Two years ago, I took 20 teenagers from a school out on a natural history fieldtrip. They were 13-14 years old, and had never experienced the outdoors. They were all very happy to be out of school but, as is typical, they took more to running around than to actually learning things. However, one of the students, while also mostly partaking in shenanigans, appeared to my inner talent scout to have a particular knack for field biology. It was just a feeling that I relayed to her teacher.
Regretfully, I never told the student that she has a good potential to be a biologist. This mistake has come back to bite us both.
Today I got an email from her. She realised that she really likes biology, specifically zoology and ecology. Perfect! Because school programs have zero ecology and zoology in them, her only source of extra reading has been popular science articles and books. Even better, she takes her own initiative!
But then she tells me that she will not study biology at university, because you need to be “uniquely intelligent” and a “genius” to be a scientist, and she’s not up to such high standards.
This admission really made me feel awkward. Here is a talented girl who has every chance of being a successful scientist, and she’s giving up before even trying, because the conception of science she gets is that it’s a profession full of superhumans. At first I thought it was a ridiculous conclusion to draw…
… but is it really? Think of how scientists are portrayed in the mainstream. Iconic scientists are described hagiographically as unparalleled geniuses that only rarely pop into existence, and single-handedly revolutionise mankind’s knowledge.
Scientific work from universities with good PR departments gets picked up by popular science and mainstream news outlets. Even a minor result gets twisted and magnified to a degree that makes the original work seem like a new Origin of Species. These articles make a point of mentioning the Dr. or Prof. title of the scientists. While this is done out of accuracy and respect, it is also daunting for a young reader, making them think that only after you get a fancy title can you actually do scientific work.
In movies, the two most popular scientist stereotypes are: the mad evil scientist, or the eccentric genius scientist. A third stereotype that is becoming very popular these days is that socially awkward nerd scientist. It’s rare to get the normal non-quirky scientist, which is what the overwhelming number of scientists are.
That’s right, we’re regular people. But you’d never guess that if, like this student, your only exposure to science was from outside of science. To this student, science is done by unique geniuses who, through their uniquely ingenious ingeniosity, find out supercool facts about the world.
This is as much of a wrong image of science as it can get. Firstly, the majority of science is boring, unless you like sifting through data and pictures. Initiatives to popularise the “coolness” of science mean well and do largely have a positive effect, but they also propagate this false idea that any scientific work = world-changing breakthrough.
Secondly, the age of the lone genius scientist is long gone – if it ever even existed. Darwin was a smart guy and all, but he couldn’t have done the work he did without corresponding with other scientists at the time who identified his specimens. In fact, one could argue that had he been more competent at mathematics, he could have independently discovered the Mendelian Laws and truly spared us half a century of squabbling. Science is, and has always been, a team effort. Nowadays, there is no person who can do it all by themselves, and this must be emphasised to students: you don’t need to be a genius who knows everything and possessing magical powers of deduction. You just need to know how to read. That is the only prerequisite for being a working scientist.
Finally, any character can be a scientist. You don’t need to be a geek/nerd. You don’t need to be socially awkward. You don’t need to be a psychopath. You can be introverted or extroverted, reserved or outgoing, eccentric or plain, enjoy dumb action movies or enjoy art cinema, listen to Justin Bieber or listen to Bach. None of this matters. I know scientists who are boring football fans. Others are alcoholic party animals, or in it just for the money, or are simply untalented at anything else (I’m a sadly proud member of this group).
So, how do we rectify the situation that led to my student’s decision not to become a scientist? We need to blow holes in the intimidating facade of science. We need to stop projecting a delusional image of grandeur. We need to show that science is just like any other job, and scientists are just regular stupid people too, and that they only got their job through the same hard work and dedication that a plumber, accountant, or racecar driver puts to becoming good at their job.
I know this may sound like heresy in this time when science acceptance is critical and the main mode of science popularisation is an emphasis on coolness and awestruck admiration. But one of the main target demographics for science popularisation is, or should be, teenagers. They are the ones at that important threshold when they decide what to do with the rest of their lives. Some might fall for the inspirational message, but they might end up bitter when they find out that their job will consist of mundane labwork and grant-writing, with a slight chance at truly awesome results.
On the other hand, there are many teenagers who have an interest in science, but they get intimidated when they see all the praise heaped on scientists and scientific research, without knowing that those scientists did not single-handedly produce that result, and that that result came out of banal, repetitive work that is in principle no different from answering homework questions.
How do we go about this? The only realistic solution I can think of is for individual scientists to put in an effort. Go to your local schools, the teachers will definitely be open to letting you speak to their students. Show that you’re just a normal person whose job just happens to consist of studying an esoteric subject not many people know about. By all means impress the students with cool facts, but be sure to not embellish the work that went into finding out those facts. Being a scientist doesn’t have the rockstar or astronaut appeal, nor should it aim to have that. If we want teenagers to become scientists, we need to show them that even if they’re not straight-A students, they can do it. We need to show them that even if they don’t spend their whole day reading Wikipedia and ScienceDaily, that they can be scientists. We need to show them that scientists are regular people, with just as many flaws as anyone else. We are not superhumans blessed with a mythical intellect. Our job merely consists of studying some aspect of the natural world.
When I’m with teenagers, I do this by listing my own incompetencies. Basic trigonometry is completely beyond me, as is all of physics. Hardly the stuff of a genius. I can’t even remember the names or faces of most people I know. I work as an entomologist, but I have an irrational fear of cockroaches. I am so useless as a zoologist that I know more about Godzilla than any other animal. I am so pathetic in the lab that to test the strength of the alcohol solution I was trying to make, I tasted it. It was 95% and I couldn’t feel my tongue or throat for a couple of hours.
And so on. Of course we need to show the coolness of science and inspire with it, but we also need to showcase the human side of science – the actual hard-working people who find out the cool stuff, and how anybody can be one of them. You don’t need to be a genius to be a scientist.