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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.