Defining scientists

I never quite know what to say when people call me a scientist. I take it as a compliment, certainly, but I'm usually unsure as to whether I can apply the word to myself or not. Is a scientist defined by their journey through the academic meat grinder? By expert knowledge? By skeptical thought? The popular imagery of scientists is often of a socially-inept nerd or of a mad scientist, both archetypes representing scientists as being so detached from the public that they almost literally don't speak the same language. As I've said before I find this characterization unfortunate, but in order to change the state of things it may be profitable to consider who we are talking about when we use the term "scientist."

Before continuing I'd like to refer you to posts on this general subject written by Chad (1 & 2) and Janet (1 & 2) this week (all of which got me thinking about this subject again). The concept of science, as we now understand it, is a relatively new thing. Up until the mid-19th century "science" generally referred to any system of knowledge, i.e. theology was said to be the "queen of the sciences." Explorations into the workings of nature, from the motion of planets to the construction of cells, were contained within "science" but such endeavors had many neighbors that we would now consider non-scientific (like a "perfect" system to teach yourself the violin). Research in the natural sciences was often carried out by those with the free time and the money to do it, but the study of the natural world by observation and experimentation did not truly proliferate until there were established journals, societies, and other institutions that created a community of scientists.

While the natural sciences got their start with the activities of those we might presently call "amateurs" and "independent researchers," the professionalization of science that occurred in the 19th century often pushed non-professionals aside. Science was to have an establishment to train new researchers and provide forums for discussions; the amateur rock hound had no place within the refined circles of organized geology, for instance. Take the excavation of Brixham cave in 1858-1859. A cave containing the remains of recent fossil mammals was discovered in England, and the Geological Society formed a "Cave Committee" (containing members like Charles Lyell, Hugh Falconer, and Richard Owen) to oversee the local Torquay Natural History Society (TNHS) that would actually undertake the dig. The go-between in this venture was William Pengelly, an amateur geologist who had gained Falconer's respect, but he was the only one the members of the "Cave Committee" seemed to hold in high regard. The TNHS members were to dig up the bones with Pengelly recording the geological data and then everything was to be shipped to London so the theorizers of the GS could have a look and publish. When stone tools manufactured by humans were found, concrete evidence of "men among the mammoths," the GS took even greater control of the site which lead to conflict with the amateur society. That said, if not for Pengelly's supervision the members of the TNHS had intended to dig straight down into the bone-bearing sediments without regard for context (something that would be of great importance when the stone tools were found). Although the venture had been initially framed as an activity between two groups of near equals, amateur geologists who knew the area and theorizers back in London, such events reflect the yearning of non-professionals to be respected and the lack of respect they often received from established groups.

We often unhesitatingly refer to figures like Lyell and Owen as scientists, but what about knowledgeable non-professionals like the members of the TNHS? Can we justifiably withhold the title because they did not hold degrees in anatomy, geology, or some other branch of science? Do we not use they term because they could not afford to turn their scientific interests into a career? If degrees really do make scientists then we would have to deny that Charles Darwin, for all his great work, was a scientist, too. This is not to say that the members of the TNHS were intellectually on par with or as scientifically significant as Darwin, but rather to illustrate that a degree did not necessarily a scientist make. Even as the professionalization and institutionalization of science continued there were still opportunities for avid amateurs to become involved. Charles Sternberg, for one, wrote to E.D. Cope about his grand hopes to collect fossils for the eminent paleontologist. Cope replied that he would take Sternberg on and supplied him with some start-up funding. As a more recent example, consider the career of Jane Goodall. She did not have an extensive formal training in zoology or behavior but after a chance meeting with Louis Leakey, and serving for a brief stint as his secretary, the elder anthropologist asked Goodall to study chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park.

