“Are You A Scientist?”

The Theatre at The Royal Institution

If you hang out with members of the scientific community for a while (say, more than about ten minutes) you will almost certainly be asked this question. I know this because I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked, mostly very politely and by immensely likeable people. I usually answer it with a jokey “No, I’m actually a chef, but I’m a science groupie” and the conversation moves on – I have a certain self-deprecating charm, even if I say so myself.

But the question doesn’t always have such genial overtones. Recently I went to an evening at The Royal Institution about the fear response and its effects, which was being hosted by a friend. The scientists speaking on the topic certainly had plenty of kudos – Dr Annemieke Apergis-Schoute and Dr Annette Bruehl were both fascinating and eloquent. But for a particular few, the framing of their talks was an issue.

The host was TV broadcaster Dallas Campbell, and Dallas is not a professional scientist but an enthusiastic cheerleader. We’re similar in many ways. The same age, we both pretty much managed to ignore science at school and pursue a life of drama instead (though his acting career was considerably more successful than my Guildhall Bronze Certificate lying in the bottom of my mum’s drawer). We both came back to science in our twenties by chance encounters (me with a Richard Feynman book at Monterey Aquarium, him with Richard Dawkins in a skip – long story), and we both now have a love of science while still seeing ourselves as “outsiders looking in”.

The Royal Institution had asked him to curate three evenings of lectures and he readily agreed – who wouldn’t? But there was never any question that he would provide any of the education content himself. He was there as the name, the face, the person who chose the topic and pulled in the punters. He was the pleasant icing that lured us to the substantial and filling cake underneath. So when the inevitable “are you a scientist?” question came from an audience member at the end of the show, I couldn’t help but think “No, but does it matter?”

I’m sure I will be asked more than once why I’ve started this blog, and while it’s easy and trite to call myself an “enthusiastic outsider” or a “cheerleader” for my friends, I have to wonder why that question matters. Are you interested in why somebody keeps a music blog of the gigs they’ve been to, a fashion blog, a fan site for their favourite soap actor? You might be, but to me the questions about my interest in science always seem to have an undertone… “What, are you weird? Why would you be interested in that? You must have an ulterior motive, surely…”

I’d always struggled to explain until Dallas told me his own brilliant analogy. Imagine if science were music. If you go to a music gig, nobody asks you if you have a music degree, or what particular field of music you work in. You don’t have to be a professional musician to love music, listen to records, watch concerts or anything else. And most of all, you don’t have to have a background in music theory or have mastered an instrument to give you an emotional response. It’s there, it’s innate, from the smallest baby with it’s mother humming it to sleep, to the 15 year old at their first gig, to the elderly man with his Shostakovitch vinyl. It’s just there, and nobody questions it. So why question a love of science? Surely our curiosity to analyse the world around us is innate too?

I’m lucky enough to have scientific friends who work in all forms of research and communication. And to them, my lack of qualifications matter one hell of a lot less than my enthusiasm to learn new things and my desire to plonk science snugly into my list of life experiences. So I will write this blog as an enthusiastic amateur, a dabbler, someone who is curious and passionate and proud of it. After all, if everyone who goes to a science communication event is a qualified scientist, doesn’t it mean sci-comm is failing? Do scientists want to talk to the people who hated the site of a test-tube at school, or preach to the converted?

Of course we must always ensure that science events are thoroughly researched by those qualified to do it, but in terms of presentation sometimes we need enthusiastic unqualified scientists, the people like Dallas and Robin Ince with their arts degrees, to draw people in with their sheer, demonstrative joy. The people who think science is boring, who hated pushing trolleys down ramps in physics lessons, whose sole interest in biology ended when the reproduction module was over, need that. There are plenty of scientifically qualified media personalities too, from the brilliant Jim Al-Khalili and Mark Miodownik on BBC4, through to Dr Chris and Dr Xand Van Tulleken, the identical twins at the heart of CBBC’s Operation Ouch. Their love of their work and their enthusiasm shines through. But to the determined science avoider, someone who can say “I didn’t like science at school either, but take a look at this….” plays an important role. Thank goodness The Royal Institution can see that.

Michael Faraday

And I think The Royal Institution get this more than many for a very special reason. He’s the man whose statue is at the top of this blog. Michael Faraday received very little formal education, and only had a very basic understanding of maths (he was OK at basic algebra but trigonometry was beyond him). And yet he was one of Britain’s greatest scientists. Faraday was talented in many fields, but arguably his greatest gift was to communicate his ideas clearly and simply.

