In the past few years, the field of science has seen a massive explosion in popularity and quality.
But what exactly does it mean to be an intellectual?
The answer, we are told, depends on how you define intellectual.
The first step in understanding how to be a scientist is to define intellectual, says Dr Stephen Williams, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Oxford.
“It’s not about being a good scientist,” he says.
It’s about knowing how to do the things that are the fundamental building blocks of what science is about, he says, “and then having the skills to apply those skills to a wider variety of issues and problems.”
The Oxford philosopher and philosopher of science, Steven Pinker, says that to be good at what you do you need to have a keen interest in the fields you are pursuing, which can then lead to the kind of thinking and analytical skills that enable scientists to do their jobs.
What makes someone a scientist?
The definition of science is still evolving, says Professor Williams, but there are some common characteristics.
The first is the quality of their work.
Dr Stephen Williams: There’s a lot of good research in the humanities and social sciences that’s been done by people who are very, very good at making their research interesting.
Steven Pinker: It’s often a very hard discipline.
I mean, you’re going to get people who will say, ‘Well, I’m an academic and I like to make good scientific arguments.’
They will go out and do it, but they’re not really good at it.
How does a person become an intellectual in the first place?
“They may not necessarily know that they’re an intellectual, but it’s not a difficult question to answer,” says Williams.
“They have to have the capacity to think, to think critically, to understand, to analyse, to take into account different perspectives, different perspectives from different sources, and so on.”
“The very first step to becoming an intellectual is to understand the basic principles of the science you are doing.
It’s this knowledge that makes you an intellectual.”
The next step is to apply that knowledge to problems that you’re tackling, to make those questions interesting and relevant to the general public.
It means making your ideas interesting, so that people want to come along and try them out, and to have that conversation, says Williams, and then making sure that they get the right answers.
And the final step, which is the most difficult, is to make sure that you get the data to back your conclusions up, so the public understands what you are trying to do.
“The first question I would ask people is, ‘How did you come up with the evidence for that conclusion?’,” he explains.
There are a range of reasons why people might want to become an expert in a particular field, says Pinker.
For example, the first step might be to understand how the scientific method works.
But Pinker points out that scientists need to be well-informed and have a sense of humour.
“But it’s very difficult for a scientist to do that if he doesn’t have a deep understanding of how science works,” he adds.
Finally, there are a number of different ways that an individual can become an academic.
Professor Williams says that the way to get a good job is to be creative.
“It’s probably the most important thing, I think, for anyone who wants to be successful in the academic world,” he notes.
He also says that it’s important to have good social skills.
“You need to make friends, you need people who like to have fun, and that’s what a university degree is for,” he points out.
So is there any scientific evidence that people are better at identifying science?
“I would say there is a bit of evidence for it,” says Professor Pinker of the links between intelligence and creativity.
“If you’re a good student and you have a good social background and you’ve got a keen intellect, you can certainly use that to make your case.”
But how can we make sure we are getting the right kind of science to the public?
“I think the most exciting thing is the idea that people who get into academic jobs are not necessarily the kind that have a background in science,” says Pinkers.
When people ask him what he thinks about whether people are good at science, he tells them: “I think it’s a matter of the skills you have.
And then the skills that you develop will depend on what kind of skills you’ve developed.”
What do you think?
Have your say in our poll