This may be off-topic here; if so, I'd appreciate suggestions for where else to post it.

I recently got into a disagreement with someone regarding Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who has recently become a prominent figure in American politics, and is said to be considering a run for the Presidency. The other person in this disagreement referred to Carson as a "scientist". I thought that label seemed wrong. Without question he is an accomplished neurosurgeon, perhaps one of the greatest living, and he definitely has many, many publications. But somehow the "scientist" label felt off-key to me, and those publications don't seem to me to be "research" as much as they are clinical reports.

I know the words "scientist" and "research" don't have hard-and-fast definitions, and I certainly don't want to cast aspersions on the applied sciences. Nor do I want this thread to fixate solely on the individual that inspired it. I'm really interested in the more general issue that is in the title of the question: Is it correct to refer to a neurosurgeon with many scholarly publications as a "scientist"?

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    Is the neurosurgeon an MD/PhD or just an MD? Mar 5, 2015 at 4:38
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    In this particular case, Wikipedia lists only an MD. But I am not sure that is a relevant criterion. It seems to me that whether or not one is a scientist depends on what one does professionally, not on the degrees one has or has not earned.
    – mweiss
    Mar 5, 2015 at 4:43
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    Because what he does doesn't feel like "research". Honestly, this isn't about the politics.
    – mweiss
    Mar 5, 2015 at 4:56
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    Is it correct to refer to Bill Murray as a golfer? Mar 5, 2015 at 16:59
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    I suppose the real question is whether he conducts scientific study. Many medical doctors do engage in scientific experimental work, or provide scientific tests of existing questions. If Ben Carson is using scientific methods in order to answer a scientific question, then I suppose he is a scientist. If, on the other hand, he is publishing interesting case-studies of his work that don't address a larger scientific puzzle, then I don't think he would qualify. The question is thus the content of his published work.
    – Yasha
    Mar 5, 2015 at 18:03

2 Answers 2


At the research company where I work, there are three parallel career tracks: scientist, engineer, and manager. Manager is obviously quite different than the other two, and eventually ends up with the person doing little or no technical work. The only distinction between the scientists and the engineers, however, is determined post hoc by observing what the person tends to do: scientists are the people who tend to publish a lot and lead research projects, and engineers are the people who don't do those things much.

Science is not a tribe, nor is it a credential, nor an award. Science is a behavior: performing investigations that contribute to human knowledge. Any person who does this in a consistent and sustained manner, I would call a scientist, in addition to whatever other labels may be appropriate.

In the case of your example, Ben Carson, a quick Google Scholar search shows he's got a lot of publications, many well-cited (easily 2000+ citations, H-index of around 35). Even without reading any of it to see if his work is ultimately borne out or refuted, it is clear that this is a person who has made a significant intellectual mark on the scientific discussion of their field. This is not surprising: careful and well-presented clinical reports are an important contribution to knowledge! Complementarily, a non-scientifically inclined doctor might simply treat their patients and not write the cases up for publication, merely keeping their private records in accordance with normal medical practice.

In short: definitely a scientist, no matter what else he may or may not be as well.

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    "well-presented clinical reports are an important contribution to knowledge" Indeed, but they're typically authored by clinicians which, ideology aside, seems to be the most appropriate label in this case.
    – blmoore
    Mar 5, 2015 at 11:55
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    @blmoore Why do you think the term "clinician" is exclusive of the term "scientist"?
    – jakebeal
    Mar 5, 2015 at 12:43
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    @mweiss: The by far biggest discovery of my wife's PI (stem cell related) came to happen by utter chance: they investigated A, and were stunned to see that in the process, they had shown Omega (just to underline how distant the result was). He struggled with that quite a bit (he wrote about it), until his dad (a math professor himself) told him to stop being silly. Intention really is a poor measuring stick for what research is. This is a good answer, and I hope you manage to look at the case truly w/o political prejudice (I wasn't happy myself about what brought carson to the news recently). Mar 5, 2015 at 15:32
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    So according to you, an engineer who publishes his engineering in an engineering journal to describe what he engineered is... also a scientist? What about a professor of literature who publishes lots and undoubtedly contributes to the sum total of human knowledge? Also a scientist? Your definition (one who publishes something learned in an investigation) seems a bit broad. Shouldn't the nature of the investigation be a consideration?
    – user4512
    Mar 5, 2015 at 18:46
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    Methinks that the original question is reflective of an academic culture that has deified "science" and "scientist". Your approach cuts through that: do they have a scientific mindset and use the scientific method on problems with are amenable to such practices.
    – Wayne
    Mar 5, 2015 at 20:00

I think there are two question at play in whether or not Mr. Carson can be considered a scientist.

