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“I Don’t Know If I’m a Scientist”: The Problem with Archetypes

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I, like all young researchers starting our toils in science, sit at an interesting juncture. We have a portal to the past lives of scientists through our mentors and texts: we know some of how things were done and by whom. At the same time, as the children of this world we have our ears closer to the ground, instinctively aware of the current state of the scientific community, its interactions with the rest of the world, and what’s to come.

One change I find occurring is a shift—stemming from where I’m not sure—in the cultural caricature of a scientist. It is a shift away from an arguably negative and nerdy portrayal towards a more socially favorable one (a change that is understandably welcomed by the older generation of scientists who struggled against stereotypes involving pocket protectors and poor social skills). But inasmuch as society’s view of scientists remains a mere caricature, it stands in the way of a fuller acceptance of what ‘scientist’ can mean.

Under the new view, scientists are no longer detail-obsessed and emotionless observers, concerned only with accuracy and precision. Instead, the likes of Neil DeGrasse Tyson present the scientist as an energetic and passionate explorer of the universe—one who seeks to boldly know what no one has known before. We, as scientists, are meant to proudly and openly exclaim our love of all knowledge for knowledge’s sake. As kids we tinkered and took apart our toys just to see how they worked. And as adults we continue to ceaselessly manipulate the world around us in an attempt to quench our curiosity about it. Smarts are still necessary for a scientist, but now we must be equal parts calculator and cowboy.

The transition from scientist as stoic, number-muttering and bespectacled introvert to a quirky, curiosity-fueled investigator (still bespectacled perhaps, but only as a stylistic choice) is objectively a positive one. And in acknowledging the emotional drives involved in pursuing science, it is a more well-rounded portrayal as well. But to me there is still a tension. The persona of a swashbuckling scientist doesn’t fit me, or many of my peers, any better than the socially-awkward geek did. Hearing either description makes me wonder, even as I work towards a PhD in Neuroscience, am I scientist?

The problem is that, when replacing one stereotype with another, a stereotype is still what we’re left with. Allowing for the definition of ‘scientist’ to include passion and energy is helpful, yes, but the problem really stems from trying to define ‘scientist’ in the first place. ‘Describe the average scientist’ is about as reasonable a request as ‘describe the average color’. Our population is too vast, too diverse, too ill-defined, and too non-overlapping to be characterized properly by some kind of Platonic form. An arrival at a scientific career can be preceded by unknowably many paths, and the style and skills employed once there are equally diverse. One needn’t have tinkered as a kid to do science as an adult, and the science one does may involve everything from trekking through wildlife collecting samples to sitting at a computer writing code.

Furthermore, the notion that all scientists share a universal and unbounded curiosity about all the workings of the world can easily be disproved in this age of intense specialization. I’ve met an entomologist driven by aesthetic appreciation of caterpillars to learn every detail of their lifespan and speciation, but I doubt she would give much attention to my thoughts on the role of the hippocampus in memory encoding. There are physicists who see little excitement in anything larger than an atom, and translational biologists who consider finding disease treatments the only worthwhile task.

Even within the neuroscience community, theorists who are intensely passionate about discovering what computations our neural circuits are carrying out possess only a passing interest in the molecular details of how they’re doing it. Certainly there are still some polymaths sprinkled across the scientific community—modern-day “naturalists” with a genuine interest in how the world functions on all levels. But for many of us, the only trait we have in common is a belief in the exclusive importance of our own line of research.

Rather than attempting to present a unified vision of what a scientist is, the scientific community and the public would be better served by embracing the diversity and complexity that is the truth of the scientific population. The notion that there are some qualities, some ‘spark’ required to be in science creates a false sense of a divide between scientists and non-scientists and runs counter to the intention of encouraging more people to take interest in the subject.

The only requisite to be a scientist is to participate in the scientific process. Science doesn’t need to put forth a mascot as a recruiting tool: the content of our work should speak for itself. Let a fascination with the night sky lead a child to become an astrophysicist. Or let concern for the environment catalyze a change of careers for an adult. To convince people to get involved should require only an accurate presentation of the substance of the science itself and a clear message that science is open to everyone. The best way to truly impress upon people the idea that anyone can be a scientist is to not offer any definition of a scientist at all.

This piece was drafted during the Communicating Science 2013 workshop (ComSciCon), sponsored by Harvard University, MIT, and the Microsoft Corporation.

Image: Neill DeGrasse Tyson image is in the public domain, obtained from

Grace Lindsay About the Author: Grace Lindsay is a second-year doctoral candidate in the program of Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University. Her research focuses on computational modeling of cortical areas. She received a BS in Neuroscience from University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and then worked as a research fellow at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She blogs at Neurdiness. Follow on Twitter @neurograce.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 10 Comments

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 4:51 pm 07/10/2013

    “The best way to truly impress upon people the idea that anyone can be a scientist is to not offer any definition of a scientist at all.” I almost agree with you Grace. But I feel that your arguments fall into the “perfect world” problem. First, science may choose not to present a unified model of what a scientist is but many religious and conservative groups are happy to do just that and the image they are presenting is not a pretty one. If we want to attract people to the sciences we need to counter that. Also, every time a scientist is interviewed or makes any public address they are presenting an image of what a scientist is. Unfortunately, there is no way around that. Finally, children need role models. This is especially true for minority groups. If we are interviewing people at NASA about a mission and everyone is a white male what does that communicate to minority groups about their chances of getting in to NASA? So while I agree that in a perfect world people would feel secure enough to believe they can bring something unique and fresh to science the reality is that the STEM fields tend to be dominated by white males which can be intimidating while at the same time religious and right wing groups represent scientists as left wing, grant money crazed, snake-oil salesmen who want nothing more than to murder god and turn everyone gay. I would suggest that the better solution would be to present a broad range of role models that not only represent the full spectrum of the sciences but also the full spectrum of humanity. And I think we also need to make it personal. We are after all trying to understand their universe too.

