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Yes, you're a great scientist; now shut up about it

I was taught that writing involves a lot of brainstorming, editing, and polishing. But in today’s world of online publishing, there’s a fourth step: preemptive cringing.

That’s what happens when Science Careers publishes my column every month and I see “7 comments” under the Facebook link. Or I wake up to an email with the subject line “Your Column.” Or … something with Twitter. I still haven’t figured out Twitter.

Sometimes the “Your Column” email says, “I loved your column!” to which I breathe a sigh of relief and reply, “Thanks, Mom!” But sometimes it says, “You are an imbecile who should stick with lab work and leave humor to the professionals.” As much as I wish they didn’t, those comments really sting, and all I can do is write back and say, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Dad.”

Last month, I received more feedback than usual when I wrote about the difficulty, for young trainees in the sciences, of reading abstruse scientific journal articles. Papers are necessary elements of science communication, but they often sound like they were written by robots trying to imitate human language: “We tested x. Results were significant. Address correspondence to first author. All your base are belong to us. Conky 2000 ready to assist you, Pee-wee.”

Some readers responded that they shared my frustration with excessive jargon, which seems at times like the building block of a gate meant to keep out less serious readers. But others defended the gate, saying that they didn’t think reading papers was hard and that an article like mine, designed to help young scientists know they’re not alone in their frustration, was clearly—as one reader put it—“a shibboleth for millennials.” In other words, those damn young scientists need to get off their lawn, and no, they’re not getting their Frisbee back.

It reminded me of the response to an article I wrote 2 years ago in which I confessed that I sometimes doubt whether I’m cut out to be a scientist: I can’t get excited about every seminar I attend; I sometimes find science difficult; I’ve even committed the ultimate sin of reading Michael Crichton novels. Again, some readers said they felt the same way. Others, though, proclaimed that they do find every seminar exciting, and therefore people like me probably shouldn’t be scientists.

I’ve encountered this attitude a few times in my career—this insistence that an admission of potential inadequacy in science should be met with sneers. Sometimes it was directed at me, sometimes at others. And I think we can do without it.

We’re members of a profession known for its intellect, and the more we remember that, the more we act like absolute pricks. Most scientists are friendly human beings, willing to speak kindly to those still learning. But there are some—as, I suppose, there are in any profession—who love to say that if you can’t easily do what comes naturally to me, you shouldn’t be here.

It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that scientists ought to foster a culture of acceptance, in which it’s OK to ask questions and own up to your deficiencies instead of hiding them behind a veneer of big words and nodding. Asking questions is kind of what scientists do, isn’t it? (See, I just did it.)

“Wait!” I hear some of you saying. “I’m all for general decency. But if we accept, praise, and mollycoddle everyone who wants to be a scientist, we’ll have terrible scientists!” First, I commend you on your apt use of the word “mollycoddle.” Second, it’s not about praise, pats on the head, and trophies for participation, nor is it about shielding trainees from useful criticism. It’s about wiping the smug look off our faces and acknowledging—publicly—that we’re not perfect. It’s about making science more accessible. It’s about seeing your colleague berate an underling’s imperfection and stepping in to say, “You know, Jim, that doesn’t help.” Not only will your colleague think twice about scaring away potential scientists, she’ll also wonder why you keep calling her Jim.

This exclusive mentality has practically become a cliché of our profession. In 1983, David Wade Chambers, then of Deakin University in Australia, introduced the Draw-A-Scientist Test to elementary school children. The test is exactly what it sounds like, and their drawings taught Chambers a lot about kids’ stereotypical perceptions of scientists. They overwhelmingly included lab coats; bubbling beakers; elderly Caucasian maleness; and for some reason, rampant and flagrant mustaches, though those may have been as much a reflection of scientist archetypes as of 1983 itself.

I’ve always found this paragraph of his paper in the journal Scientific Education revealing:

“Whatever may be the ideals of science, science means secrecy to some children. In almost every third to fifth grade class tested, at least one child (and occasionally as many as four or five) drew signs on the doors and walls of the laboratory bearing such messages as ‘Keep Out!’, ‘Private,’ ‘Do Not Enter,’ ‘Go Away,’ and ‘Top Secret.’ The great majority of children do not, of course, draw such labels, but some scientists must feel a certain amount of discomfort on seeing a third grade drawing of a laboratory labelled: SIKRIT STUFF FOR SIKRIT ENVINSHUNS—SIKRIT.”

The message is clear: Even children sense that science can be pretty darn unwelcoming. It was true in 1983, and it’s true today. And sometimes that’s our fault.

In some ways, science is just reflecting an unwelcoming world, a world of Internet comments designed to showcase the commenter’s superiority. But I think we can do better than that. I think we can show that science isn’t an elite club hoping to turn away prospective members; it’s a warm and inviting field that recognizes human imperfection.

Besides, in my experience, the people who insist most loudly that they never suffered from such-and-such a deficiency share one other quality: They’re all lying.

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