  1. Is the field in which Mr. Carson practiced a science?
  2. Is the work that Mr. Carson performed in this field scientific?

The answer to the first question is not as definitive as some might believe. Even among physicians, some view medicine as more art than science (every patient is different, not all treatments can be universally applied, have to tailor care to the individual, etc, etc). It sounds to me like you believe it falls into the realm of applied science, and since it incorporates the application of several branches of biological science, "applied science" is a logical and fitting tag.

The answer to the second question in my opinion should be handled with care, and not treated as a blanket answer for all medical physicians. So let's just take Mr. Carson's body of work and see if it fits the mold for "scientific." To me, the high level basic test of whether or not a study is scientific is whether or not it uses the scientific method. To remind everyone:

  • Ask a question
  • Do research
  • Form a hypothesis
  • Test the hypothesis with an experiment
  • Analyze the data and form a conclusion
  • Share your results

Just reading his Wikipedia article, the following jumped out at me:

I was talking to a friend of mine, who was a cardiothoracic surgeon, who was the chief of the division, and I said, "You guys operate on the heart in babies, how do you keep them from exsanguinating" and he says, "Well, we put them in hypothermic arrest." I said, "Is there any reason that -- if we were doing a set of Siamese twins that were joined at the head -- that we couldn't put them into hypothermic arrest, at the appropriate time, when we're likely to lose a lot of blood?" and he said, "No." I said, "Wow, this is great." Then I said, "Why am I putting my time into this? I'm not going to see any Siamese twins." So I kind of forgot about it, and lo and behold, two months later, along came these doctors from Germany, presenting this case of Siamese twins. And, I was asked for my opinion, and I then began to explain the techniques that should be used, and how we would incorporate hypothermic arrest, and everybody said "Wow! That sounds like it might work." And, my colleagues and I, a few of us went over to Germany. We looked at the twins. We actually put in scalp expanders, and five months later we brought them over and did the operation, and lo and behold, it worked.

Just from this blurb I can see that he formulates questions for a field of applied science, forms a hypothesis based on known science, and performs his experiments. Based on his published works, I think it's reasonably safe to assume that he analyzes results and shares the findings.

My opinion is that a doctor that does not simply read from a script of "How To Treat" is absolutely a scientist. The body is their Petri dish, so to speak. He shares his results, and I don't see anything about him being a kook, charlatan, or fraud, so I am assuming, given his prominence, that his results have been reproduced by others in the field. The human brain in particular is an area where medical science's understanding is pretty limited, so I think the tag is even more fitting for someone like Mr. Carson whose work didn't have a definitive How-To guide. However, your views may differ based on how you would answer the questions above.

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    So in your opinion mathematicians are not scientists....
    – Nick S
    Mar 5, 2015 at 16:56
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    Mathematicians can work in a wide number of fields, many of which are science-based. A blanket statement on mathematicians is not appropriate. You have to look at the field in which they apply their craft and the work that they do. Mar 5, 2015 at 17:02
  • Most of the pure mathematicians work in academia. Most prove lots of theorems, publish them but never run a single experiment. Does such a mathematician qualify as a scientist to you or not?
    – Nick S
    Mar 5, 2015 at 17:05
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    @NickS Mathematicians are not the topic of the question or the answer. Perhaps you might start your own question, or open a chat discussion? Marc defines what a scientist is, the gives us a concrete example of how the person being asked about fits the criteria. My only problem with this answer, is that it is mostly about the specific person, and does not fully incorporate all possible field-specific cases as much as might be possible..
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 5, 2015 at 17:16
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    @NickS I've never met a mathematician who considered math to be science. They are fundamentally different endeavors. For some reason people have latched onto the idea that "worthiness of being researched" is equivalent to "scientific" and then they distort the meaning of science to include everything they consider worthy of research. The fact is, there is plenty of legitimate research that is not science.
    – user4512
    Mar 5, 2015 at 18:50

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