture so included, not respected by a group which instead creates
> a closed subculture of its own. 

I suspect that this is true of most subcultures; I strongly doubt that it
is limited to science.

Besides, what is the "real" world?

>Incidentally, one will find outward
> arrogance within the scientific community, for reasons above described,
> but this is never effective unless backed by influential publications.
> Even then, the arrogant display is redundant and often counterproductive;
> the publications alone constitute the desired pecking activity, although
> they carry no meaning outside the largely closed scientific community.

Except for the fact that these publications are the source of essentially
all advances in knowledge.

Some publications are meaningless except to people in closely related
fields. Others are critically important both within science and in terms of
the medical (or other technological) developments that are based on those
papers. In general, however, the "outside world" remains unaware of
scientific publications, even of the ones that strongly impact their lives.

As for "arrogance" -- inability or unwillingness to communicate is
frequently perceived as arrogance. By my definition, however these are, and
should be, separated.

Undoubtedly some scientists are arrogant, as are successful individuals in
a variety of endeavors.

On the other hand, science is complex. Communicating its complexities to
the general population is not an easy task, and often involves
simplification to the point of inaccuracy. In part this is correctly
attributable to unwillingness on the part of scientists to take the time;
in part this is due to poor levels of science education among the general
population; and in part this is due to the tremendous amount of information
involved in all fields of science. Clearly it would be beneficial to
society for the costs and benefits and findings of scientific research to
be completely explained; arranging this is a non-trivial undertaking.

As an example, Fermilab recently began posting "plain English" abstracts of
their publications on their Web site. Unfortunately, it turns out that
their attempts to translate their findings to less esoteric terminology
were only partially successful; it is nearly impossible to fully
communicate the information without including large amounts of background
information as well.

My brother (a high energy particle physicist) and I (a biochemist) have
only vague ideas of what the other is really doing -- it simply is too
difficult to explain. We each understand the general concepts and ultimate
goals of the others research, but I don't understand much more about QCD
than what the initials stand for, and he doesn't know why I care about
tryptophan-360 of the human estrogen receptor. I doubt that arrogance plays
any role in the difficulty we have in talking to each other about our work;
we simply lack the time to convey the required background information.

(I suspect that it is *not* lack of communications skills. I am perhaps not
the most unbiased judge, but my brother is very capable of explaining other
concepts that I do understand, and my medical students rate my teaching
ability quite highly.)

I would be interested in hearing your solutions to these problems.

Mark Brandt, Ph.D.
My opinions are my own, but I tend to give them away to anyone who fails to
flee fast enough.

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