The image of scientists


Carl Zimmer reviews A Flock of Dodos, and also brings up that worrisome issue, the image of scientists in this country. Cosmic Variance is talking about image, too. Scientists get called “inarticulate”, “high-handed”, “stiff” and “arrogant”. “Arrogant” is terribly unfair as a criticism—a bit of arrogance is a virtue, and is exactly what you need in someone who is going to stick his neck out…and the creationists from Gish to Behe have possessed a superabundance of arrogance themselves.

As for inarticulate, that’s not quite right either. Listen to a talk by a scientist, and while there are many who are wooden, there are also many who are enthusiastic and passionate and funny. I’ve heard Gould and Crick and JZ Young and Ted Bullock and Dawkins and Mike Land talk, and they were terrific; a good science talk is a good story with it’s own rhythms and rules. The problem is that if you put those same speakers in front of a lay audience, the listeners don’t know the language, and the speaker is deprived of a large chunk of their vocabulary. They can charge ahead and speak over the audience and get accused of arrogance, or try to gear down and struggle to explain basic words and concepts that they usually invoke simply by naming, and then they get accused of being inarticulate. Teaching undergraduates is helpful practice, but the majority of our hot, well-known scientists are famous for their research, and typically have light teaching loads. Those of us who do invest a lot of time in explaining things to freshman don’t often have the research clout to warrant the popular speaking invitations.

I sure don’t know where the answer lies. I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists. Zimmer mentions the blank stare he got from scientists when ID was brought up, and there’s a good reason for that: it just isn’t an important focus for most of us.