Born in 1791, Faraday came from a poor family and received only a very basic education. He became apprenticed to a bookbinder at 14 but throughout his apprenticeship he read voraciously. At 20 his life changed forever when he attended a series of lectures by Humphry Davy at The Royal Institution, and subsequently sent Davy the copious notes he’d made. Davy employed Faraday as Chemical Assistant, then as his secretary, and the story of Faraday’s remarkable life begins there. It was too long and busy for me to write about here, but I really recommend you read a bit more about him. It’s easy to say, of course, that Faraday’s passion for science was always there and it was merely his class that held him back from a formal education. But to me, he has become a symbol of how its never too late to learn, and how a working class person like me can’t be held back from learning if my enthusiasm is intact.

My point is, Michael Faraday was not a “qualified” scientist. He held no degree and just a basic formal education. But his enthusiasm and determination to teach himself, and his bold experimentation, carried him through. Not everyone will be as brilliant or gifted as Faraday, in fact if someone matches his achievements in my lifetime I’ll consider myself blessed to have shared the planet with them. Yet he is the perfect example of how a love of science won out over paper qualification.

So when I watched a good mate presenting a science lecture at The Royal Institution I was proud, qualified scientist or not. Personally I don’t think Faraday would have been turning in his grave, he would have been right there in the front row with a big grin on his face.

Michael Faraday’s Laboratory in the basement of The Royal Institution

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25 Responses to “Are You A Scientist?”

  1. You are quite right, and I do believe there is a certain snobbishness to that type of behaviour. I will say thought, that there is something to it. I am a social scientist, with a B.Sc. in Psychology, which involved taking a year of pure science (chemistry, biology etc) in year one, before gradually specialising in psychology in years 2,3 and 4. I don’t mind admitting that going from the former to the latter changed my life. I almost arrived in the psych. labs in my white lab coat. Having gotten used to hard, experimental science, that’s what I expected. The practice of doing experiments from a hard science perspective (e.g. repeating experiments until the correct result is achieved) versus a soft science one (not being able to repeat many experiments because people twig what’s happening) really opened my mind.

    But you’re right to point out that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have a science qualification to be a scientist, though I do think that the *practice* of science can be quite a profound and long-lasting experience. In that regard, there is absolutely nothing to stop you from gaining it for yourself, without having to return to university. Get yourself a good notebook, and start observing, understanding, predicting and controlling whatever you’re interested in!

    • Tania says:

      Thanks for the comment! I can stretch the music analogy a little further, if I may. There are many types of musician, from the teenager practising a Matt Bellamy riff on his first electric guitar to the world class violinist. One obviously takes years and years of dedication, practise and discipline in comparison to the other, but both may take an equal amount of joy from finally cracking a piece that was difficult to them, whatever the level of “difficulty” from an impartial observer’s perspective.

      I’m not pretending their experience is equal, likewise with a professional researcher compared to an amateur scientist. We’ll attach a higher level of respect to the violinist because we can see the years of work, but we can also tip a wink at the guitarist whose enthusiasm outweighs his knowledge and skill, and tell him that if he works hard he can learn a lot more.

  2. Soozaphone says:

    Love this!

  3. I think you’re making two points here that are only semi-related. Faraday was a practising scientist, so he could be used as proof that yes, a degree is not a necessity to do brilliant research (in C19 at least). But your overarching point seems to be that you don’t need to be doing research professionally to be interested or even present research; I’m not sure how Faraday fits into the latter premise — presumably if you had asked him: “are you a scientist”, he would reply: “get out of my lab, I’m doing an experiment!”

    • Tania says:

      Fair point, well made. I think a great deal of credit must go to Humphry Davy for recognising Faraday’s talent despite his lack of education and humble origins (although Davy’s wife always treated him like a servant, which pained Faraday greatly). By the time Faraday was established at the RI it would of course have been very silly to suggest he wasn’t a scientist in the most vital sense of the word. I think a lot of the reason he’s a hero to me is more that he came from a world of gentlemen dabblers who had the money to pursue science as a kind of hobby in much the same way as Fox-Talbot started photography. He was not “one of them” yet Davy invited him to become part of that world because of his obvious talent.

      I guess I didn’t make the point very well at the end there, but what I wanted to convey was that while certain people think Faraday would turn in his grave to see a non-scientist draw in a crowd at the RI, due to his background I personally think he would have thought it was great.

  4. I’ve been an interested non-scientist for years & completely agree. I love going to science festivals, lectures etc BECAUSE it’s not what I do for a living.

