Who is a Scientist? Why does it matter? (Part 1)

What is your favorite school subject? Why?

In mid-September 2019 Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old from Sweden, told the US congress that they should “listen to the scientists” on the topic of climate change, referring to the IPCC report.

In this particular case, it was all too obvious WHO these scientists are (if you want specific names, simply look up the acknowledgement section of the report). But more generally, when we are told “science tells us…” or “scientists tell us…” we usually don’t have a specific scientist in mind to refer the audience to. And to make things worse, the term “Scientist” doesn’t always mean the same thing for everyone, which is true for BOTH scientists and non-scientists.

This question of HOW do people perceive “A Scientist” has been bothering many people over the years, for various reasons. One such reason is how youth (from smaller kids to teens) perceive what a scientist looks like and how they “do science”. The rationale for asking such a question is typically attributed to the need for more scientists in our ever-increasing technological world, yet youth are still avoiding taking up science heavy studies in university and college, as well as for their career paths. The hope is that by understanding where the negative view of science comes from, scientists and educators can solve this problem.

There are many research papers asking this sort of question, but one particular method, especially attractive for younger kids, is the “Draw A Scientist Test” or DAST. Here is a (very) condensed history of how it came about. I’ll keep it contained within a single paragraph, so feel free to skip the next one if you’re not interested in a short history of this tool.

Most research into the stereotypical image of “A Scientist” attributes Mead and Metraux’s paperfrom 1957 as the origin of the DAST, where they analyzed recurring themes in 35,000 essays from high school students where they describe how they perceive scientists and how they work. The actual DAST was proposed in 1983 by David Wad Chamberwho then suggested using drawings, rather than essays, as a way to tap into younger kids’ perception of the “Scientist” stereotype. This was a positive idea since we know that kids form their view on career paths at a much younger age than high-school, and probably way before they are able to articulate their thinking in an essay format. The next step in the DAST development came in 1995 when Finson, Beaver and Cramondsuggested using a standard checklist to evaluate the drawings product by the DAST. But still, lots of concerns were raised by the DAST, some of which were attributed to the prompt (which was typically as simple as “Draw A Scientist”). To mitigate this uncertainty, Ferland-Smith suggested a modified prompt for the DAST in 2012. There are still many issues with this tool, but that will make this paragraph an essay in its own right, which is not my intention.

Whether you skipped the previous paragraph, or not, welcome back. Now that we have a “tool” to see how people (young, old, it doesn’t matter) perceive “A Scientist” what do we see? Unsurprisingly, even at recent as a paper from 2020 by Ferguson and Lezotte, the most common features of a scientist are:

Findings suggest that students’ perceptions of scientists have largely remained consistent across time: scientists are still perceived as Caucasian, middle-aged or elderly males who wear lab coats and work indoors.

Other noteworthy features of a stereotypical scientist include glassware used in chemical experiments such as beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that for a significant percentage of the population, a “typical scientist” is a chemist (or something closely related). Now as a chemist myself, I find it both flattering but also concerning. Are chemists truly the exemplary model of “A Scientist”? Must we wear a lab coat and use chemicals to be deemed to be “doing science”? As a physical chemist (which is a subfield within chemistry) I actually spent most of my time NOT wearing a lab coat or handling chemicals (at least in the popular vision of chemicals – meaning dangerous liquids and stuff). So even for myself, the stereotypical image of “A Scientist” fails to capture my typical scientific work. Now extrapolate to non-chemists, such as physicists, biologists, geologists, mathematicians, archeologists, anthropologists, sociologists….. and we seem to have a pretty SERIOUS problem of how little the stereotypical view of a scientists really captures a REAL typical scientist.

WAIT! I hear you scream….. are mathematicians scientists? How about archeologists, anthropologists and sociologists? and what about computer scientists, economists, linguists? Now we’re going down a rabbit hole, because we now need to answer not just “Who is A Scientist” but also, “What counts as Science?” Let me just say that this latter question definitely deserves its own post, so put it aside for a moment. Let’s assume we have an idea of “What is Science”, and go back to “Who Is A Scientist”. I hope you already see the issue with the typical lab coat + goggles + chemical lab issue. If you’re paying attention (and I hope that you are), the title for this piece is “Who is a scientist? Why does it matter?” So why DOES it matter?

The simple answer is TRUST. It should come with no surprise to you that the way people perceive scientists also influences the trust they are willing to put in them. This is especially evident in public debates about topics which the public feels are conflicting with certain ideologies and beliefs, which is when people begin to question their trust in scientists and therefore in science. A relatively recent study in 2019 by Suldovsky, Landrum, and Stroud, tried to look into exactly this question: Who does the public trust, when it comes to climate change and genetically modified organisms? The answer:

compared to other people who work in science, those with PhDs in Biology and Chemistry are most commonly seen as scientists

So now we see that not only does the scientist as a chemist stereotype persist, there is a perception that having a PhD is needed to “count” as a scientist. And once again, the reality that scientific work is conducted by sooooooo many individuals with a wide range of qualifications (certificates, bachelor degrees, masters degrees as the most common), this limited view of “A Scientist” makes it all too easy for people to discount professional opinion by experts that relies on deep knowledge and experience, leveraging mountain of evidence accumulated over decades and scrutinized by joint efforts of an international community, simply for the lack of that expert having a very specific degree in a very specific field of study.

So should we do? What CAN we do? Well, the good news is that stereotypes can be broadened (not broken) to capture a more diverse representation by being exposed to a broader representation of scientists. As science educators and communicators, we MUST be purposeful in showing, talking, creating experiences that will allow everyone, across the ages, to be exposed to the diverse nature of science and scientists. Have these conversations in your outreach events and in your classroom visits. Be explicit when you mention a scientist to include WHICH field of science they belong to. Building trust in scientists is a necessary step in getting people to trust in science.

p.s. I had the pleasure of leading a discussion about this exact topic at the SciCommTO conference this past weekend, where I asked participants to “Draw A Scientist” which is the source of the two drawings included in this article, for which I am grateful.

Final note: I’ve avoided the issue of gender and race (remember, the stereotypical image of a scientist includes being male, caucasian, wearing lab coat and glasses, and working indoors) since both are also issues that are worth their own posts, so heads up for future parts of this series.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn and reproduced with permission from the author.

Dr. Alon Eisenstein is the Educational Programs Director at Pueblo Science. He received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Toronto and M.Sc. from Ben Gurion University. Alon loves to demonstrate and explain neat science experiments to all ages and is a great supporter of promoting science education, since science is all around us. You can follow Alon’s musings about Pueblo Science and anything related to science on his blog.

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