People become scientists for many reasons. Some want to answer important questions, or fix the world, or invent something fantastic. Some like the smell of β-mercaptoethanol in the morning. Some want to stick it to their flat-earther parents.
Ask scientists about their reasons for choosing this profession, and you’ll get a range of answers. This person has always been fascinated by dung beetles. This one misheard what a scientist’s salary is. This one failed out of med school.
But there’s one more reason to become a scientist, and we don’t talk about it very much—understandably so, because it’s not a reason that makes us overly proud.
Here it is: Being a scientist gives you, at least in certain settings, instant authority. In other words, one of the benefits of being a scientist—though we’re often reluctant to admit it—is Being A Scientist.
Has this ever happened to you? You’re having dinner with friends, and someone mentions a controversial scientific topic—genetically modified crops, or vaccines, or even something silly like time travel—and because you’re the only scientist at the dinner table, suddenly everyone wants to hear what you have to say.
“Hey, you’re a biologist,” a friend says. “So, does it matter if I give my kids organic broccoli?”
This puts you in an uncomfortable position. If you tell the truth and say, “Actually, I’m studying regulatory pathways in fruit flies, and I don’t know much about agriculture policy,” you get those weird, suspicious looks. Wait, aren’t you supposed to be a scientist? If this schmuck doesn’t have an opinion about organic broccoli, what was all that school for?
On the other hand, if you voice your opinion as a generally scientifically literate citizen—who nonetheless knows bupkis about brassicas—suddenly your friends assume you’re speaking on behalf of the scientific community. If the subject comes up in a future conversation, they’ll say, “I used to buy organic broccoli, but I stopped because my biologist friend said not to. Also, time travel probably won’t work.”
It’s a tremendous amount of power, more than we often deserve. Yet when you graduate with a science degree, you nonetheless receive a proverbial rubber stamp with the slogan, “A SCIENTIST SAYS SO!”
I was reminded of this last week, when my cousin who sells essential oils posted on Facebook about an annual conference she attends. (Essential oils, for those who don’t know, are more than just nice-smelling tinctures that make rooms smell like peppermint or pine. In addition to their lovely scents, they’re sometimes controversially advertised as cures for assorted physical ailments.) “They have an entire science day where all the presentations are from board certified doctors and PhDs presenting their research and how they use oils in their practices!” she effused in her post. “Most of it goes over my head, but I appreciate the fact that the science is there!”
See that? No matter the details of how the experiments were conducted, science added value for simply Being Science.
Whoa. That’s a lot of power we wield. “The science is there.”
Most scientists I know handle this responsibility well, but we all have colleagues or classmates who’ve knowingly abused their status. One of the most egregious examples I’ve seen was my former co-worker, a research associate, who was pursuing a master’s degree in biochemistry—partly because she wanted to work in the field, but also because she wanted to lend credence to her side job as a … well, let’s say “healer of dubious validity.” I don’t want to ignite a flame war with practitioners of alternative medicine, but her vocation was something that would make even 19th century phrenologists say, “Wait, what?”
She once claimed she healed the broken leg of a cat in California by massaging a similar-looking stuffed toy in Maryland.
I should reiterate that she was, at the time of the alleged healing, an adult.
Anyway, she wanted a master’s degree in biochemistry so that her customers on eBay—where they paid $40 an hour for her to heal them with her thoughts—would find her claims more believable.
“A SCIENTIST SAYS SO!” is a scary amount of power. The ethical approach, of course, is to avoid abusing that power, to do as much as possible to ensure that your science is sound and your analysis is valid, and to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.
It’s not always easy, as I found out a few months ago when an audience member at a public talk asked my opinion about a certain controversial branch of science. I know what the general science community’s position on this topic is, but I hadn’t seen the evidence myself because, well, not all scientists know about all science fields. My instinct was to avoid displaying ignorance at all costs, which was also how I approached my graduate school oral exam. But something about this seemed disingenuous. So I told him what the consensus was, and I told him I didn’t know enough to form an airtight opinion myself, and I told him that I’d like to learn more. Strangely, this answer satisfied him. Even more strangely, the answer satisfied me. It made me realize how strong my instinct was to give a definite answer and how liberating it could feel to not provide one.
Admittedly, no matter our integrity, something about the automatic credibility of Being A Scientist is secretly appealing. We have, after all, trained ourselves extensively to distinguish the likely from the dubious. Shouldn’t Being A Scientist mean something?
It does mean something. But it doesn’t mean everything. When we rely on Being A Scientist, we prioritize status over substance. And let’s not forget that this stance exposes us to the negative as well as the positive—in many places, calling ourselves scientists makes people bristle, not fawn.
So if you find someone attributing extra authority to your words simply because of your lab coat, try to use this power responsibly. Remember that the opinions we espouse have ramifications, not just for people’s judgment of us, but for their judgment of the veracity and competence of science and scientists in general.
For this reason, I’m not going to judge my cousin’s essential oil business, because even though I’m skeptical—scientists are trained to be skeptical of everything—I haven’t truly done the research to make myself a legitimate authority against them. I need to keep my “A SCIENTIST SAYS SO!” stamp in its holster, lest I abuse the power of my office.
I do buy my kids organic broccoli. But that’s because MY WIFE SAYS SO.