Beware the men (and women) in white coats

There’s something incredibly authoritative about someone wearing a white lab coat. The minute I get into the lab and put mine on I feel powerful, knowledgeable, wise. This attitude changes as I realise I haven’t got a clue what my results actually mean… but for those 10 milliseconds each day I feel like I know things about science.

The problem is that a number of people involved in marketing have also cottoned on to the fact that someone wearing a lab coat and/or glasses looks clever and appears trustworthy. This has lead to a glut of adverts featuring ‘clever-looking’ people in lab coats telling you exactly why their toothpaste, pregnancy test or shampoo is the best. They often use fancy scientific-sounding words (which are sometimes entirely made up) to explain why their product is amazing then seal the deal by flashing you a trustworthy, knowledgeable smile – ‘trust me I look kinda like a doctor’.

A number of cosmetic companies use images scientists in a white coats to sell their products

Beware of these people! Just because they are wearing a lab coat, and usually glasses, doesn’t mean they are scientists or doctors. Even if someone is actually called “Dr”, this still doesn’t guarantee they know what they are talking about. I will (hopefully) be a doctor someday soon. When I finish my PhD I could put on my lab coat, fix you with a serious look, introduce myself as “Dr Walker” and give you a lecture about nutrition, shampoo or teeth; and you’d probably believe me. However, I know nothing about nutrition, shampoo or teeth for that matter and I will undoubtedly be talking absolute rubbish.

These advertisers are exploiting the fact that we are more willing to believe something if it is presented to us by someone who looks authoritative –  in this case, someone wearing a lab coat and/or glasses. Such ‘blind faith’ in authority figures was most famously studied by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961. In his experiment subjects thought they were giving an electric shock to another person in a different room. They had been informed that the person being shocked had a heart condition. Someone in authority would then prompt the subject to administer an electric shock to the other person in increasing doses, often causing them to scream in pain or bang on the wall. Shockingly, many test subjects were willing to administer a potentially lethal dose of electricity as long as they were prompted to do so by the person in authority. Fortunately the test wasn’t real and the person being ‘shocked’ was just an actor, but this experiment showed how people are more likely to go against their own judgement if someone in authority tells them it’s OK.

Obviously I’m not telling you to distrust the authority of your GP or any other medical specialist. These guys have spent many years studying their field and generally know what they’re talking about. I’m referring to the people who crop up on TV self assuredly promoting their own opinions on various controversial subjects, or trying to flog you some skincare products with promises like “it’ll reverse the ageing process due to the addition of polydeageinium*” or some other equally ridiculous statement. For an excellent assessment of the ‘science’ behind cosmetics and why these names they claim to give their creams are often totally bogus, see Ben Goldacre’s website.

A good example of how people’s trust in authority has been misplaced is the PIP breast implant scandal. A French company, Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) was using potentially dangerous non-authorised silicone for breast implants (see here for more detail on this story). This incident may have occurred because people trusted the chain of authority above them: the patient trusted their plastic surgery team, and the plastic surgery teams trusted their supplier (which was not a huge leap of faith since the PIP implants had been given the ‘CE’ mark, meaning they met European quality assurance standards). This incident has led to fears that the low-quality implants may rupture and, in some cases, have caused the patient a lot of pain. This story highlights how mistakes can be made and how blind trust in another persons authority may not always be a sensible choice.

The PIP story also highlights how divisions can appear within the medical community, with different groups claiming different things – some say the danger of rupture from the PIP-supplied implants is higher than that of medical-grade implants, others disagree. This differing of opinion has become a political issue as well as medical one (see here for more detail). Therefore, It’s also worth keeping in mind that opinions can differ even within the scientific community. This difference in opinion is not unusual since experimental findings are rarely black and white. However, understanding comes as more experiments are conducted, meaning that the consensus scientific opinion is often the closest to fact you can get. This means you should also be wary of ‘real doctors’ expressing opinions which are not held by the rest of the scientific/medical community.

Obviously, the PIP story is a rarity, but it does illustrate how sometimes people can blindly follow someone in authority, whether it’s a doctor, manufacturer or even the European Quality Assurance board! If you see someone on TV claiming to be a doctor or specialist in their subject giving their opinion on a matter which concerns you, it should be easy to search online and discover their credentials, and investigate whether what they are saying agrees with scientific opinion as a whole.

So be aware that a white coat and/or the fact that someone is a “doctor” does not automatically mean they know best. Trust me, I’m (almost) a doctor.

* “Polydeageinium” is not a real chemical. No one would ever seriously come up with a name that stupid would they? Would they??? Maybe I should copyright it, just in case…

Post by: Louise Walker

Scientists are People Too

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”

“Errrm …”

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