Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Scientists' stereotypes

This is going to be difficult to alter. Scientists are loners, wear white coats, have thick glasses, and just plain nerdy.

"Why the Scientist Stereotype Is Bad for Everyone, Especially Kids"


Michael Brooks
June 15th, 2012


To many – too many – science is something like North Korea. Not only is it impossible to read or understand anything that comes out of that place, there are so many cultural differences that it’s barely worth trying. It’s easier just to let them get on with their lives while you get on with yours; as long as they don’t take our jobs or attack our way of life, we’ll leave them in peace.

That’s very frustrating to scientists, who often bemoan the lack of public interest in what science has to say. They’re right to be frustrated: all our futures are dependent on proper engagement with science. So, how to solve this problem?

In recent years, like fervent evangelicals, scientists have begun to instigate outreach programs. If people could only hear about how exciting science is, the thinking goes, they’ll be converted. Then we’ll finally be able to get on with tackling climate change, creationism in the classroom, stem cell research and so on.

The trouble is, those who are already fans of science lap it up while everyone else shrugs – and nothing has really changed. That’s because the problem doesn’t lie with the science. It lies with the scientists. Or rather the myth the scientists have created around themselves.

Just over a decade ago, a cadre of researchers carried out an interesting experiment at an elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina. They showed the students a gallery of 10 portraits and asked them to identify which ones were scientists. The portraits were all scientists, in fact. However, the children “showed a decided tendency to identify the smiling pictures as not being scientists.” Clearly, scientists are not people who smile.

Then there’s the ongoing and ever-entertaining “Draw A Scientist” experiment. It’s been done in various ways since 1957, and the result has always been pretty much the same. Ask children in second grade and upwards to draw a scientist, and you are presented with a white male wearing a white lab coat, glasses and an excess of facial hair. This stereotype persists: when Seed magazine asked adults in New York’s Madison Square Park to take the test, they came out with the same stereotype. Hilariously, even scientists do it.

But this comical spectacle takes a more sinister turn when you ask children to draw a second scientist. In one fourth grade class set this task, almost half the children drew images containing danger and threat: Frankensteins, bombs, poisons and even one scientist holding a test tube high over his head while shouting, “With this I destroy the world”.

We are not consciously aware of it, but we have a deeply-rooted suspicion of scientists. They are not like us. They are not fun, they are not well turned-out human beings, and if pushed, we will admit we think they are dangerous. To find where this came from, we have to visit the post-war period of our history.

In a piece written for the January 1956 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the geneticist Jacob Bronowski makes a rather shocking claim. “People hate scientists,” he says. “There is no use beating about the bush here.”

This attitude arose, Bronowski said, as people learned about some of the recent achievements of science: atomic bombs, rocket-powered missiles, nerve gas tests carried out on unwitting soldiers and civilians and gruesome experiments on prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates. No wonder Winston Churchill declared in 1951 that it was “arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engines”.

The scientific establishment’s reaction to this sentiment has shaped our picture of science in the ensuing decades. Institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences in the US and the Royal Society in the UK had begun working on their image as soon as the war was over. The major strategy was to convince governments and the public that science had at its disposal a safe, efficient, controllable method that, given enough resources, would create a better world. It worked: by 1957, 96 per cent of Americans said they agreed with the statement that ‘science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable’. Across the Atlantic, the Royal Society implemented a program of controlling scientists’ image on broadcast media, offering the BBC only the safest of its scientists to collaborate with program makers. Memos from the Society to the broadcaster reveal earnest efforts to get the “perils and dilemmas angle” of science dropped in favor of programs that celebrate “the great solution wrought by the introduction of the experimental method.”

In a supplementary effort, more and more scientists began to expunge their humanity from the process of science. A 1957 editorial in the journal Science noted that some scientists believed use of “I” or We” “inserts a subjective element” into their reports of research; hence the growing practice of writing up research in the passive tense.

Some efforts to retain science’s humanity were made: one chemist’s reply to the editorial pointed out that “human agents are responsible for designing experiments, and they are present in the laboratory; writing awkward phrases to avoid admitting their responsibility and their presence is an odd way of being objective.” But the steamroller rolled on, and we slowly came to accept the cover-up. Scientists, we now unwittingly assume, are safe, dull, slightly inhuman and, it seems, unsmiling. That’s why, at the dinner party, everyone wants to sit next to the artist, not the scientist.

The sad thing is, they’re missing a treat. The pursuit of discovery provokes passionate, anarchic behavior from people desperate to be first to a breakthrough, and makes science more rock ‘n’ roll than the Rolling Stones. Scientists get into fights with colleagues (step forward Nobel laureate Werner Forssmann), take drugs to “open their minds” (Carl Sagan, Kary Mullis), follow through on ideas received in dreams or visions (August Kekule; Nikolai Tesla), fudge data and proofs to suit their argument (Einstein; Newton; Galileo), disregard their own personal safety and the strictures of ethics committees (Barry Marshall; Forssmann again). Scientists are much more interesting than they have been letting on.

Unfortunately, the suppression of the reality of science has had unintended consequences. The worst of these is in students’ engagement with science education. After all, what child would aspire to possessing a white coat, a glum demeanor, glasses and too much facial hair when there are pop singers, sports stars and artists to emulate?

The most important thing scientists can do for our future, to provoke an appropriate reaction to climate change research or to help future generations find a way out of the energy crisis, is not to moan about Congressional funding for physics, the lack of understanding about climate change or the rise of creationism. It’s much simpler than that. They need to step out of the lab and into the classroom.

Go into a school and ask “is science fun?” and some children will give you an outright no. Let them interact with a real working scientist, and their perception changes. Look at the “before” and “after” pictures, and the comments from seventh-graders who spent time with physicists from the Fermilab accelerator facility. They quickly realized that a white coat, facial hair, glasses and a penis isn’t standard issue – and neither are the scientists mad, bad and dangerous to know. It might not seem like much, but it might just be enough to safeguard all our futures.

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