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  2. 2. rshoff 6:10 pm 07/10/2013

    er, it’s a word. What is so tough about that?!

    A person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences.

    The question you should be asking is “what kind of scientist am I”?

    Example: Friend asks: “Are you a Scientist?”
    You respond: “Yes, I’m a nuclear physicist”
    “Yes, I’m a biologist”
    “Yes, I’m a geologist” etc, etc, etc.
    Your friend responds: “Oh, really? Hmmm. What do you want to do this weekend?”

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  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 6:45 pm 07/10/2013

    @rshoff #2 – I think I’ll have to disagree with your comment.

    The first half of your comment: this post is about the problem that “scientist” is not just a word. Words have meanings, but not just dictionary meanings, or inside-the-club meanings. The word “scientist” has different meanings for different people, and the stereotypical representation of scientists in the popular media just exacerbates this problem.

    The second half of your comment: this moves the context from the public sphere (which this post is about) to personal sphere. I am sure such dialogues happen to scientists all the time, but I doubt they have any effect on the broader public stereotyping of scientists in popular media, movies, etc.

    Also, I don’t think it helps much to split one stereotype of a “scientist” to several sub-stereotypes for different disciplines. This does not remove the problem of having stereotypes to begin with. It also is a potential minefield – different disciplines would be stereotyped in different ways, some stereotypes better than others, thus pitting disciplines against each other and dividing scientists into feuding camps, while this post is clearly asking for a unified front.

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  4. 4. rshoff 7:32 pm 07/10/2013

    @Bora – I guess my point, badly worded in my comment, is that it seems from a layman’s perspective that worrying about the word ‘scientist’ is splitting hairs. To claim that the word has meaning other than the definition is to insert bias. Bias is one of those things we should avoid. Insider bias is the worst of all.

    I neither agree nor disagree with you. It’s just not that complicated.

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  5. 5. Bora Zivkovic 7:40 pm 07/10/2013

    The operative word is “we”. But how do we, even if we manage to be unbiased ourselves, force the media industry to change stereotypes that elicit biased frames in their audiences?

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  6. 6. rshoff 7:56 pm 07/10/2013

    @Bora – I understand the dilemma. The media is biased about (pardon the caps) EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY. They do it to attract attention. With that attention, they make money. Unfortunate, yes. But is this really about ‘scientists’ and their profession? Or is this about ‘bias’ in the media?

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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 8:01 pm 07/10/2013

    The article is about stereotyping scientists in the media, and if there is anything scientists can do to change that, either through the media, or going around the media directly to the audiences.

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  8. 8. rshoff 8:25 pm 07/10/2013

    Bora! Thanks! I have a better understanding with your explanations. Really, thanks for walking me through the points.

    I think Headlines and Article Titles frequently set the wrong tone for the article and lead us to misunderstand the point of the author. They can get us started out on the wrong perspective as we read the article, then we perceive each piece of information as supporting or not supporting that preconceived notion. Perhaps a better headline would have been something like “How media harmfully misrepresents scientists”. The article title as it is written indicates that the writer doesn’t understand if s/he meets the definition of a scientist. And as for Archetypes, aren’t they a concept that is more retrospective in nature. Archetypes aren’t created identities to define a concept, they are observed entities within the realm.

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  9. 9. CliffClark 1:50 pm 07/13/2013

    rshoff – I think you nailed it when you said “…from the layman’s perspective…” The problem, if there is one, is that people see the world very, very differently depending on their culture, background, upbringing, perspective, etc. Scientists frequently have different attitudes about, and requirements for, things like evidence, authority, and other things that profoundly influence how the interpret and interact with the physical universe. Non-scientists may have quite different ways of interacting with the universe, ones that profoundly affect the conclusions they draw about how things may work and how they fit into the “overall scheme of things”. To further complicate things, people don’t fit into simple categories (Actually, very little in the universe does – as a bacteriologist working on the fringes of proteomics, whole genome sequencing, and bacterial typing, I can tell you that the more you try to put things into neat little schema, the more frustrated you may become. Yet order still exists…)And many scientists use the word “scientist” as one that defines them completely. Perhaps it is my tendency as a (self-confessed) polymath, but it seems like the intense dedication and focus frequently required of scientists for their survival may cause them to set aside or neglect other, vital aspects of who they are. I am, for instance, in addition to being a scientist, also a jazz musician, a parent, a backpacker, a gardener…Don’t forget the primary function of the media is to make money. The most positive thing I find in the original post and much of the subsequent discussion is that people working in science are now very effectively communicating a much more accurate representation of who they are in their full range of aspects and interests- and the media are “buying” it! Thank you, Grace, for your article.

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  10. 10. denisosu 4:14 pm 07/14/2013

    Interesting. There is a saying that “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” which has analogies in many other areas, including nomenclature.
    Instead of asking “am I a scientist?” in some abstract platonic sense, the relevant question is “is it useful in this particular context to describe myself as a scientist?”
    If you’re talking to another “scientist”, you’d probably use the term “neuroscientist” to give a bit more detail, if you’re talking to your grandmother, “scientist” is probably a good way to get across the concept that you earn your living through work that’s closer to being in a lab than it is to working in an accountancy firm or raising cattle.
    In a social context, you might find it useful to give your opinion some more weight – unless the topic is related to neuroscience – for example, particle-physics – you’d probably use the term “scientist” to avoid spoiling the impact by revealing that your area of specialisation is totally unrelated to the matter at hand.
    You might avoid the word “scientist” altogether if you were with a group of hard-of-hearing scientologists who were likely to misinterpret what you said …

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