The status of scientists

When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.

Here is more.


It's because scientists haven't innovated anything recently.

This. Here's another question, more tailored to this blog's highly intelligent readership: Name an extant scientist more innovative than Steve Jobs.

Venter. At least, he's comparable to Jobs. I don't see why scientists should have to beat someone like Jobs.

Sergei Brin.

You mean that simple application of linear algebra done over ten years ago? think Steve Jobs invented anything recently...not a team of people who happen to work for his company. No, no, he himself invested the iPad and retina displays and multi-touch surfaces.

Steve Jobs is a smart man, but he takes a lot of credit for a lot of other people's work.

I wouldn't say he TAKES the credit, but he gets it. A subtle but important distinction.

Dean Kamen
Invented the insulin pump for starters.

And Gordon Moore (Intel Co-founder) has got to be up there also.

Lolz at the peasants!

Yes, those prize-winners have set their sights at the minor improvement of existing technology.

If creationists considered Dawkins a scientist he probably could have taken the second spot from "I don't know."

I thought scientists are depending on journalists to spread the good news of their results; I know lots of names of journalists, but ....

Al Gore.

James Inhofe.

This is silly. Unless the pollster specifically asked them to name a living scientist, there's no reason not to answer "Einstein". It's a perfectly good answer. Dead people tend to be more famous. If I asked you to name a statesman, say, or an author, would "George Washington" or "Shakespeare" be illegitimate choices, as the reporter is implying?

Ace-K is quite right. And just to expose the poor logic a bit, "Lady Gaga" would apparently be a better answer than "Bach" and "Megan Fox" would apparently be a better answer than "Marlon Brando".

Lady Gaga and Megan Fox are way hotter than Bach and Marlon Brando.

I agree with you on Megan Fox

More like the status of everyone else.

What? You are not filing this as a consequence of TGS? That said, I don't know if the reasons as to why Einstein is so popular are well understood. Obviously it is not easy to compare the genius of Einstein with the genius of people in other areas of physics, math etc.; popularity has to do more with pop sci than with science itself. May be the simplicity of the relation E = mc^2 (to make sense of in a warm fuzzy way), may be that his hair style and eccentricities resonated best with peoples' expectations about scientists. Most mathematicians I know seem to lead a normal life and not have too many eccentricities. Even most fields medalists are happily married etc.

It helps that his last name is synonymous with 'eccentric genius scientist.'

You are just restating the question. WHY is his name the one we use to mean ‘eccentric genius scientist.’?

"Even most fields medalists are happily married etc."

I think that makes them eccentric.

Einstein is a benchmark because (i) he lived in the Age of Celebrity, and fulfilled its requirments, and (ii) he moved to the USA. Mind you, it would be rather odd if you couldn't cite the second best theoretical physicist in history as a genius.

Einstein won a noble prize for stuff he isn't even famous for. He is clearly the greatest scientist of the twentieth century. There is certainly no 21th century scientist who should be as famous as Einstein.

It isn't the 21th century scientists fault. There are a lot of scientists now. Would Einstein even be the one to come up with general relativity after his special relativity discovery if there were the same number of theoretical physicists then as there are now?

I would panic and say, "Tyler Cowen."

Are economists scientists?

They're not as scientisty as physicists or chemists.

Do they make accurate predictions?

To what degree of accuracy? Physicists also don't do completely accurate prediction.

I guess a better question would be: "Are their models falsifiable, and revised (replaced by a better one, no fair replacing it with a worse model) once they are falsified?"

one should at least read hawking's a brief history of time just to appreciate that scientific models can be thrown out for being inaccurate too.

Would that make him a dismal scientist?


As others have said, the lack of scientists is not for lack people wanting to do science. "Higher status" won't create more research faculty positions. There are many many more soon-to-be science PhDs than there will be practicing scientists--look at the numbers. This has nothing to do with status and everything to do with the pot of money. Please outline the process by which higher social status for scientists leads to more of us getting faculty positions to do research for a living.

Higher social status ---> Government subsidization.

Higher awareness / understanding of scientists (i.e., higher "status") -> more political pressure for research funding -> more faculty positions for people to do research for a living. What's your model of public choice?

I guess I would look at recent successful lobbying and ask what the lobbyist's social status is, eg bankers and dodd-frank, or conversely who is regarded well by society and what government has done for them recently, eg extensive teacher layoffs.

More faculty positions means 10x more grad students. Not high status.

