Nothing stops a conversation at a party quicker than the words “I’m a scientist.” I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had the following conversation:
“So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a scientist”.
“Oh, really? That’s fascinating, what are you studying?”
“Biochemistry and Cell Biology”
Unsurprisingly, no one knows how to carry on from there. This is mostly because I haven’t yet worked out how to verbalise my work into something remotely understandable (even to myself). However, I do believe that the unrealistic portrayal of scientists in the media makes it harder to explain what we really do on a day-to-day basis.
The problem I find with scientists in the media is that there seems to be only a few categories they’re allowed to fit into. Below is a list of what I believe are the main types of scientist presented to the public:
The Evil Genius: Sadly, I think the most common type of scientist in the media is the megalomaniac genius who tries to take over the world. This is an unfortunate stereotype and I can state with some confidence that none of the scientists I have come across in my career have had dreams of world domination.
The Super-Geek: Usually men but sometimes women too (see the U.S. sitcom The Big Bang Theory for examples of both). They are asthmatic, allergy-ridden neurotics with an inability to communicate with the opposite sex. Some scientists are indeed like this, but then again so are some accountants. The point is that this portrayal seems to indicate that most scientists suffer from social afflictions, which just isn’t true.
The Know-it-all: These seem to crop up a lot in Hollywood blockbusters. They often manage to know about an abnormally huge range of scientific theories which help to save the day. If the Know-it-all is female, there is a high chance they’ll be wearing a tank top and tiny shorts (for example Dr. Christmas Jones from the Bond film The World is Not Enough). I don’t want to say this is unrealistic, because perhaps there are nuclear physicists who go to work in tiny shorts and have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything scientific. However, most scientists are specialists in a particular field – e.g. cancer, astrophysics or biochemistry – and are unlikely to have the extremely broad range of knowledge the Know-it-all appears to have on board.
The Moral Vacuum: To me, this is the most frustrating portrayal. This scientist ignores any moral or ethical boundaries to make the next big discovery. A good example of this was in the BBC’s most recent series of Sherlock; specifically the Hounds of Baskerville episode. This is in general an entertaining show, but I was a bit dismayed by the portrayal of the scientists in this episode. They did cruel and unnecessary experiments on both animals and humans just to see what would happen. There was even a line when one scientist was asked why they were making fluorescent rabbits, she replied “because we can.” In reality, doing any sort of animal experimentation requires a licence and there are legal documents in which you have to explain exactly how your proposed experiments will be beneficial and that they have a specific purpose. “Because we can” is not an excuse and will never be accepted as one. Don’t get me wrong, I know this is just a show, but it doesn’t do our reputation any good when it appears that scientists are willing to throw out any ethics to achieve their dream of making a famous (or infamous) discovery. Admittedly some scientists, past and present, may be morally dubious but on the whole we’re an ethical lot.
Generally speaking, most scientists live a relatively normal life and don’t fit any of these stereotypes. Many of my colleagues and scientist friends are in stable relationships and are perfectly able to talk to members of the opposite sex, including non-scientists. Many go out and have a good time and regret it the day after. We too have to deal with office politics and occasionally poor boss-employee relations. Personally, when I’m not at work I like watching Pixar movies, eating at nice restaurants with my boyfriend, going to the pub and other typical sociable activities.
Of course, scientists aren’t the only career group who are pigeon-holed by popular media. I’m sure lawyers have similar gripes about Ally McBeal, and doctors with ER or House. However, I do feel that we scientists have it particularly tough as most of the stereotypes presented are negative or even downright scary.
So take it from me, if you meet a scientist at a party, don’t assume that they are like any of the characters shown in the media. Although we do know some pretty interesting technical stuff, we are just as comfortable, if not more comfortable, chatting about films or which local pubs serve the best beer!
Post by: Louise Walker