There is more than one scientist

Rachael Stickland | 14 MAR 2016

umbrellaThe word ‘scientist’..
Why do we use this umbrella term?

What do the words scientist, physicist, consilience, catastrophism, uniformitarian, ion, anode and cathode all have in common? Well, the late William Whewell, a wordsmith and polymath, created them, often suggesting them to scientists when they had made a discovery. As well as the many scientific disciplines on which he published, he also found time to compose poetry. What a babe. In the 19th century, people we now call ‘Scientists’ were ‘Natural Philosophers’ or ‘Men of Science.’ Whewell first proposed the word scientist anomalously in 1834, and then more seriously in 1840 in ‘The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences’:

williamwImage source 

“As we cannot use physician for a cultivator of physics, I have called him a physicist. We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.”

The scientific community initially objected to this term, and it wasn’t until the late 19th/early 20th century that it became established in the United States and Great Britain. (There’s a nice little blog post about it here if you are interested in finding out more about the history of the word). Moving from ‘Man of Science’ to ‘Scientist’ better acknowledges that women actually are capable of scientific pursuit, yet there’s still room for improvement here. Then again, we still have many labels and titles that hark back to older times.  Take ‘PhD’ which stands for Doctorate of Philosophy. The origin of the word philosophy has its roots in the Greek philo– meaning ‘love’ and –sophos meaning wisdom. 

It is difficult to define what a science is. In simple terms, science is a process, whereby you collect enough data in a valid and repeatable way, using the scientific method. The biggest commonality between all scientists is simply that they are studying something in great depth. There are certainly many commonalities between scientists  but there are even more differences. However, in news headlines, we more frequently read ‘Scientists say’ than ‘Physicists says’ or ‘Geneticists says’ which can contribute to a simplification or vagueness of what a specific scientist does, and a lack of appreciation for the diversity of people this term represents.

umbrellaDelving into the diversity

Let’s examine the study of Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that predominantly affects motor function (tremor, rigidity, difficulty with initiating movement), as well as cognitive and emotional functioning.
 greywellyA geneticist might spend their day in a lab, analysing large genetic samples, trying to understand why some people get Parkinson’s disease and others don’t.
greywellyA neurologist might spend their morning in a clinic seeing patients, and the afternoon in a lab carrying out a clinical trials to investigate the effectiveness of a new drug.
greywellyA psychologist might be trying to develop a non-drug based therapy, such as exercise or diet modification, to help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
greywellyA radiologist might carry out an MRI scan to investigate changes in activity in specific brain regions, and relate this to behavioural symptoms.

Whilst each one is a neuroscientist, in that they study the brain in one form or another, they have vastly different daily routines, skill sets, and areas of expertise. Yet they are all working towards the same goal: to understand and tackle Parkinson’s disease. This example shows how even a specific scientific title, neuroscientist, can mean many different things.

Diversity of roles needs diversity of people. Science benefits from a diverse group of people, with a diverse set of skills. We shouldn’t  limit the list of people who think they can participate in science, or limit how they can.

umbrellaPerceptions of a ‘Scientist’

The public image of ‘scientist’ has been a concern  for many years and systematic research into this topic goes back as far as Mead & Meatraux’s seminal work (1975). In this study, 35,000 US high school students wrote an essay describing their view of a scientist. Analysis of these essays revealed an elderly or middle-aged man, in a white coat, with glasses, working in a laboratory, performing dangerous experiments.

Image source 
Another prominent study, Chambers (1983), asked 4,807 children aged 5-11 years to draw scientists. By 7 or 8 years old this stereotype was starting to emerge. The older the child, the more similar the drawing was to the description above. Only 28 female scientists were drawn, and only by girls. This instrument, known as the ‘Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST)’ has been widely used in research since.  Admittedly, these two studies
were carried out quite some years ago, and you could argue that societal views have changed for the better. A full discussion of that is beyond the scope of this blog post, and I struggled to find studies in the past ten years that had sample sizes as big as these two. Yet some more recent research and commentaries on this stereotype suggest it unfortunately still exists, to some extent. You can find the references for the above two studies, and a few more recent ones, at the end of the article.

Does this restrictive perception impact on science itself?

So far we’ve been discussing societal attitudes towards the term scientist.  The restrictive view of what it is to be a scientist has practical consequences, contributing to the demographics of the scientific workplace today.  If people interested in science don’t think they fit into this restrictive view of a scientist, and don’t see people working as scientists they can identify with, they are less likely to  feel they are needed or capable of a career in science.

In 2014, The Royal Society “set out to analyse and understand the composition of the scientific workforce in terms of gender, disability, ethnicity and socio-economic status and background.” They used big samples from three different sources.  Though their results paint a complex picture, clear trends do emerge, highlighting there is a lack of diversity in science. You can read a short summary of the report, or the full report itself, here.

Education and public engagement can go a long way to improving this lack of diversity. In order for people to understand the choices that are available to them, we must avidly teach that there is no particular gender, race, background, or rigid set of skills attached to being a scientist. As well as this, enough scientists should be vocal about what they do, but also who they are and where they’ve come from. This is by no means the magic solution to the problem of lack of diversity in science, and much more funding and opportunities are needed for some individuals to make a scientific career even an option for them. Nonetheless, more communication and transparency will help enable people with different skill sets, and from wider spread of backgrounds, to apply themselves to a worthwhile and satisfying pursuit, and for society to get maximum benefit from this.

Edited by Jonathan Fagg 


The two main studies I discussed about the ‘Draw A Scientist Test’:

  • Chambers, D.W. (1983). “Stereotypic Images of the Scientist: The Draw a Scientist Test”. Science Education 67 (2): 255–265.
    Mead, M.; R. Metraux (1957). “The Image of the Scientist Among High School Students: a Pilot Study”. Science 126 (3270): 384–390

More recent commentary on the view of scientists:

  • The Wikipedia page provides a well-sourced background on the DAST, and the study of it over the years!
  • Frazzetto, G. (2004). The changing identity of the scientist. EMBO reports, 5(1), 18-20.
  • Losh, S. C., Wilke, R., & Pop, M. (2008). Some methodological issues with “Draw a Scientist Tests” among young children. International Journal of Science Education, 30(6), 773-792.
  • Schibeci, R. (2006) Student images of scientists : What are they? Do they matter? Teaching Science, 52 (2). pp. 12-16.
  • Steinke et al (2007). Assessing media influences on middle school–aged children’s perceptions of women in science using the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST). Science Communication, 29(1), 35-64.

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