The enduring cliché…
Quentin Cooper discusses why the traditional image of the scientist is out-dated, and what can be done about it
A few weeks ago I was with a friend at Euston station in London when I spotted a senior researcher I know on the other side of the concourse. My friend didn’t know him, but on a whim I asked if he could pick him out from the crowd. “He’s the one that looks like a scientist,” I said. There must have been five hundred to a thousand people milling around, but within a minute my friend had singled out the right man. Professor X had big glasses, wild hair, and a slightly crumpled look. Short of wearing a white coat and clutching test tubes he couldn’t have made himself easier to spot.
I stress that although Professor X (he’s not really Professor X, that’s a Marvel comics character, I’m just attempting to preserve the researcher’s anonymity) may be stereotypical, he’s not typical. For almost anyone else I know working in any sector of science, my friend’s task would have been impossible: there is no such thing as a standard way that scientists dress or look. The trouble is that the wider public have a different idea, and they have had it for a long time.
Back in the late 50s, two American anthropologists Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux developed something which, for reasons that will soon become obvious, is now known as the ‘Draw-a-Scientist’ test. Many thousands of high-school students were asked to draw what came to mind when they heard the word ‘scientist’. There was a remarkable amount of common ground across the images, and Mead summed up the collective vision as centring on: “a man who wears a white coat and works in a laboratory. He is elderly or middle-aged and wears glasses. He is small. He may be bald or may be unshaven or unkempt. He may be stooped or tired. He is surrounded by equipment: test tubes, Bunsen burners, flasks and bottles."
The test in various forms has been carried out many times, in many countries – there are cultural differences, but not so many as you might think – but what is remarkable is how little has changed between descriptions and images from back then and the ones produced by children and adults today. That same older, usually bespectacled, follicly-challenged and glassware-laden man is still turning up again and again. Plus, only in about one in every 100 entries – almost always one drawn by a girl – is the scientist a woman.
[caption id="attachment_39900" align="alignright" width="200"] Or maybe this?[/caption]
So what’s gone wrong? Anyone, however technophobic or science-scared, would be hard pushed to deny that scientific advances have utterly transformed our planet over the last half century. So why has the popular image of scientists remained frozen, and flawed?
The closer you look at this picture, the odder it seems: why is it the old, crazy-haired Einstein that we perpetually evoke as the ultimate genius, rather than the well-dressed man of 26 who in 1905 came up with E= MC2 (and a lot of other world-changing physics)? Why does a simple Google image search for ‘scientist’ – not ‘mad scientist’, just ‘scientist’) give you results again dominated by pictures of men in white coats, many of them looking distinctly crazy? Why do you almost never see fictional scientists in films or TV programmes unless their science has a direct bearing on the plot? The only significant exception I’m aware of Ross from Friends – hardly a great advertisement for scientists as normal human beings – who just happens to be a palaeontologist. Yet I can think of scores of dramas and comedies where the leading character is an architect or lawyer even though their design or legal skills have little bearing on the plot.
For me a big clue as to where things have gone awry comes from an online poll conducted by the British Science Association, formerly known as the British Association for the Advancement of Science. They asked people who their favourite screen scientists were. Over 40,000 votes were cast and what I think the BSA/BA hoped to discover was who our most popular TV science presenters are. But that’s not what the poll revealed. The winners were Dr Who, Mr Spock – and at number one – Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his hapless assistant Beeker. That’s a Time Lord, a Vulcan and two Muppets, making it an entirely non-human top three. This could indicate one problem when it comes to encouraging young people to become scientists.
Things weren’t much better even when in a subsequent MORI survey the question was tightened up and respondents were specifically asked to name their most memorable science presenter ever. The positive this time was that round aliens were almost entirely absent from the results – the voting was topped by David Attenborough, Patrick Moore and Robert Winston – but disturbingly over half of those polled couldn't think of anyone at all, past or present. For those aged between 16 and 24, that total rose to almost three quarters.
Can it really be that so many science presenters and science programmes on television (unlike some of the great ones on radio) have proved so forgettable? It is possible – the survey was a few years ago – and these days there are probably more science programmes on the box than ever before, and a wider range of people of different ages, genders and ethnicities fronting them. The majority of them are (or were until they got too busy being on TV) working scientists like Professors Jim Al-Khalili and Alice Roberts or Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. Excellent and charismatic as many of these presenters are and despite all the wonders of CGI now available to help them, I’m not convinced that a 2014 version of the survey would produce dramatically different results.
I think the reason many people fail to name any science presenter they find memorable is that they only register as being a scientist if they are old, male, white and if at all possible eccentric or with distinctive speech patterns. The stereotype is so pervasive and constricting that even if a programme is clearly about a scientific subject and the host is introduced as a Professor or Doctor, some viewers will not think of them as being a ‘science presenter’ because they don’t conform to their ideas about how a scientist should look.
[caption id="attachment_39901" align="alignleft" width="200"] Maybe it should be this[/caption]
Much the same can apply to scientists themselves, with some people struggling to process individuals as being scientists if they deviate too far from their expectations about how they should look. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when there was an attempt to help correct some of these misperceptions through a touring exhibition of photographs showing leading young scientists in dynamic contexts loosely related to their work: so someone who was developing wind turbines was shown doing a cartwheel, researchers investigating G-forces were depicted on a roller-coaster and so on. It was, I thought, a good and useful idea so I wrote a piece about it for the Daily Telegraph. They ran it accompanied by a few photos from the exhibition. Unfortunately the pictures appeared with the caption “Young people enjoying science”. Despite what the exhibition and my article were both about, some Telegraph sub-editor had seen the images and been unable to grasp that young people having fun could possibly be scientists.
The good news is that things are both changing and easily changed. The more people become accustomed to the new stereotype-confounding generation of science presenters, the more likely they are to accept that these are also faces of science. And you don’t even need to be on TV to make a difference: all it can take is meeting some real researchers to realise they are just as wide-ranging in appearance, garb, other interests and social skills as any other profession. It’s only relatively recently someone had the bright idea of trying this with children doing the Draw-a-Scientist test and getting them to come up with pictures before and after. The one that still brings a lump to my throat is when I see it is a girl who originally sketched the usual crazily-coiffured man in a white coat, holding a flask with bubbling chemicals. After meeting a scientist and getting to talk to them about their life and work, she then drew a smiling girl with pigtails – admittedly still in a white coat. Above it was one word: "Me."
Quentin Cooper, Writer, host, academic and presenter
Catch Quentin during his speech at Lab Innovation in November