| October 20, 2010 5:32 pm

Though I love it, I sometimes think that Twitter should be banned.  This isn’t because it’s somehow vile or evil.  Quite the opposite, actually.

Twitter should be banned because it provides access to lovely and interesting ways to fragment my attention and waste time.  Given that time is my most limited commodity right now, this is spectacularly bad.  If I had an ounce of self-restraint, control, or prudence it might not be so disastrous.  But I don’t.  I’m worse than a crow chasing a sparkling toy.

For this reason, @BoraZ on Twitter shot my whole morning.  He posted the following questions: “What is a scientist?” and “How do we handle scientific imposters?” along with the link to this article by JL Vernon.  Look, shiny!

While I think you should head over to the post and read Vernon’s comments in whole, here’s the take home message: we should give careful thought to who is allowed to wear the mantle of scientist.  If we don’t, crackpots and crazies will drown out what legitimate scientists have to say.

It turns out that I was thinking about the same question this morning, except from a different angle.  Here is my response.

Interesting article and thanks for sharing. I was thinking about this very question earlier this morning and your article raises an important point. It highlights the dangers of crackpots and whackjobs and points out why we should be wary of them.

I agree with many of your points wholeheartedly.  Controversy is a bad thing that can greatly harm the prestige and public confidence that Science enjoys.

But I am not sure that making science more austere and requiring additional investments of time, energy, training or a “proper” affiliation is a good idea either.  Already, to earn the label “scientist” requires 7 to 10 years worth of study and work. To get into a training program is difficult and to successfully graduate can be excruciating.

The process selects for a certain type of individual: aggressive, self-motivated, intelligent, (typically) single, and career oriented. There are probably other characteristics I am overlooking. On the whole, these are all good things. But it also leads to a certain degree of homogeneity amongst professional communities and that is bad. Whenever I attend a conference, for example,  I am usually dismayed at the lack of diversity. Most of the people tend to look like me (white, male, 30s), but worse, they sound like me.

The cocktail banter is boring and we mostly buzz about the same things.  We discuss about the same ideas, compete for the same funding, and even use the same justifications for research.  We also revere the same people, most of whom are academics and come from “top research institutions.”   Non-academics tend to be ostracized and ignored.

It’s my opinion that this is a serious problem, and that the rigors of specialization are making it worse.  Moreover, it blinds the community to the fact that some of the most interesting stuff is happening outside of academics and traditional science.


  • Bill Gates is providing a great deal of money to non-profits and even to corporations. Some of that money is even going to people without traditional research training or who wouldn’t otherwise be considered credentialed and “proper” scientists. (These impressions are mostly from perusing the foundation website and reading a blog posting about it, so please correct me if I’m wrong.)
  • Microsoft Research employs an enormous number of mathematicians and researchers looking into basic science questions. They even share their results liberally via traditional routes (journals, peer-reviewed conferences, etc.). But because of their employer is a for-profit institution, much of the work is ignored.
  • Some of the most interesting work on sustainable and renewable energy is coming from start-ups, not government or University labs

In many of the cases, it might be a stretch to apply the label of “scientist” to the people doing the work, but I think it fitting. Going even further, I would love to see such individuals invited into the scientific dialogue to discuss their activities and successes formally. There is a huge amount that we could learn, and it might even lead to a new Scientific Renaissance. There is also clearly a demand for such a venue, as seen by the rise of events like TED which spans disciplines and experiences.

To say nothing of the talent that we are neglecting.

Some of the smartest, most capable and intelligent people I have worked with will never wear the label “scientist” because they have no desire for graduate study.  Yet, they still innovate, discover and write. Unfortunately, their contributions tend to be buried.  Either they are ignored because they lack the proper credentials, or the real authors appear behind others who had little to do with the project or the thinking behind it.

Or, worse, they leave the field entirely because there are no advancement opportunities.  In a world increasingly driven by formal credentials,  such people will never be given promotion or independence.  (This is particularly egregious in medical research where if you aren’t a doctor, you are nothing. Many excellent researchers are nurses or support staff who, because of age, families and past performance will never be able to enter medical school and will never be doctors.)

Before I digress too much, here’s the point. Labels and titles matter, but so does inclusion of the non-traditional elements of our communities. When we are too austere and formal, we exclude interesting ideas and people from the discussion. That is ultimately harmful to everyone. (For a really good discussion on this, see the recent book, “Where Good Ideas Come From.”)

I think that excluding potential talent is a far larger problem that navigating the PR effects of crackpots. After all, in the latter case, there are things that can be done. Introductions and explanations can be made, articles can be written, responses posted. That’s how the formal world of scientific dialogue works, after all. If a point is controversial, then other scientists attempt to duplicate the results.  Consensus is not the result of a single article, speech or debate.  It is the result of many people working on a common challenge, and might involve a few spectacular fights.

The answer to questionable speech is more speech and transparency. It’s how scientific dialogue has worked for centuries, and the primary reason for the current prestige Science now enjoys.  Trying to censor critics and crackpots doesn’t make them go away, or cause their message to vanish.  It simply sends them elsewhere.  It can, however, limit legitimate dissent and opposing viewpoints; to say nothing of contributions by those who don’t tidily meet the label of “scientist.”


One Response to “What Is a Scientist?”

Genomic Repairman wrote a comment on October 20, 2010

Excellent rebuttal and I wholeheartedly agree that you have to consider non-traditional folks doing research as scientists. Plus industry is no longer the evil horn-sprouting pariah they once were considered to be. I am presenting at a society meeting next week that has about 10% of research posters coming from industries. While we try to maintain an arms-length distance from industry to prevent any improprieties we shouldn’t be holding them at a distance with a pitchfork but merely just a watchful eye.

Care to comment?