    • Tania says:

      This. I like my job well enough, but it’s a job where most of the time I can leave my brain at home. In the same way that someone who works in an office all day might need to go to the gym to get enough physical exercise, I can “relax” by doing mental exercise – just as important.

  5. Fantastic post, thank you :)

    In my opinion, science is awesome. So are other things of course. If other people find it awesome, good for them. If they find it awesome enough that they want to read about it, then that’s cool. Go to talks about it? Great. Write about it? Brilliant! I don’t see the world of science as an exclusive club, and I think you’re analogy with music is useful. Not anyone can play on the biggest stage at the biggest gig in the world. That’s reserved for people in that line of business, who have trained for years to be a world-class performers. But of course, that doesn’t stop others listening to the music, writing about the music, or attending events related to the music.

    Academic research is perhaps more exclusive. For example, going from no science education to doing a PhD is almost unheard of. But that doesn’t encompass all of what science is. With “citizen science” becoming more popular every year (e.g. Galaxy Zoo), anyone can contribute to scientific research. And then there’s the fact that there’s more the world of science than just the research. There’s science-communication, the promoting of science… and at the end of the day there’s the most obvious interaction with science: just enjoying it! Enjoying books, videos, lectures, blogs…

    You say you have friends who are scientists that feel your enthusiasm is far more important than your science education. I completely agree, and I would point out that I’d rather be in that position than a scientist who has lost their enthusiasm.

    I hope you enjoy writing for this blog! You’re off to a great start and I’ll definitely continue to read.


  6. KnowlEdgegap says:

    Thank you for this article!
    I myself just started writing over (more or less) scientific stuff from the “outer perspective”.
    The experience of some friends looking bewildered when I told them about my privat, lay “research” is very familiar to me!
    Unfortunately, we have nothing like the Royal Societey in Germany, but thanks to the internet we can yet, to a certain degree, join the party!

  7. Rod Travis says:

    Dallas Campbell is just a good communicator and presenter, hence why he has a drama qualification. That is all. All the”science” that he speaks of comes from other sources and is basically translated to him, which he then translates to his audience with a bit of enthusiasm. I’m sure the likes of Stephen Fry, Tim Lovejoy, Chris Hollins etc would do just as good a job.

    • Tania says:

      … and that’s nothing I don’t say in the post. As I say, we will ALWAYS need properly qualified scientists to write and devise the content of radio, TV and live shows, absolutely no doubt. But scientists are not always good communicators, and vice versa. Personally the idea of standing up in front of 300 people at the RI would terrify me and I’m sure there are many scientists who would feel the same :)

      There are many non-scientists who are excellent at communicating quite complex issues and would do the job just as well, but as this post sprang from an incident where I watched Dallas being “told off” for ten minutes for daring to present something at the RI and not being a scientist, and as the music analogy was his, he was a natural focus.:)

  8. Jay Gischer says:

    My own introspection brings up two possibilities for motives for the question “are you a scientist?”

    The first is jealousy. I think scientists are jealous of the attention that media figures get. Many of us (I’m more a mathematician than scientist, but that distinction doesn’t matter to most people) feel the only way we will ever garner any public attention is through our work on science, and to see someone else getting that attention can feel threatening.

    The second is fear. Often non-scientists want us to shut up talking about science already. The question “Are you a scientist?” can often carry the meaning “Can I talk about the stuff I love in front of you?”

  9. Carlos Ernesto says:

    Me encantó!, great post. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    From México.

  10. I’ve never asked anybody if they’re a scientist. The closest I come, I guess, is that I sometimes ask journalists if they have a degree in physics, because it’s handy to know how much you have to explain. That having been said, I’ve never been asked if I’m a scientist either. I’d think people ask just out of curiosity. If you’re at a concert and you talk to some people it would still be interesting to know if they’re musicians themselves, no?

  11. Cool post. Right up my alley as a groupie-writer of science topics.

  12. Barbara says:

    When I was in second grade I learned the word “biologist” and realized that I would be a biologist when I grew up. And I am now formally a biologist, specifically a botanist, with a Ph.D. and lots of publications to prove it. But . . .

