Scientist facts of the day

Chris Mooney reports:

Only 18 percent of us know a scientist personally, according to a 2005 survey (subscription required), and when asked in 2007 to name scientific "role models," the results were dismal.
Forty-four percent of Americans couldn't come up with a name at all,
and among those few who did, their top answers were either not
scientists or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Albert Einstein.


I have a science degree and I don't have a scientific role model who's alive. In general I find people don't understand what science is, but have have some sort of mystical respect for it. As an example, my neighbor once said that science was his religion.

Science is based on not just questioning but testing your beliefs. Most people don't have the stomach for that. They're happier "knowing" things and not having to doubt, because doubt is painful.

Conclusion: Investment in PR is required for Jobs and Gates to attract revenue, but not for gaining grants from research institutes.

Rational economic choices by cultural participants mean that cultural knowledge reflects this.

their top answers were either not scientists or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Albert Einstein

So I guess we know which side of the "Is Computer Science really a science?" debate the authors are on.

The notions swirling around that paragraph seem somewhat confused to me. How are we defining scientist? I'm guessing my physicist friend counts, though she's now doing fairly applied research, and I don't think it ever occurred to me that she was a "scientist" before. Do researchers in the social sciences count? Computer science? Mathematics? Engineers?

Whatever the definition, I guess I'm not surprised not many people know one, because it seems like their numbers are very small, and limited locations where they could pursue a career. (Well, if you let in engineers, they are a dime a dozen everywhere here in Michigan.) And on the flip side, looking at the original article's theme, I'm not sure knowing my friend has led me to any significant additional understanding of science that I didn't pick up from reading Isaac Asimov in junior high. (She did teach me the basics of playing Irish tunes on the mandolin.)

And naming living role models in this sort of thing is hard, IMO. I've got two degrees in abstract mathematics, but I'd be hard pressed to name a living mathematician I'd consider a role model. (Honestly, I can only even remember the names of a handful of living mathematicians that I didn't study under in school -- Andrew Wiley comes to mind. (Google search.) Whoops, make that Andrew Wiles.) Computer science is easier, because Donald Knuth is alive and makes a fine role model. But I wouldn't expect anyone who wasn't a programmer to have ever heard of him.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sol. I am a graduate student in a computer science and I certainly can name many living scientists. That said, if I were asked to name scientist role models, I would try to think of a scientist with a public persona. There aren't very many. I might answer Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, but I would probably instead name a dead scientist like Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, etc. I don't think someone has to be alive to be a role model. Would anyone object if asked to name an author role model and someone named Shakespeare or Dickens? Chris Mooney dramatically overstates the results from this survey. If you want to know how many people can name a living scientist, ask them to name a living scientist. I suspect many people will still fail, but also more than 2% would name Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Craig Venter, Donald Knuth, James Watson, or someone else.

why would anyone conflate science and idol worship --

I was gonna mention Cowen, Krugman, Mankiw and Sitglitz, but then I remembered it was asking for scientists.

Ohhhh, burn.

Italics off.

"more than 2% would name Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Craig Venter, Donald Knuth, James Watson"

Which supports Mr. Duncan's comment re PR. With the exception of Knuth (with whom I am not familiar), each of these four has had significant popular press in recent years for reasons loosely - if at all - related to science per se:

- Dawkins: TGD

- Hawking: books popularizing science and his unique situation

- Venter: the business aspects of Celera's parallel HG project

- Watson: comments re race and intelligence

Furthermore, despite being relatively knowledgeable about each of the above, when I tried to think of a living scientist (American or not), I came up empty handed.

Ie, don't expect to get your fifteen minutes for doing pure science absent an independent newsworthy twist.

OK, so Gates and Gore look silly, but what is the big deal about
living scientists? Einstein was named "Person of the Century," whatever
one wants to think of such a designation, but he was certainly highly
admirable, and that people would name him seems perfectly reasonable.

Lynn Margulis, Roger Penrose, Steven Pinker, Leonard Suskind,Edward Wilson, not to mention all those cosmologist/string theory/whatever-ists laboring in that metaphorical vineyard. Ernst Mayer - whose probably dead by now, but was one of the greatest. I'm a CPA who reads a lot.

"Einstein .. was certainly highly admirable": well, apart from (perhaps) discarding the child, I suppose.

No Richard Feynman?!

When did Al Gore die?

What is a scientist? Sometimes people are scientists but aren't called that. Scientists in Renaissance times were thought of "natural philosophers," up to and including Newton.

But if our definition of scientist is "anyone who uses the scientific method", this is so broad that certainly everyone will fall in it, whether they were explicitly using the scientific method or not. I'd like to hear any suggestions as to a definition for the set of scientists, though I am sorry I don't have any suggestions to offer.

Here is where my efforts get me:
The scientific method and its use seems to be central to being "a scientist". Yet it is not sufficient, because if it were sufficient than "scientist" would include nearly everyone. People experiment with things all the time, from how their car works to their water meters to thier computers. So what else is it that a "scientist" does?

Bill Nye.

This blog is so easy.

I am friends with about 50 PhDs. Actually, are engineers considered scientists? If not, then no wonder. Pure science is not something most people do.

This is where social scientists have an advantage. We're used to reconciling our lack of a controlled environment to testing hypotheses.

That is very funny if you think "social science" is not science at all, and precisely for the reason stated.

I know a very good scientist - he is my youngest child's high school biology teacher, who also teaches occasionally at the local community college.

The big problem I see is not that people don't have "scientist role models" (why would they, necessarily, if they themselves do not aspire to be scientists?) but that people don't generally know, or know anything about, scientists. I am guessing this 18% figure actually includes mathematicians, engineers, and programmers of all stripes, because most non-scientists simply don't pay attention to the distinction.

Since they don't know any actually scientists, all most people know about scientists is what they see in the media, i.e. what politicians say about scientists and the (alarmingly, often much more accurate) portrayal of scientists on TV. This leads to people having all kinds of cockeyed ideas about what the phrase "scientific theory" really means, whether it is important to spend a tiny fraction of the money we spend on national security, etc.

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