While Sternberg might more often be referred to as a fossil hunter I would not hesitate to call him a scientist, and I certainly would not refrain from using the term to describe Goodall. Yet the opportunities they had are even more rare (and perhaps nonexistent) today. Speaking to a fellow college student this past weekend about careers in paleontology we commiserated over the difficulty of obtaining hands-on experience. We both had applied for internships at several institutions and had to hound administrators for responses (which always turned out to be negative). Even when we asked to volunteer, asking professionals for little more than the opportunity to learn, we received no replies. This can be disheartening, especially in a part of the country where opportunities to find fossils are rare and the closest specimens of interest are held in museums only accessible to professionals. Indeed, there sometimes seems to be a pernicious vicious circle that bars young scientists from gaining experience because they lack experience, and finding a way to break the cycle can be difficult.

Forgetting professional concerns for a moment, is a scientist someone who has expert knowledge of some aspect of nature and thinks critically? I have been called a scientist in this context, particularly when friends juxtapose my interests and thoughts with those of acquaintances of mine who are young-earth creationists, and such a definition throws out the entire amateur vs. professional dispute. Yet there is still the problem that science is seen as a productive enterprise involving a community; if you are not producing material to present to your peers then are you a scientist? The concept is too vague to really take hold, especially during a time when "scientist" is considered a career description. Outside academia making science a career can be extremely difficult, and even if you make it not having the academic pedigree can be a hindrance.

Unfortunately I can't answer many of the questions I've raised here, which is disconcerting being that one of my aspirations is to be a scientist. I can't imagine any particular moment when someone goes from not being a scientist to suddenly being one, nor do I think that an academic post and a PhD is always a necessary prerequisite. Still, pursuing professional science outside institutionalized academia is a daunting task, and it is certainly not for those who lack passion for their work. Too much consideration of these questions can easily produce headaches (I think I feel one coming on now...), particularly for students like myself. We attend schools and shell out tens of thousands of dollars for training but for the first four years are often little more than a continuation of high school, and students are asked to ingest and regurgitate a seemingly endless stream of information.* Maybe it's no wonder I don't feel like a scientist, after all.

[*I do not mean this as a dig at all professors, especially since I have had ones that have helped to foster my interest in science. Generally, however, and particularly in 100-level introductory courses, it is my experience that many professors are not as concerned with teaching students as with offering them an opportunity to fulfill a prerequisite determined by this department or that. In such courses professors engage in glorified babysitting and throw a few exams thrown in. I hope that this does not apply to many institutions of "higher learning" but I can only relate what I have had to endure myself.


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Oh, I just read this quip recently: Anyone can be a scientist, but if you want someone to pay you, it requires a PhD.

"Generally, however, and particularly in 100-level introductory courses, it is my experience that many professors are not as concerned with teaching students as with offering them an opportunity to fulfill a prerequisite determined by this department or that."

Honestly, most of the students in the course are just looking to fulfill the prerequisite as well. I can imagine being burned out by trying to teach such a course and repeatedly having my enthusiasm for the subject met with indifference or grade-grubbing.

It sucks that people won't take you on as a volunteer. In the molecular/cellular biological sciences, I haven't heard of students having trouble finding paid research opportunities. But the funding situation is very different, and for the professor or institution a volunteer isn't really free.

One definition of a scientist: A person who publishes results of original research in reviewed journals. This is a useful definition. If someone comes up to you claiming to be a scientist, and you doubt them, you can see if they fit this definition. If they do, and you still doubt them, you can go to a number of other legitimate definitions.

Some institutions, Harvard among them, I think, use their Nobel Lauriates, etc. for introductory courses. The idea being that these are the most important courses taught.

We had "General Education" courses, taken by non-science majors. My thought on these courses is that this is the science literacy we moan about. I taught with the goal of having students leave the class thinking biology is important, interesting, and understandable. In my career I've had a lot more non-majors in my classes than majors.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

I think the distinction made by Randall Munroe between scientists, who do it for a living, and sciencers, who do it for a hobby or as part of their way of looking at the world, is a useful one here...