Photo: Not doing science (© Jamie Heard)
Warning: navel gazing (again).
How much is science something apart, and how much is it connected to politics and human personality? This question has been in the air a lot lately, for example in discussion around the US (and global) Marches for Science. My point today isn’t to recapitulate those discussions. They resonated with me, though, because of my evolving thinking about my presence online.
When I first took up social media, I was determined that I would keep my Twitter and blog profile purely professional. I would tweet and blog only about science, and put personality, politics, and pretty much everything else aside. I was even a little derisive about this, making fun of people who live-tweet their breakfasts. But I think this was wrong, and I’ve started to loosen up a little. I’m open to sharing a pretty picture, mentioning something I’m doing, or saying something about a non-science social or political issue. In short, I’m letting a bit more of myself outside science show through in what I do online.
This is not because I think I’m a particularly interesting person outside science. Anything but. I don’t conquer mountains, design new schemes to prevent homelessness, or invent new extreme sports. I read*, I blog, I curl, I cook, I hang out with my family. I sit on a couple of volunteer boards. None of those things is unusual or even very interesting – and that’s actually exactly my point. To a disturbing degree, when members of the general public picture a scientist, they either picture someone cold and clinical with no existence outside the lab, or someone whose existence outside the lab is flashy and eccentric – Richard Feynman, say. But it’s an important message (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) that scientists are just other people, with all the same virtues and vices as our neighbours, and present in all the same places – the same coffee houses and bookshops and bowling alleys and churches. I’ve been a big fan of social-media initiatives like #ActualLivingScientist because they make exactly this point. In joining others who present themselves as scientists, but also as ordinary people, I’m taking a small step to correcting what I now see as an imbalance in my online profile.
Now, I’m not going to go crazy. I realize that people who follow me on Twitter or who read Scientist Sees Squirrel do it mostly for the science. (That’s true whether those folks are scientists themselves or not, and all are welcome.) So don’t expect me to post Instagram-style shots of my restaurant meals or to subject you to a detailed travelogue of my vacation (although I may muse about why I sometimes work during it). Perhaps you won’t even notice a shift. But I bring this up here for two reasons: first, as a mea culpa for anyone who remembers my early purist position; and second, as a contribution to the argument that scientists are just people and that we should present ourselves to the world that way. I don’t know what the optimum blend of science, personality, and politics might be, and others will surely continue to present different blends than I do. That might even be a useful message in itself. Science has room for a diversity of styles, just as it does (or should) for diversity of all kinds.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) June 13, 2017
*^In the photo: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, which I definitely recommend. It’s a historical/fantasy novel set in a world closely resembling Renaissance Europe. Pirates, spies, assassins, court intrigue, trade politics, and finely drawn characters, all written lyrically (as you’d expect from Kay). Why am I telling you this? Mostly because I’m insatiably curious about what other people are reading, and I’m projecting this on you.