So what is a ‘scientist’ anyway? Part 3 and conclusions.

Guest post by: StephS

Part 3

But not only have the criminals been left out, but so have an array of other people that I class as scientists, because they ‘do science’. Let’s talk about farmers. They may not be professional scientists, but they have a very specialised scientific knowledge about their crops, their land and their herds. But why stop there, what about gardeners too?

For that matter, what about science journalists? Or journalists at all? They deal with natural disasters right down to tips on how to get stains out of your clothes. They deal with science in their jobs.

This brings me to an interesting example of fiction, the film Adaptation and the novella The Orchid Thief that it is based on. It includes experts on orchids, criminals stealing rare orchids and growing them and a journalist reporting on the whole situation. Are any of these characters scientists? It’s hard to draw the line. Any of these characters could be included in analysis, although I concede it’s perhaps not all that relevant in this particular instance. But if they are or are not, why?

Perhaps a common question is, where does technology fit it? It often seems to me, that only people that are at the cutting edge of technology are included in the analysis of ‘scientists’ such as nanotechnology and robotics, etc. But surely IT is and was cutting edge too. New advances in IT are common place in science fiction. It is often just assumed. So is a programmer a scientists? What about a hacker? Films like Antitrust focus on these types of people. While sometimes these types of people may well come under the ‘geek’ stereotype, the characters in Antitrust certainly seem pretty cool to me. But take it one step further, what about office workers? I think the line can be drawn there, after all using technology is one thing, but making it is entirely another. But who am I to decide?

 

Medical professionals such as doctors are often included in these types of stereotypes, in fact, they even have their own subset of literature focusing on them (Flores 2002). But again, this paper focuses on medical physicians. But hospitals and medical centres are filled with many more people than just physicians and doctors. I want to bring particular attention to nurses though. How do they compare to the stereotypes and portrayals of doctors in films? What about scientists in general? Nurses ‘do science’ everyday, they understand it and they even do it as their profession.

While the TV comedy Scrubs does focus a lot on physicians, it contains valuable scenes and plot lines with the nurses. But the nurses don’t fit the ‘scientific stereotypes’. Perhaps they are ‘lower on the career ladder’ as Weingart et al (2003) suggests, but nurses generally don’t move up the ladder to become a Doctor. They are different professions.

Flicker (2003) identifies six stereotypical portrayal of women scientists in feature films, the ‘old maid’, the ‘male woman’, the ‘naive expert’, the ‘evil plotter’, the ‘daughter or assistant’ and the ‘lonely heroine’. The nurses in Scrubs certainly don’t conform to those stereotypes, and while some nurses in fiction may well conform, I don’t think that it is a trend across the board. Yes, they do assist the doctors, but they still hold their own ground and are experts in their field.

Conclusions

These types of characters often don’t fit into the stereotypes. Perhaps this is because the science isn’t what defines them. But does it mean they’re not a scientist? Does it mean they shouldn’t be included in analysis? Not necessarily.

So back to my original question, what is a scientist? And my answer is, it depends on the context. A scientist is indeed someone who does science, but for the purposes of analysis this is not always practical. But whatever definition is decided, it needs to be clearly laid out before the analysis.

Final Questions

I may well have created more questions than I have answered, and I’ll leave you with these.

What is a scientist to you?

What types of scientists should be included in analysis?

What other types of ‘scientists’ aren’t included in analysis that you can think of?

Please leave your thoughts below.

References

Flicker E (2003). Between brains and breasts — women scientists in fiction film: on the marginalization and sexualization of scientific competence. Public Understanding of Science 12:307-318.

Flores G. (2002). Mad scientists, compassionate healers, and greedy egotists: the portrayal of physicians in the movies. Journal of the National Medical Association  94(7):635-658.

Haynes R (2003). From alchemy to artificial intelligence: stereotypes of the scientist in Western literature. Public Understanding of Science 12:243-253.

Marshall M (2008, 29 February). Maniacs, eccentrics and geeks: top ten fictional scientists. New Scientist: Short Sharp Science. URL: http://www.newscientist.com/blog/shortsharpscience/2008/02/maniacs-eccentrics-and-geeks-top-ten.html

Weingart P, Muhl C and Pansegrau P (2003). Of power maniacs and unethical geniuses: science and scientists in fiction film. Public Understanding of Science 12:279-287.

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