A taxonomy of scientists

December 24, 2011

I believe that there are three types of scientists.

Well, not really — that’s an oversimplification of reality. But it may still be a useful model for thinking about why people like science … and why some people don’t.

First there are the Explorers. They are tremendously curious about how the natural world works, even taking interest in details such as the exact mass of an electron or the exact size of the fruit fly genome. They relish knowledge primarily for its own sake rather than for its practical applications. They love to ask questions and test hypotheses. They can be great scientists if they focus on questions that others agree are important.

Next are the Engineers, for whom practical applications are paramount. They most enjoy studies related to real-world benefits. They can be great scientists if they don’t jump prematurely to applications before the relevant principles are worked out.

Last come the process-oriented folks like me. They might be called Methodists (a term suggested by my uncle Scott, a chemist) because they most enjoy using the scientific method to further our knowledge, even in small steps. In this case the satisfaction does not come from the knowledge gained per se so much as having worked toward it in a logical and rigorous manner. They can be great scientists if they keep their incremental advances aligned to bigger-picture goals.

Of course, some people may be hybrids such as Methodeers or Explodists. Anyway, perhaps if we keep these different personality types in mind, we can help more people feel more at home in the world of science.


  1. A plausible taxonomy Greg, though obviously much more could be said here about subtypes, hybrids, and other axes along which scientists vary.

    Re: asking questions that others agree are important, this is a double-edged sword. Yes, if you insist on studying something obscure and esoteric that’s only of personal interest to you, the fact that no one else cares is a sign that you’re probably not doing important science. But it’s only a symptom, not a cause. Just because lots of people care about a question doesn’t make it interesting or important (think of trendy bandwagons).

    Re: Methodists, so I guess you’d say that good Methodists *necessarily* pursue small, incremental questions? Because after all, other sorts of questions aren’t likely to be tractable to a Methodist-type approach. And would you really say that any Methodist can be truly “great”, and if so that their greatness is defined solely or primarily by the alignment of their incremental work to some larger goal? I’m trying to think of people who are regarded as great molecular biologists, perhaps the paradigmatic example of a field full of Methodists, and the names I’m coming up with aren’t really Methodists. Brenner? Watson & Crick?

  2. Jeremy, your latter point is a good one that I hadn’t really considered when writing the post. What I meant to say was that all three types of scientists can and do make useful contributions to the advancement of a field…. I concede that Methodists are unlikely to be “great” in the sense of revolutionizing fields, earning Nobel Prizes, etc.

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