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The Scientific Mind: Linear or Conceptual?

on September 27, 2012

Science is reliable.  We can trust its conclusions.  It is logical.  It tells us what’s true.  Do you agree?

In school, we teach the scientific method.  It’s how we test a question (or hypothesis) to determine whether it is correct or not.



For basic scientific concepts, this is a straightforward process, one that is practiced in the labs of every high school.  An experiment can be replicated over and over to show consistent results. Scientific method is the linear framework that we use to test a hypothesis step by step.

Much of what we would commonly think of as science or scientific professions deals with subjects that have been tested and proven.  The medical profession, for example, relies on what is known about how the human body functions, the effects of pharmaceuticals, the effects of diet and exercise, and the role of genetics.  All of this has been demonstrated by rigorous and numerous scientific studies.

But physicians, for example, pretty much stick to following the established rules and procedures that have been determined for them.  They are not acting as “scientists” who are coming up with new hypotheses and testing new treatments.  Physicians follow a linear paradigm of applied science.

There are exceptions, but they tend not to be well-received.  The example that opened my eyes is the story of Dr. Robert Atkins.  He read about a diet, experimented on himself and got good results, then had certain of his cardiology patients follow the diet and got similarly good results.  He documented his findings.  He did everything you are supposed to do as a scientist……except that his conclusions ran counter to the accepted body of knowledge at the time.  And in our world, we really don’t want physicians acting as scientists.  We don’t want them experimenting on us.  We expect the medical profession to follow the rules.  Linear application of science.

The medical profession is not unusual.  A large number of those trained as scientists, end up working in situations where they are applying known scientific principles to, say, produce a product in a consistent manner.  This is using science in a linear manner.

I dare say this is why so many with science degrees who go out and get a “real job,” lose interest, and switch into business roles.  Studying science encourages thinking and creativity, but working in applied science is all about following the rules (linear) and NOT stepping out of bounds or being creative (being conceptual).

The general population is comfortable with the scientific principles that are known, proven, and well-established.  This is nothing new.  We are happy to embrace the idea of science when it proves what we are already comfortable with.

It’s a different story when you go outside the box.

Conceptual science is the domain of the researcher.  And that’s where science gets complicated because there are all kinds of assumptions and outside influences that are messy.  The more complicated the hypothesis that is being tested, the harder it is to control the variables of an experiment.  And most real-life situations are complicated.

So, what exactly is Science, anyway?  Is it the proven facts that we use in Applied Science?  Or is it the constant questioning of the unknown?

This is an interesting paradox.  Most people want science to tell them the absolute answers, but testing what is outside the box is really what science is all about.  It’s easy and safe to follow established procedures and that is what has allowed us to take advantage of the discoveries that science has found so far.

It’s a different thing altogether to come up with some crazy hypothesis and test it out.  But this is what higher education in the sciences teaches you.  It’s creative thinking, experimentation (i.e. play), and then documenting what you did.



A pure scientist will be free of bias of any kind.  This is very, very rare in our world.  Who is paying for the research?  Who does the scientist work for?  Is there an expected result, and how will the researchers feel if they do years of research, only to come up with nothing?  Are the conclusions too far from generally accepted wisdom?  If the conclusions seem crazy, will they be able to compete for that next research grant?

Some become so attached to their hypothesis that they have a very hard time seeing the facts that contradict it, and only see and pursue the research that affirms it.

After all, we are talking about humans here.

I’ve done enough research, analysis, and documentation to know that there is much more room to “spin” one’s conclusions than most people realize.  You can do all your work but then you have to “tell the story.”  Some are better at telling stories than others.  Some have motivations to tell their stories from one angle rather than another.  If telling your story in a slightly different way means you can keep your job and feed your family, what do you think most people will do?

Science Outside the Box

If you really want to explore and think about these ideas, read The Field by Lynne McTaggert.  It is an easy-to-read book about cutting edge scientists who are looking at observable things in the world that don’t fit into our established paradigm.

A linear thinker who works in a scientific field will color within the lines.  He or she will follow the principles that are proven.  Understand, this is how our world functions!   Otherwise, there would be mass chaos!  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this role, unless the linear thinkers become so comfortable in their paradigm that they are unable to leave room for the role of the conceptual thinkers.

The conceptual thinkers approach the world of science with a mind that has no limits.  There are relatively few of these people, but we need them!  Those that think conceptually, outside the box.  This is where progress is made.  This is where our comfortable paradigms get questioned and stretched.  This is where there are no forbidden questions.  This is where we ask “What If?” without fear of where that will lead us.

This kind of scientist is less concerned with being right and knowing “the answer” – rather, it is all about gaining a better understanding.  This scientist is never done with the quest.

My conceptual-thinking, science-trained mind is always open to learning something new.  It’s why I constantly ponder and wonder.  I think and think because I find it interesting, like working on a puzzle.  I’m sure it can appear obsessive, and I also think this can be misunderstood because it might resemble worrying.  But fear has no place in the obsessively thinking mind of a scientist.  At least that’s how it is for me.  It’s also why I’m driven to “tell my story” and be understood.  It’s why I welcome dialog and other viewpoints.  The process never ends, it just keeps looping on toward a greater understanding.

That’s my attempt to explain the Scientific Mind.


2 responses to “The Scientific Mind: Linear or Conceptual?

  1. Am not sure how to get out of your blog site.

  2. Started a comment that turned longwinded; will submit to your message board later, or whenever I can finish it. Thanks for sending, and I wll look at some of your other posts when more time, which is a limited commodity for me lately.

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