Are scientists “we” or “they”?

Last week I blogged about what used to be one of my pet peeves: the apparent inability of senior academics to finish conference talks on time. I’ve been forced to move this off my pet-peeve list partly because I’ve joined the ranks of those ramblers-on. That means I’ve got room to add something new to the list, and here it is: why are students (both undergraduate and graduate) so reluctant to identify themselves as scientists?

It may not be obvious what I mean by that, so bear with me. My peeve, more specifically, is students* who refer to “scientists” in the third person. Maybe these snippets from recent grad-student talks sound familiar:

“Population ecologists have studied this question for decades, and they understand in some detail how population oscillations can be synchronized across space“


“One of the main ways scientists study selection is to correlate fitness measures with observed trait values”.

I’ve heard constructions like these hundreds of times over the years, and perhaps it’s only my own advancing age, but they bother me more and more. Of course it’s perfectly fine to refer to a particular scientist in the third person; but I think when students refer to scientists in general like this, they’re making an error that contributes to three problems:

  • Scientists-as-“they” signals that a student hasn’t yet made the most important transition we want them to make: from learning about science to producing We want students to realize that science is a process, not a collection of facts; and that they are part of that process as they work to discover new things and extend our understanding of the universe. Actually, this transition isn’t just important to graduate work; it defines what a graduate degree is – we don’t award the research Masters, or the PhD, without a student’s having made original contributions to science. A student referring to scientists as “they” doesn’t consider him or herself part of our collective endeavour. I would take this one step further, and argue that you can’t be part of it unless you consider yourself part of it: the attitude that you’re learning about science rather than doing it is likely to rule out appropriate skepticism, collaboration, and a lot of other things that are intrinsic to the process of science.
  • Scientists-as-“they” reinforces the popular notion that scientists are different, even alien, beings standing apart from regular, real people. This is why schoolkids asked to describe or draw a scientist still go for a stiff, boring, unemotional, older white man in a lab coat. Science certainly isn’t finished diversifying itself, but there’s more to us than that, and the stereotype is harmful in many ways. Most obviously, it holds back diversification by failing to recognize it; but it also fosters distrust in scientists, by casting them as other and apart from the public and from the concerns and circumstances of everyday life. Every time a normal, regular person (especially one with a piercing, or two X chromosomes, or an interesting skin tone, or an age under 40) self-identifies as being a scientist (“We understand how population oscillations can be synchronized across space”), we make a little progress. Of course, this is most effective when it happens in public – but if students don’t do it in a conference talk, odds are they aren’t doing it in public either.
  • Scientists-as-“they” feeds the related perception that scientific knowledge is arcana, held by a secretive cabal of scientists working away in ivory towers to satisfy their own frivolous curiosity. This is, in fact, what a lot of medieval and ancient science was like – most famously alchemy, but others, like Pythagorus, swore their followers to secrecy too. But of course in the modern world the whole point of doing science is to expand human knowledge, not just your own**. When science knows something, then, humanity knows something; and I’d like to see lay people too say “We understand how population oscillations can be synchronized across space”. (Or perhaps some less technically worded version of that.) But if grad students won’t say it, we can hardly expect the lay public to.

Of course, not all students are guilty of scientists-as-“they”. And the way students refer to scientists isn’t the entire cause, or even the main cause, of any of the problems I’ve mentioned. Senior scientists behaving badly are much, much worse (#AddAMaleAuthorGate, for instance). So if you’re a student reading this: my point here is not at all to pull you down. Instead I’m encouraging you to make a conscious decision that you now belong to the community of scientists, and that you’ll reflect that in the way you talk about science. Come on in – the water’s fine!

© Stephen Heard ( June 29, 2015

*To be clear, this one peeve doesn’t diminish the tremendous respect I have for students. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with many marvellous ones – in my own lab, in my department, at conferences, on Twitter, and so on. I even prioritize student talks at conferences because I know they’ll be (on average) much better than professor talks. I just have my one curmudgeonly gripe.

**Well, you could argue with me on this one with respect to research in industrial labs, and research leading to patents. By and large, though, science is for everyone.


7 thoughts on “Are scientists “we” or “they”?

  1. thespiderecologist

    I completely agree with you. The myth of scientists as “other” continues to persist and this is never more galling than when promoted (albeit inadvertently) by our students. The very worst examples of this are when specific disciplines (e.g. animal ecologists, molecular biologists, astrophysicists) are simply referred to as ‘scientists’. Now that really gets my goat!


  2. Manu Saunders

    I’ve never really thought about this in detail, but now that you mention it!…. As an early postdoc, I’m still not quite comfortable saying ‘we’ as a general pronoun for scientists. But I think there are two valid reasons for this. Firstly, isn’t that a natural progression in learning any profession? Shouldn’t we have to prove ourselves capable before we (and others) call ourselves a scientist? Because doesn’t having to prove yourself imply more effort than just being handed the title? Secondly, there’s a difference in ‘we’ in reference to own work & the ‘royal we’ as a ‘scientist’ – I’m quite happy to say ‘we found this’ etc. when I talk about my research. But if I’m referring to the body of knowledge that came before me, however relevant to my field, I can’t technically include myself in that – because I haven’t contributed to it.

    *On a historical note, the idea that Pythagoras encouraged secrecy & exclusion of his ideas is a misrepresentation (also applies to many other classical scientists). Pythagoreans had secret symbols & doctrines, like most other philosophical societies of the time. But Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Heraclitus and other contemporaries/successors all reference Pythagoras’ ideas, implying that some were secret & some not. Some historians now argue that the notion of Pythagorean secrecy was invented later to explain the lack of writings, and to validate newly-forged docs.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Manu!

      On Pythagorus: can you recommend a good source to read on this (for me and for others who might be interested)? I’ve run into all kinds of conflicting stories about Pythagorus and secrecy. I suspect you are right, and that some of his findings were secret and some were not – and I plead guilty to having oversimplified this for the purposes of the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Raymond Eckhart

    I come to the subject as neither a student (in a credentialed degree program, at any rate), nor a scientist, but as an interested layperson member of the public, fully vested in science outreach.

    My input … if scientists want to eschew more us v them discourse, then participation in public discourse as a member of the public (as an us, if you will) would be helpful, rather than setting themselves up as above the fray.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jonathan Leggo

    It was not so long ago that I began my Master’s degree, and was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was not to refer to my supervisor by his first name until I had obtained a doctorate. Until then, he was Dr. XYZ. I know that you run a much more open and friendly lab, but my experience was almost… adversarial? This formalized ‘boys club’ is rapidly falling by the way-side, but it is likely a part of what’s at issue here.

    Another aspect of it might just be self-confidence. Perhaps I am only speaking for myself, but it takes a lot of courage to give a conference presentation – you have to take ownership of all of your work: good, bad, and ugly (aka, the stuff you didn’t think of, but seems obvious to everyone else in the room). Putting yourself on an equal footing, not just with those in the room, but those others whose works you rely on to form your arguments, can feel … almost pompous. Speaking from my own experience (not that I am necessarily the best example), I was (and am) much more likely to refer to myself as a biologist when presenting to a lay audience, than at a scientific conference.


  5. Pingback: Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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