Learning about the value of science from Sr. Clarice
Of all the teachers I encountered in my life, one stands out. She was the first genuine intellectual I ever met and the first real scientist.
Sister Clarice Bucci, MPF was our science teacher at St. Joe’s in the 1970s. I knew (and she knew) that science was not my interest, but she insisted on placing me in the honors classes anyway. Now I’m glad she did because that gave me one of the few opportunities I would ever have to observe and learn how the scientific method works. I did not enter a scientific field myself, but I developed a deep respect for the scientific method and the scientific approach.
Honors biology in ninth, honors chemistry in tenth. By eleventh I was able to beg off and take physiology, which was more of a “general track” course, but even just two years with her in the honors classes was enough to understand how science works.
Just by watching and listening to Clarice lecture, I was able to absorb the basic principles: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction based on the hypothesis, test the prediction, record data with the utmost scrupulosity and accuracy, retest and test again and record results.
What was especially important was that an experiment and a result is able to be replicated with the same results. Science isn’t religion, exactly, but for people who fall in love with it and dedicate their lives to it, it’s a close second.
Another thing I gained respect for, is the idea of “peer review.” Peer review does not consist of some guy who gets an idea, gathers up some like minded people, opens up a Youtube channel or a website of very dubious or no legitimacy, and decides to spew his or her theories to the internet at large.
When scientists conclude something or invent something—say, a vaccine for instance—that invention is the result of years and years of undergraduate or graduate coursework, post-doctoral lab work that is also under peer review scrutiny, lab results that are published in respected, peer-reviewed professional journals and books that are also peer reviewed, criticized, and then reviewed again before they ever see print.
How long does it take to become a scientist? Some quick calculations: undergraduate, four years; master’s, two or more years; doctorate, five years at least.
Then you’re done. Right? Wrong!
The Ph.D. is only the beginning. It is supposed to train you how to do research. You spend about 11 years just training to be a scientist. After the doctorate, the real research begins.
If a result is found to be flawed, you trash the experiment and start over. And over. And over again.
All of that requires fortitude, patience and humility. Sometimes an idea you believed in turns out to be wrong. You must admit that, and start over.
Catholic spirituality maintains two lists of admirable traits, personal attributes to strive for that let you know you’re on the right path. They are called “fruits of the Spirit” and “gifts of the Spirit.”
Some of the “fruits” are patience, faithfulness, self-control; among the “gifts” there are wisdom, understanding, fortitude and knowledge.
Scientific endeavor both requires and activates all those things.
Democracy means that everyone has a vote, and our American culture loves to assert that “everyone has the right to their own opinion.” That is true. People have the right to like chocolate or vanilla, to vote for this or that party, to choose whether to drink alcohol and eat pork. Or, not to have those things. Or to prefer pink over blue or red over green.
Everyone certainly has “the right to their own opinion.” But everyone does not have the right to their own facts.
Your half hour of Google “research’” is not of equal value to someone else’s 11-plus years of rigorous academic coursework and peer reviewed scientific research.
Democracy is great. The internet is also great, but so is a bit of well-placed humility.
If you must travel over a bridge, like the Walt Whitman or the Ben Franklin, do you stop at the toll booth before you get onto the bridge, and look up the qualifications of the engineers and the concrete finishers, the stonemasons, the carpenters and all the people involved in designing and building the bridge? Does anyone do that?
When you sit down on a chair, do you “research” the tree farmer who produced the wood, check that the species of tree produced a strong enough wood and do you demand to see the tools of the woodworker, to make sure that the chair is strong enough to support your weight?
Likely, you just sit down. You put your foot on the gas and cross the bridge. You don’t “do your research” before you do a multitude of things because life would be impossible without a modicum of trust in those who provide the things we use, like chairs and bridges.
I groaned and moaned over Clarice’s insistence that I take the honors science courses in high school. But now I’m glad she forced me into them. Who knows, maybe the reason I had to do those courses was so I could write this column and to understand a few things about the world around me in the year 2022.
Today we are faced with a potentially deadly pandemic. A refusal to recognize expertise and respect those who have worked hard to obtain it, is not only impolite, but possibly deadly.
I wish Sister Clarice were still around. She’d know just the right thing to say.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph High School in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.