Saturday, June 16, 2012

nerd scientist, evil scientist....,

wired | To many – too many – science is something like North Korea. Not only is it impossible to read or understand anything that comes out of that place, there are so many cultural differences that it’s barely worth trying. It’s easier just to let them get on with their lives while you get on with yours; as long as they don’t take our jobs or attack our way of life, we’ll leave them in peace.

That’s very frustrating to scientists, who often bemoan the lack of public interest in what science has to say. They’re right to be frustrated: all our futures are dependent on proper engagement with science. So, how to solve this problem?

In recent years, like fervent evangelicals, scientists have begun to instigate outreach programs. If people could only hear about how exciting science is, the thinking goes, they’ll be converted. Then we’ll finally be able to get on with tackling climate change, creationism in the classroom, stem cell research and so on.

The trouble is, those who are already fans of science lap it up while everyone else shrugs – and nothing has really changed. That’s because the problem doesn’t lie with the science. It lies with the scientists. Or rather the myth the scientists have created around themselves.

Just over a decade ago, a cadre of researchers carried out an interesting experiment at an elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina. They showed the students a gallery of 10 portraits and asked them to identify which ones were scientists. The portraits were all scientists, in fact. However, the children “showed a decided tendency to identify the smiling pictures as not being scientists.” Clearly, scientists are not people who smile.

Then there’s the ongoing and ever-entertaining “Draw A Scientist” experiment. It’s been done in various ways since 1957, and the result has always been pretty much the same. Ask children in second grade and upwards to draw a scientist, and you are presented with a white male wearing a white lab coat, glasses and an excess of facial hair. This stereotype persists: when Seed magazine asked adults in New York’s Madison Square Park to take the test, they came out with the same stereotype. Hilariously, even scientists do it.

But this comical spectacle takes a more sinister turn when you ask children to draw a second scientist. In one fourth grade class set this task, almost half the children drew images containing danger and threat: Frankensteins, bombs, poisons and even one scientist holding a test tube high over his head while shouting, “With this I destroy the world”.

We are not consciously aware of it, but we have a deeply-rooted suspicion of scientists. They are not like us. They are not fun, they are not well turned-out human beings, and if pushed, we will admit we think they are dangerous. To find where this came from, we have to visit the post-war period of our history.

In a piece written for the January 1956 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the geneticist Jacob Bronowski makes a rather shocking claim. “People hate scientists,” he says. “There is no use beating about the bush here.”

This attitude arose, Bronowski said, as people learned about some of the recent achievements of science: atomic bombs, rocket-powered missiles, nerve gas tests carried out on unwitting soldiers and civilians and gruesome experiments on prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates. No wonder Winston Churchill declared in 1951 that it was “arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engines”. Fist tap Dale.

10 comments:

umbrarchist said...

The majority of so called science fiction stories today do not have scientists as characters. They are either adventurers or even entrepreneurs who use technology.

But it is not science that matters, it is reality. Science is merely the study of how reality works. The majority of so called scientists make things more complicated than necessary to make themselves look smart.

Scientists have made a joke of themselves with this ten year old 9/11 business. Where has any SCIENTIST discussed how steel must be distributed down a skyscraper just so it can hold itself up? If scientists will not raise an issue that simple why should they be taken seriously? And then they won't point out that economists say nothing about the total depreciation of all of the cars around the world. Is that too difficult a concept for SCIENTISTS?

This is about how Europeans compartmentalise knowledge and everybody is supposed to stay in their own compartment.

Tom McNamara said...

Cosign, except that we're all Europeans including you.

Tom McNamara said...

No, my bad, not quite all. My cab driver in NYC recently was Senegalese. He's African. He just says straight out, "we have a lot of technical talent in west Africa and very little interesting stuff to work on there, we have a lot of positive feelings about the US, while you guys are in need of more brains. You should let us come here and help you."


I could hear him and see him, but based on that text he might as well be from Finland. F**k all this ethnic bull crap.

Dale Asberry said...

One of my favorite sites is AfriGadget. Some of the things those creative, intelligent Africans can do with nothing is simply amazing.

Tom said...

I gotta check that out.

umbrarchist said...

Every culture is a form of group think. How do you explain double-entry accounting being invented in Europe 700 years ago and yet Western culture doesn't even hint that it should be mandatory for everyone?

But then these Euro-economists constantly talk about ECONOMIC GROWTH. Oh yeah, Critical Thinking is high on the list too. Is this a culture of liars.

Tom said...

Yes, we belong to a culture of liars. I accept that Marimba Ani stuff. You have hit the nail on the head: we are supposed to be smart about what we PUT IN to the economic pie and dumb about what we TAKE OUT of it.
http://dilbert.com/dyn/str_strip/000000000/00000000/0000000/000000/20000/0000/900/20988/20988.strip.gif

I just read the average American household lost 40% of its net worth between 2007 and 2010. Lost? Left it on the BUS? WTF?
Umbra you and I need "our people," who are the SAME PEOPLE, to be armed with financial self-defense techniques. (Some of us don't like each other, because we are confused and think we're different peoples. I don't think we solve that problem by agreeing with them.)

(Tangent here, but I DON'T accept that double-entry accounting was necessarily invented in Italy just as Italy got back on the world trade network in the 1200s or whenever. I bet they absorbed it from a trading partner. But I realize that's not the key to what you're saying.)

Tom said...

"
Every culture is a form of group think"


I think that one is worth putting up on the wall, Umbra.

arnach said...

Umbra,
With all due respect "...won't solve something that simple in ten years?" Bullshit. How about one month: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=when-the-twin-towers-fell
More backup: http://sydney.edu.au/engineering/civil/wtc.shtml
And if anyone else out there wants to find a conspiracy where none exists, I suggest you brush up on the Dunning–Kruger effect.

arnach said...

Besides, why would you ask a scientist to do an engineer's job in the first place?