A reflection on the recent coverage on the public’s perception of scientists

There has been a lot of coverage recently on how science and scientists are perceived by the public. It is clear that, despite the increasing levels of quality public engagement work, the long-standing stereotypes still dominate. This isn’t a new issue, but it is still an important one.

There have been many ‘draw a scientist’ experiments over the years, and people still continue to do them in order to demonstrate how people think about scientists. The Natural History Museum asked visitors to their museum ‘Late’ in September 2010 to draw a scientist when they arrived at the museum. The majority of the sketches clearly depicted scientific stereotypes; unkempt scientists, boffins, explorers (e.g. Indiana Jones lookalikes), scientists asking questions or with light bulbs over their heads, or scientists at work (often with bubbling test tubes).

From: After Hours – Science Uncovered, 24 September 2010, Impact Assessment Report, NHM

These types of drawing are also done by young children. In 2010, a 7th grade class (year 8) went on an annual field trip to Fermilab.

Our regular field trip assumes that teachers have attended a workshop, and students have studied an instructional unit about Fermilab before they visit the Lab. During this field trip docents lead the group to the 15th Floor where they can see experimental areas from the windows, look at a large site model and more. They also visit the first two accelerators, stop at the cancer therapy area and go on to the Main Control Room. They spend time at the Lederman Science Center with our collection of hands-on exhibits that explain the ideas, tools and methods of Fermilab science, and they meet with a physicist or engineer for Q&A. Usually the scientist brings something from his/her work to show the students. Sometimes the docent does some cryogenics demos. Students are free to ask any questions they like. Most teachers have the students prepare a few questions before they come.

What we changed for this field trip was the before and after descriptions and small group sessions for each student to meet with two of three physicists rather than one large group session. We deliberately chose a typical white male, a young female and an African American physicist. We let the students and physicist take their discussion where they wanted.

Emphasis added

Many of the children’s descriptions written before they met the scientists included one or more aspects which are commonly seen in stereotypical depictions of scientists; balding, mad or evil, lab coat wearing, holding bubbling tests tubes of coloured liquids. However, the after descriptions showed a radical change in the children’s perceptions.

Reproduced by kind permission of Fermilab Education Office

This clearly shows that society’s misconception about scientists and science is deep rooted, and that people are exposed to these stereotypes from an early age. Trips, such as the one described above, are invaluable in helping communicate the realities of being a scientist.

Many scientists (understandably) are fed up with being associated with these negative connotations. A new tumblr blog, This is What a Scientist Looks Like, has recently appeared.

This website is dedicated to changing the overwhelming stereotype that science is conducted behind closed doors by unapproachable old, white men. While some scientists do work in a lab, others spend their days traveling the world looking for rare insects, or underwater studying sharks, or up a volcano collecting rocks. Scientists enjoy food, dancing, music, and traveling. There are many women in science, and the number of minorities in the field is steadily increasing. 

The blog seeks to challenge the stereotyped image by asking scientists to send in pictures of themselves. They can be of any part of the researcher’s life; they could be at work, at home, or doing extra-curricula activities

Amelia Perry - Physical Chemist. This is Amelia indulging in her extra curricular activity of roller derby where she skates under the name “Superoxide” for the Birmingham Blitz Dames. Photograph taken by China Blade (chinablade.net)
The caption for this simply says "This is me in a lunch break…I´m a Dr. in Inorganic Chemistry"

As the blog says “there is no single clear-cut path to becoming a scientist. A scientist can come from any background. There is no cookie-cutter mold of what a scientist looks like. A scientist can look like you, or can look like me. There is no rule that scientists can’t be multidimensional and can’t have fun.” The blog was set up in response to a new movement that came out of this year’s Science Online conference, ‘I Am Science’. The beginnings of this movement are summed up expertly by Christie Wilcox in her Scientific American blog.

A lot of industries and people deal with misconceptions about what they do and, as demonstrated here, science is no exception. As I said before, this is no a new issue, but when so much of our future is dependent on applied science and technology surely more should be being done to challenge the stereotypes so that more people consider scientific research as a career path.

4 thoughts on “A reflection on the recent coverage on the public’s perception of scientists

  1. Reblogged this on engaging TALK and commented:
    This is a great article by Lizzie Crouch reflecting on the lack of progress in changing the public perception of science and scientists. I usually work from the other end of the stick – trying to change scientists perceptions about the public, so this was a nice read for me.

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