    When I was 25 I married an Iowa farmer and moved to his family farm. Slowly I realized that these farmers were doing science, too. All the men in my husband’s father’s generation had dropped out of school in the 9th grade or before, but they’d never stopped learning. Their knowledge of the trees and the seedling weeds on their farm was so thorough that they had much to teach their new botanist relative. These men read about the latest farming methods being researched at Iowa State University, then tried out on a small scale those methods that they thought might work on their farm, and made changes based on their results. Their understanding of the physics behind machinery and awesome. My husband described the hypothesizing and testing that went into figuring how to repair my car; if X was wrong, we’d see Y when we did Z, but we didn’t, so we thought maybe A was wrong, and if it was, then we’d see B when we did C, and we did, so we repaired A; this was a perfect demonstration of the scientific process. These “non-scientists” did science all the time.

    I came to realize that our society works as well as it does because so many “non-scientists” do science. Good auto mechanics, good appliance repairmen, good warehouse managers, good historians, good political pollsters get ideas and test them, then make choices based on the results. Children do science, too, and have a wonderful time testing the effects of thrown balls (or thrown food), of dams on draining water, of catching snakes. It’s too bad that science is so often treated as a separate, boring, academic subject in school.

    The line between the academic or professional scientist and the non-professional is not the line between those who do science and those who don’t. I wish more professional and non-professional scientists realized that.

  13. Another Tanya says:

    I am not alone!!!!!!
    (thank you)

  14. storiesthataretrue says:

    Wonderful post, thank you. When I tell people I lived in Antarctica for 20 months I *always* get the “Are you a scientist?” question. When I tell them no, I’m a pastry chef and cook, they get these crestfallen faces. In that case, I think it’s more that being a scientist has a sexy cache and people want to be able to say “Oh, today I met a *scientist* who does all kinds of *sciencey* things.” On the flip side, in the kitchen, when I make a comment about observing the Maillard reaction or being excited about a new dinosaur being named, the other cooks roll their eyes and say “what are you, a scientist?” Seems I just can’t win…but great to know I’m not the only one! Thanks for a great read.

  15. Abby says:

    Enthusiasm is key to this. If you had asked my dad of he was a scientist and he would have laughed but his botanical skills outstripped mine even though I have a conservation biology postgrad qualification.

    What I do have a problem with is when presenters are chosen for their name over their enthusiasm. The best example is Planet Earth Live. You could tell that Richard Hammond was acting his interest in what he was presenting.

    You don’t need a degree or job in science to be enthusiastic about it but you do need to be genuinely engaged and interested to communicate science effectively.

    But people who are in the science field who look down on amateur enthusiasts should be ashamed. They should remember that many of the greatest naturalists didn’t have formal training or where paid for their work. Including the great Charles Darwin.

  16. Science is just a state of mind, which reveals itself through a tendency to look at the world and ask “Why?” The Scientific Method is a tool that allows us to try and answer that question in the most systematic, efficient and plausible way. You do not need any kind of formal training in “science” in order to be a Scientist. Of course, if you wish to pursue a career in scientific research an appropriate degree is certainly going to help by giving you the background knowledge and skills you’ll need to find a paying job.

    The next time anyone asks you “Are you a scientist?” you can either reply, “No, but I am a Scientist,” which is a little difficult to pull off in a conversation, even if you clearly emphasis the “S-word” or, more usefully, you can reply by asking them what they mean by “Scientist.” If they equate the word only with someone who has a science degree then they really haven’t been paying attention in class. I know many people with science degrees who are not remotely scientific in their view of the world; conversely I know many people with very little in the way of any formal qualifications who approach everything in a scientific manner.

    So, just ask them the question, “What do you mean by a Scientist?” And based on their reply you can decide whether or not to scientifically classify them as a well-educated, but bigoted, idiot.

  17. Pingback: Am I a scientist? What’s a scientist? | genegeek.ca

  18. (Visiting you from Twitter, then from your Guardian article.)

    This is a super brilliant and timely article, Tania! I was just thinking about this myself, since five minutes ago an email landed in my inbox from the European outreach division of PubMed.

    I contacted them about a science-outreach writing contest they were running, and pointed out that their contest terms specified that it is only open to researchers… defining such researchers as those who hold PhDs or are enrolled in a graduate program. I wrote to them and described myself as a scientist, citing my years of research experience, publication record, and the recognition I’ve received for science writing and blogging, asking them to consider the fact that their terms excluded some of the best entrees they could receive.

    They wrote back within an hour, firmly stating that I am completely un-eligible for their competition. I did expect something like that, and the person who wrote it was careful to state that she values the contributions of workers “at every career stage,” as if professional technicians are a sort of larva. But it stings like a slap in the face, really; I’m trying to think of a way to blog about it while being positive.

    This blog post is a good way to start ;)

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