There has been a fair amount of self-disclosure on OT blogs in the last couple of weeks. Most recently fellow blogger Cromercrox described his painful battle with depression; over the past couple of weeks on my own blog many people have held their hands up to agree that they suffer from impostor syndrome . Both these aspects of humanity are nothing to do with us being scientists; they are sad facts of the human condition. It would be nice to think that the world at large ‘out there’ does indeed recognize that scientists are human, but by and large I fear that is not the case. Somehow we are a race apart, variously labelled as dorks, dweebs, nerds and geeks. Some scientists may wear the geek word with pride, but it is a word derived (as Wikipedia usefully informs me) from the German word for freak (geck) and it is usually used by those outside the community, such as tabloid journalists, in a pejorative way.
Recently Alice Roberts, newly appointed Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Birmingham, took exception to the term in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Her specific objection to it arose because she thought it was divisive, separating out the aspiring scientist from the rest of the world.
I hate the word geek,” she said. “It is being divisive. It is creating labels that are really unhelpful when what we should be aiming for is much more of a renaissance person idea.
You can be someone who thinks of themselves as an artist but be interested in science, engaged with it and understand it. I think it is possibly unhelpful from the outside that you can’t be a scientist unless you are a geek in the first place.
Her particular beef, and one I share, is the narrowness of our school curriculum in the UK; it means you have to decide at far too early an age whether to specialise in science or not. But it seems to me the danger of the word geek lies in the fact that it makes us ‘different’ from the rest of the world in ways that a historian or a social scientist is not. No one (as far as I can tell) greets a historian with the words ‘you must be awfully clever to do that’ or ‘I never could do history at school’ – or at least not with the monotonous frequency that a scientist, and particularly a physicist like myself, seems to meet with these comments. I am not sure there is an equivalent pejorative noun for workers in these other disciplines, albeit there may be for individual practitioners in each. I would like to feel that tabloid readers and Joe Public in general was prepared to grant that scientists were human like them, suffering from, amongst other things, depression and impostor syndrome. Or, in Shylock’s words (albeit in a very different context):
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
I am bored with being tarred with the implicit brush of insanity. Gerald Warner, writing also in the pages of the Telegraph about 2 years ago, threw much abuse in our direction – with particular vitriol directed at those scientists who advise the Government. He claims, one hopes without foundation, that
the status of the white-coated prima donnas and narcissists has never been lower in the public esteem….. After a period of priest-like authority, the pointy-heads in lab coats have reassumed the role of mad cranks they enjoyed from the days of Frankenstein to boys’ comics in the 1950s……The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the nineteenth century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening any more.
I know there has been much personal animosity directed at academics individually. One could cite as an example the opprobrium with which David Starkey is often greeted, but I’m not sure his status as a historian is his primary sin, nor is his profession and his colleagues in it reviled en masse. No, there is something that the likes of Gerald Warner find particularly disturbing about scientists. I suspect it is the fact that, either due to a failing of education or motivation, they have no hope of understanding what we say, nor any desire to do so, hence all they can do by way of disagreement is to imply we are loonies who can’t be trusted and so sweep everything we say under the carpet.
George Monbiot, responding in the Guardian to Gerald Warner’s attack on scientists in the context of climate change said
There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us.
This makes it all the more important that school children are not turned off and turned away from science at an early age, as Alice Roberts highlights – whether they are aspiring historians, lawyers or journalists like Gerald Warner or, onthe other hand, the scientists of tomorrow. They need to understand what evidence is, and how to think about it critically. The art of ‘critical thinking’ seems sometimes to be linked in people’s minds with the humanities, but at its most basic it appears to me to be remarkably similar to the scientific method. Unfortunately, school science as currently taught seems much more hung up on the rules of what makes a ‘fair test’ than with thinking about what the evidence is actually showing. Knowing whether you are introducing systematic errors into an experiment is of course crucial for a practicing scientist, and a schoolchild should be appropriately aware of the dangers. But it is unfortunate if rote learning about whether a test is ‘fair’ or not, and the expenditure of much time and effort in discussing this, removes the possibility of understanding whether the data is meaningful in other ways – such as whether it confirms or refutes a hypothesis, or whether the statistics are robust enough to conclude anything at all.
Scientists like Alice Roberts, with her very public face shining out from our TVs, along with those other media personalities who have done much to bring science just that little bit further into the public’s eye and sitting room – Brian Cox, Robert Winston and Jim Al Khalili for instance – have a vital role to play in reminding people that we are human after all. That Brian Cox was in D:Ream and is prepared to go on chat shows has done a great deal to reassure people that here at last is one human scientist (though these are actually things that most people would never have the opportunity to do, they seem like ‘normal’ activities to many). They need to realise that many more of us do indeed bleed, have depression and feel anxious much of the time, even if they very occasionally also sport a white lab coat.