Anyone dedicated to curiosity, experimentation and evidence can call themselves a scientist

On July 4, 2013

Cern, the site of the Higgs boson discovery and announcement last year

“Oi, you’re a scientist, what’s all this I keep hearing about a Higgs or something?”

I was asked this question countless times last July, in the wake of Cern’s announcement of the discovery of a Higgs boson a year ago today.

Most of the time, I would offer a fairly clumsy explanation of the Standard Model of particle physics, how particles acquire mass, and so on. That was the more useful answer in my opinion, although I’m not sure how good a job I ever did. I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Feynman on the weirdness of magnets: “I can’t explain it in terms that you would understand, because I don’t understand in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.”

The conversation would then often break down into “but what are they for?” and debates on the value of fundamental research. (Aside from pure curiosity, there’s also plenty of technology coming out of Cern, too…)

But what I really wanted to address here is the first part of the question, about me being a scientist. I’m not. I work in admin. Admittedly, it’s admin in a big physics lab, but I’m certainly not consulted for my views on the fundamental structure of the universe. For all I know, it’s turtles all the way down. True enough, my degree was in science, but that involved no physics at all (unless you count the discussions of electron clouds in organic chemistry…).

I once overheard someone in the cafeteria at work explaining their job to a visitor. It turned out that they were the world expert in diagnosing and fixing faults with a particular piece of equipment. They knew everything there was to know about it… except what it was used for. As far as they were concerned, so long as they kept it running, that was the end of it. They had no additional curiosity about the role it played in the grand scheme of our machines.

Despite that, some would consider that person as more of a scientist than me, because their work actually contributes directly to the successful results that are produced. I just sit in the background. That being said, outside work, both of us get called ‘scientist’ by our friends asking questions. In the lab, however, our roles are well-defined as ‘admin assistant’ and ‘technician’. So who is a scientist, and who isn’t? Could it just be a relative term?

A couple of weeks ago, a discussion broke out on Twitter about whether science teachers are scientists. For some, mere curiosity about the world qualifies one for the status, so even children could be scientists. Others suggested that only ‘practising scientists’ are really deserving of the name. That opens another can of worms, however, when you consider issues like retirement or other career breaks.

At what point along the road of academic qualifications do you stop being a student and become a scientist? Do you have to be paid to ‘do science’? If so, what about volunteers collecting and analysing data for environmental research charities? Do you have to publish your results? Do they have to be read and cited? What about researchers in private companies? That last question may be less relevant in physics, but the pharmaceutical industry is a big part of biomedical science, for instance. And let’s not get started here on ‘science fans’, ‘science groupies’ and ‘science communicators’. If I merely know about some ‘science facts’ having read about it in a book, then tell someone else about how the world works, can I be said to have ‘done science’? The debate seems interminable. I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. I’m not sure there are any. In each case, I can think of cases which defy the general case. If you’ve got something to suggest, why not leave a comment below this post?

For my part, I tend to think of the word ‘scientist’ like the word ‘painter’. I can pick up a brush (or half a potato), daub some colour on a page and call it art. Someone might even pay me for it. For me, that would still only be a hobby. Others make careers of it, obtaining the privileged title of ‘artist’. Is there such a thing as a ‘struggling scientist’? Then there are the art critics: they are experts in the field of painting, without necessarily being ‘practising painters’. If a teacher in a school introduces a future Picasso to their first palette, are they not taking part in the painting process?

My painting analogy may seem silly or trivial, but I am not aware of any heated Twitter exchanges over who ‘counts’ as a painter or artist like those we have in science. Perhaps I just don’t hang out with the right people. I’m yet to be convinced of the value of the debate in the first place.

Science relies on curiosity, experimentation, and evidence. As far as I’m concerned, anyone dedicated to these values can be a scientist in some sense, and they can take something meaningful from that. Science needs more people to be involved, or at least to be supportive of those that are. Denying anyone their sense of belonging on the basis that they haven’t personally predicted or discovered their own particle would surely just put people off. From a purely pragmatic point of view, ‘real’ scientists can’t afford to define themselves into a corner and alienate their supporters.

Of course, you may argue over how useful my definition is. Meanwhile, I’m just going to get on with my admin work, and do my best to answer my friends’ questions about bosons. For science!

Image: Cern, the site of the Higgs boson discovery and announcement last year. Credit: Cern/Maximillian Brice

About Alex Brown

Alex Brown works behind-the-scenes in a physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland. He writes about the relationships between science, communication, language(s) and words at Do You Speak Science? You can also follow him on Twitter.

3 Responses to Anyone dedicated to curiosity, experimentation and evidence can call themselves a scientist

  1. I’ve been working on this from a direction that may be similar to your approach. First of all, hold off on using the nouns ‘scientist’ and ‘science’. Focus on the actions and the characteristics of what you do. Your choices of curiosity, experimentation, and obedience to evidence are excellent. I might add aspects like persistence, humility, before the data, and charity in accepting as possible the suggestions of others. Then, think in terms like your example of painting, focusing on the aspect of executing a high-level skill. I prefer the example of a musician, who has gone through a lot of practice to make the basics habits, and so freed the mind to guide his actions intelligently. Then, think of the musician as a member of an orchestra, combining his performance with that of the other musicians to produce something newer and better than any performance before. And there you are.

    Being scientific is having a set of intelligent virtues that guide your relations to the world and to your colleagues. I draw a lot of these ideas from Julia Annas’s recent book, Intelligent Virtue.

  2. Key to whether a person is a ‘scientist’ as opposed to a ‘hobbyist’ is strict adherence to the scientific method. Many years ago I was privileged to work with a Governmental Physics Group in Greece. One of their projects was to create a radon map for Athens and the surrounding hills. I’m not sure how we would go about the task here in the UK, but the group created instructional packs which were delivered to all the schools together with the required number of radon detectors.
    The children (I think in the age range 7 to 12) arranged themselves into small gangs. They delivered the radon detectors to their neighbours, ensuring that the necessary informed consent forms etc. had been correctly completed. After the prescribed dose period, the detectors were collected and the results for each neighbourhood collated by the students into local maps. These were then returned to the governing group. The final government report was returned to the school before publication and the children could check that their collaboration had been correctly acknowledged in the citations.
    By playing an important part in an important project, the children were naturally enthused. When asked what they enjoyed most about the task, they said explaining to their neighbours what radon was, why it was so important to have the results and even describing to them how the detectors worked. That communal educational aspect of the project wasn’t even mentioned in the instructional pack.
    Two points:
    1. Yes, those children were definitely scientists and arguably better scientists than some ‘professional’ examples who I know have cut corners to meet deadlines or budgets
    2. No, I don’t think we in the UK would involve our children in this way; we are too busy requiring them to rote learn Latin and Shakespeare and read their Gove Bible!

  3. Good article Alex.

    “From a purely pragmatic point of view, ‘real’ scientists can’t afford to define themselves into a corner and alienate their supporters”.

    Well said that man.