No passion please, we’re scientists

In which I put a damper on all this over-invoked passion.

Regular readers of this blog (you know who you are, you two – stop giggling at the back), or of others in the OT stable where I can be found grumbling in the comments, will know that I have an abiding loathing – you might even call it a *cough* passionate *cough* hatred – for PR bullshit, promotional-speak, and the misuse of language in things like job adverts.

This came up just yesterday in a conversation after Sylvia Mclain’s latest interesting blogpost on ‘The Life Scientific’. As we discussed over there, most scientists are committed to their work, and to the idea of science as a way to try and discern as much of the truth about the natural world as we can. Let’s face it, you would have to be pretty seriously committed to it to put up with stuff like this. Or this. Or this.


…WHY THE **!* does that commitment mean that people always have to reach for that over-used, and abused, word, ‘passionate’?

A few years back, job adverts in science always asked for people who were ‘enthusiastic’.

No longer, though. The bar has been raised. Now you have to be, not dreary run-of-the-mill enthusiastic, but passionate.

I was reminded of this again today when the British Pharmacological Society tweeted this:

Now, though I am not a member of the BPS, they are a sister society to the Phys Soc, and I’ve worked almost all my career in joint physiology-pharmacology departments so lots of my friends and colleagues are members. Anyway, I feel a sort of kinship. But, while I am a longtime advocate for ‘Education and Outreach’, there are some things that you simply can’t let go.

So I tweeted back:

This generated a few responses from the Twittersphere, including one from a Twitter pal of mine, an ex-postdoc and medical writer whose Nom de Tweet is @DrunkenOaf.

He pointed me to the following excellent clip, where comedian David Mitchell gets on his Soapbox and gives the modern promotional misuse of ‘passion’ a good old-fashioned kicking. I was cheering Mitchell on all the way.

David Mitchell pours cold water on passion

Interestingly, David Mitchell CLOSES his argument with an example from the world of – you guessed it – Universities.

No, no, I’m not going to tell you which University is

‘Passionate about everything we do.’

You’ll just have to watch the clip and find out.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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28 Responses to No passion please, we’re scientists

  1. Bob O'H says:


  2. Cromercrox says:

    The transition from ‘enthusiasm’ to ‘passion’ is an exams of the well-known phenomenon called ‘semantic bleaching’ in which words used for specific things get so overused for things for which they weren’t intended that they tend to lose meaning or impact.

    I have a few pet peeves in the bullshit-bingo department. The only people who are ‘committed’ should be those sectioned under the Mental Health Act. And ‘rolling out’ should be reserved for carpets or cake icing.

    • Austin says:

      Thanks, Henry. I hadn’t heard ‘semantic bleaching’ before, but it is an excellent term for the phenomenon. PR departments, of course, are key ‘enablers’ in this since they are always looking for new hyperbolics. Recall how every University in the UK (and practically every other organisation that ever hired a PR man, actually) now insists on describing itself as ‘world-class’.

      Agree about ‘committed’, as well, another word I dislike. “Bearing down” on problems is another bullshit PR-speak motif that sets my teeth on edge. There was a time during the Blair Years when virtually every Govt spokesperson being interviewed seemed to be under standing orders to announce that they were ‘bearing down’ on the problem du jour.

      BTW, ‘rolling out’ at our place usually refers to my Other Half’s truly excellent home-made pizza dough.

  3. Stephenemoss says:

    The use of ‘passion’ in such a context is not only unnecessary, it is also open to misinterpretation. According to the dictionary definition, the Pharmacological Society’s ad could be read as:

    “We’re recruiting an Education & Outreach Officer – great post for anyone with a deep, overwhelming emotion 4 #pharmacology or #bioscience

    or how about

    “We’re recruiting an Education & Outreach Officer – great post for anyone with an ardent love 4 #pharmacology or #bioscience

    or slightly alarmingly

    “We’re recruiting an Education & Outreach Officer – great post for anyone with a strong sexual desire 4 #pharmacology or #bioscience

    Of course the definition the HR copywriters allude to is ‘boundless enthusiasm’. But I’m with you on this one, I think simple ‘enthusiasm’ is as much as one could expect or hope for in an applicant for such a post.

    • Austin says:

      Yes, agreed that ‘passionate’ is actually a bad (PR) choice of word there, as it conveys (on the more standard reading of the word) a kind of fan-style emotional reaction.

