Friday, 4 March 2011

Why I dislike the term Scientist

What does the word 'scientist' mean? Really mean? Who can call themselves a ‘scientist’? Someone who studied a 'science' subject at degree level? But what if they became a HR manager and worked in a non 'sciency' company, are they still a scientist? Do you need to have a science PhD to be called a scientist? Or be actively doing science research? But what about all the people that work in science without 'sciency' qualifications? Are they still scientists?

Apparently the word scientist was coined by William Whewell in 1834 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, to describe a group of people all studying different scientific disciplines (I have to admit, I haven't found any solid sources for this but you can read more about the term scientist here). The word scientist can be used by anyone. The description of someone as a scientist in my view is pretty meaningless; it tells you nothing about the person. I think there is a problem with overuse of the futile word 'scientist' and I do not feel that science reporting, 'engagement' or the image of science in general is helped by the term. This thought occurred to me whilst watching the BBC Horizon programme (Horizon: Science Under Attack). Part of the programme involved looking at climate change articles in different newspapers, the conclusion being that the articles presented an inconsistent story and lead to confusion. Some of this confusion comes directly from the topic, in an area that is still being researched there are bound to be inconsistencies and limitations to what is known, theories are new and still being disproved. However, many science stories have different 'expert scientists' or 'a group of scientists' (named only as 'scientists' and not by their proper job title) who have ‘discovered’, offered an opinion on or have written about the topic in question. Calling yourself a 'scientist' does not give you an expert view on every aspect of science and the majority of media offerings do not make the distinction between different types of scientists or researchers. This lack of distinction is where confusion lies. Unqualified individuals can comment on issues and be seen as an 'expert scientist' in the eyes of the press and public, if the research is questioned by another scientist there is no distinction made between the expertise of the two scientists and therein is the problem, who do you believe? The more sinister side of the story is that people who are not qualified in any way start offering advice to people (an extreme example being misleading use of the word ‘Dr’ by Gillian McKeith) and become recognised public figures, whilst the real experts are ignored. Take this ‘Chocolate healthier than fruit’ (research carried out by scientists) story as an example (it is an example of awful journalism too, the science was carried out at ‘Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition’ which is clearly a conflict of interest). What it all basically comes down to is checking your sources.

There are other problems with the term 'scientist', such as the negative connotations it generates. For the majority of people the word scientist creates an image of a 'crazy mad scientist' and this has been proven through 'draw a scientist' experiments (if anyone has any other links to the results of any of these experiments please share it with me!). If you do not believe me, just do a quick Internet search for images of scientists. How much is the opinion of a crazy mad scientist who spends all day hiding in a lab really valued? I do not know - I imagine there has been some research into this, somewhere. The solution to this problem could be to drop the word scientist in the media all together and for people to insist that the proper job title of the person or group of people in question is used. I had a little tweet exchange with Mark Henderson (@markgfh) (Science Editor of The Times) and he said he tried to use proper titles but the title or explanation of the person had to be accessible/understandable to all readers. Personally, I think most terms are understood (biologist, pharmacologist, geologist, chemist, mathematician to name a few 'general' terms) by the public. If you really need to use the word scientist or scientists then I see no harm in specifying what kind of 'scientist' the 'scientist' in question is (i.e. cancer research scientist) or when describing a group of people, so a biologist, psychologist and a chemist there is no problem using the description as a 'group of scientists' as long as you specify who makes up the group.

Let me also add that I have no problem with use of the word science my only issue is with 'scientist'.

I would be interested to know what other people thought about this!

7 comments:

  1. The word science means many thing. I think scientist has most meaning if we use the definition of science as being a philosophical approach to knowledge. That is a scientist is someone that uses or respects the scientific method to develop knowledge, rather than basing their world view using divine revelation or gut feeling.

    So IMO it's not what you know, or whether you're a researcher, that matters; it's whether you have an evidence-based view of reality.

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  2. That, in my view is what you would say about someone who practices science (and is the traditional meaning of the word scientist), however, I think that meaning has been somewhat lost. When a newspaper article states 'scientists have found xxx' or 'Scientist, Dr M says' they use the word scientist as a title and as a way to communicate 'this person knows what they are talking about because they are a scientist'. It has turned into a job title rather than to mean a way someone thinks. Also, I think a lot of science is carried out because of gut feelings, although the scientific method is used to test the gut feeling!

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  3. Yes, I agree that the public misunderstands science as being the unalterable truth of the universe; rather than an iterative process of developing ways of explaining it - making scientists the new priesthood. I don't think there's anything wrong with this meaning of the word, just how we are portrayed by the media in this instance.

    (There's absolutely nothing wrong with gut feeling, BTW - it's essential in some instances. But you can't say that your personal choice over today's flavour of ice cream is scientifically derived. OK, some might but this is bogus research of the order of the 17th January is the most depressing day of the year)

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  4. I call myself a scientist, and I do so as a badge of honour. It has nothing to do with my Geology degree or the fact that I work with computers now -- as Buzz alludes to above, it's about taking an evidence-based approach to reality. Most people living normal lives apply the scientific method all the time without even realising that's what they're doing.

    I think that declaring you have a problem with the word "scientist" as a noun or collective noun is a depressingly insular way of looking at the world. Most people who have no interest in science don't care what your speciality is, they just lump us all together in one big stereotype. Sure, if you look at it in a glass-half-full way, the stereotype sucks, and you're into "mad scientist" or "nerd" territory. But if you're optimistic about things, and if you choose to look on the brighter side of the philosophical spectrum, you have people like Simon Singh or Carl Sagan or Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- and who wouldn't want to be lumped into the same basket as them?

    I think efforts would be better placed reclaiming the word scientist; using it in its optimistic sense and making sure that when people hear it, that's what they understand. Take back the stereotype, and make it your own!

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  5. like I said to the comment 'someone who dislikes buzz' above, the traditional meaning of the word scientist is someone who thinks and approches things in a scientific way. However I think that meaning has been somewhat lost. The media refering to someone as a 'scientist'/expert scientist' as a way of justifying a viewpoint on a given topic means nothing and therefore the word scientist in that context is useless and confusing. I might not have made that clear enough in the post above.

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  6. This may be slightly tangential, but I've been thinking about the badging of someone as a scientist for life because of their degree. This particularly comes up in discussions about the compatibility of science and religion. People [citation needed] have argued that these two are compatible because there are scientists that are also religious. To me this simply means that people can compartmentalise their professional work and their private beliefs. Or put another way, religion is compatible with people, however, that does not mean it is compatible with the act of carrying out scientific research (quite the opposite actually).

    So this is another area where the term 'scientist' is misused.

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  7. When you look at the number of people who try to get respect by calling themselves scientists -Christioan scinetists, scientologists, global warming scientists, political scinetists (well most of the), creation scientists - it is clear they think that the term engenders public respectr. I think the problem should nopt be dropping the term but finding some definition which would limit it to people practicing the scientific method.

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