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!

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