      I was commenting to ‘Er Indoors that ‘passionate’ is the sort of word my (undergraduate) students tend to use in their statements when they apply to medical school – “I am passionate about using my scientific knowledge to help people’, and so on – and which I often cross out and suggest replacing with something more reasoned and less gushing. She commented, a bit like you, that it is an inappropriate word in that specific context since one does not want to select in medicine for people whose primary reaction to things is all emotion rather than reason. I actually think the students’ use of it reflects mostly the wider modern (mis)use of the word through Henry’s ‘semantic bleaching’.

  4. Lee Turnpenny says:

    I take ‘passion’ to mean ‘suffering’ and blame the HR mis-moguls, whose raison d’être it often seems, judging by the amount of time and spinning-effort it takes to fill in their blasted application forms, is to actively put people off applying and turn academic science into a great management PR pretence game. ‘Don’t even think about working here unless you are prepared to be abused and discarded if you don’t get us into the top ten.’ In that regard, perhaps it is not so inappropriate.

    • Austin says:

      Yes, I’m reminded of a friend of mine who, reading the criteria of how ‘world-leading’ a researcher you had to be to merely apply for an academic job at one ‘world-class research-intensive University’ (read: Russell Group), commented bitterly:

      ‘And if you have actually CURED cancer, we may in exceptional circumstances be prepared to consider you for a SENIOR Lectureship!”

      Did you read this old post on the language of job ads, Lee? Written in 2005, but things haven’t got any better since, though they have got more ‘passionate’ (not in a good way).

      • cromercrox says:

        Lee’s right. St Matthew Passion and all that. Of course, language is protean and words change their meaning all the time. The word ‘glamour’ once meant magic, probably of a dark kind. The word ‘knight’, as in ‘knight of the realm’, started from the OE cniht which means a young boy.

        • cromercrox says:

          Not to mention ‘prestigious’, which also means magical (qv ‘glamour’)

          • I knew ‘prestige’ had some association with magic, but I didn’t know ‘glamour’. Interestingly, in the Southern-vampire-gothic TV series True Blood (which is one of my little vices), and apparently in the series of books it is derived from, the vampires have the power to control the minds of humans somewhat by a process they call ‘glamouring’ them, which must relate to the use of the term for magic.

            I always like it when you find that an author has gone to the trouble of thinking up a proper term for something with some good authentic-y word associations. So good on author Charlaine Harris.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    What’s next – “applicants must have a science fetish’?

    • Austin says:

      Now there’s a thought.

      “Your love affair with science must go BEYOND mere passion, and into the realms of dark obsession…”

      Will references be sought, one wonders?

  6. biochembelle says:

    “I loves the sciencessss. It cames to me. Must keep it from tricksy hobbitses. It’s mine… my own… myyyyyy prrrrecioussssss.”

  7. Stephen Moss says:

    If ‘passion’ is an inappropriate requirement for a job applicant, such language can pale alongside the actual titles given to the positions themselves. ‘Education and Outreach Officer’ just about ticks the acceptability box, but this feature on the BBC web site ( has some priceless examples, my favourite perhaps being ‘dynamic paradigm orchestrator’.

  8. cromercrox says:

    From Katharine Whitehorn’s column in the Observer colour supplement of 5 August:

    ‘It is odd to recall that in the 18th century you could insult someone by saying they were guilty of “enthusiasm” – it implied a reckless lack of sober judgment’.

    Is nothing sacred?

  9. J Elliott says:

    I don’t value a ‘passionate’ dentist/car mechanic/receptionist/baker .. I just want a really competent filling/new exhaust/direction/loaf of bread. I agree with Lee that what passionate really implies is ‘prepared to put up with a lot of nonsense’ and with a hint that you would also behave unethically in order to do what it takes.

  10. Destry Freshwater says:

    This is stupid. The video of David Mitchell doesn’t touch on science at all, it does sound retarded to be passionate about taxes or sofas, and indeed having it for everything you do, but to say passion in general is something to scoff at just kind of makes you look like a dick. Considering that there are a lot of people these days who are genuinely passionate about science, it’s not terrible to want that in someone who is attempting to be doing things to further the progress of humanity.

    It makes me think of Bukowski. You presented it well, and in a very educated manner, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t a stupid fucking asshole.

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