Let me suggest that scientists not being "name" celebrities is a good thing. The focus of science should be on the work and the results, not the personality. I'm sure that there is plenty of institutional bias towards the status quo, and social pressure from senior people, without adding a big dose of "you aren't allowed to disagree with so-and-so because he's a celebrity and you aren't."

Stephen Hawking is just such a "celebrity scientist" (arguably the Carl Sagan of these latter days). Peter Higgs, for whom the elusive scalar boson is named, has said exactly so, too. : link to the foregoing.

>This is silly. Unless the pollster specifically asked them to name a living scientist, there’s no reason not to answer “Einstein”.

I believe you're misreading the article. Einstein is named "in one recent survey", and the 4% figure is "in another survey". So, "Name a scientist" gets you Einstein. And "Name a living scientist" gets you... nothing (mostly). It could be that the reporter is interpreting survey results incorrectly, but there's no reason to assume that.

Michio Kaku was the first person I thought of.

Ten years ago it would have been Bill Nye.

The Mythbusters are scientists of a sort.

The typical view of a "scientist" is a physicist, astronomer, or perhaps a lab rat in a pharmaceutical company. Social scientists wouldn't make the list. Most people would overlook geographers, oceanographers, biologists, anthropologists, geologists, most engineers, and other physical scientists as well.

Most economists would fall in the "witch doctor" category.

Ask a representative member of the population to name:

- their Congressman
- a living architect
- a living engineer
- a current CEO of any corporation
- the head of a government agency
- a living farmer
- a member of their state supreme court
- a member of the US Supreme Court
- a bus driver
- a Starbucks barrista
- a Navy admiral or an Air Force general
- a US Postal Service employee

the results would probably be the same or worse.

Ask them to name a soldier, and they'll probably name five.


Rep. David Dreier - I.M. Pei - my dad (an engineer (is that cheating?)) - Steve Jobs - Timothy Geithner - [a living farmer] - [member of my state supreme court] - Scalia/Alito/Ginsberg/Kennedy/Breyer/Roberts/Thomas/Sotomayor/Kagan (I can't name a farmer, but I have all 9 members of SCOTUS, go fig) - [bus driver] - Jeremy (my local barista) - [Navy/AF guy] - [postal service employee]

Soldiers: Matt, Jared, Jenny, Duane, Chris.

Ha - look at that...

Also - I'm not sure if anyone has answered this question about our knowledge of scientists: Who cares? Isn't knowledge of SCIENCE more important - and knowledge of the people who discovered this/that/theother completely irrelevant?

Ha - look at that.

And how representative is a MR commenter, eh?

If you asked this anywhere in Europe, Asia, South America etc. you would get the same response. Also for bonus points, ask any European his or her EU representative or President(s) of the EU and what their function is.

Understandable. EU presidents are lame next to the real deal. No power.

So what? Does science really improve if we start worshiping scientists as celebrities?

Ask Professor Membrane.

i'd like to see a cross country survey with the exactly same question to a similar demographic

in a language and phrasing they'd understand

that will tell us something

"among the 435 members of the House include one physicist, 22 people with medical training (including 2 psychologists and a veterinarian), a chemist, a microbiologist and 6 engineers"

I did not know they counted soft-scientist as actual scientists. Nor would I want a social scientist to be in a position of authority. They can't be unaccountable armchair policy wonks anymore and boast of how right there theories were ex-post facto with a few modifications (a la Krugman).

I do not want to be too cynical, it's nice to know people in government are worried about science education falling by the way side.

Congress is supposed to pass general laws, under its enumerated powers. It's not supposed to centrally plan health care, chemistry, and other technological areas. So I'm just as happy that Congress is full of legal professionals rather than doctors, as I am happy that my surgeon is a doctor and not a lawyer.

The 4 percent who give a name, name themselves.

Congress will not listen any more to a scientist than they would to an economist.

And, maybe you should not presume that a scientist does not come with advocacy agenda that his own area of research be better funded. Think about John Glenn advocating for the space program, doctors in congress advocating the positions of the AMA or a health plan their families own.

Frankly, what Congress needs is the equivalent of a CBO for science--a non-partisan group under the legislative branch, with people coming and going. To some extent, Congress relies on the GAO to assemble research and the Congressional Research Service. Congress has the same, or a greater problem, in assessing intelligence and military matters, having to rely on executive agencies because their own committee staff levels aren't sufficient to conduct oversight or independently advise both the majority and minority of a committee on technical issues. Nor do the committees typically have sufficient funds to engage independent outside experts to advise them. Unfortunately, this gap is filled by business supported think tanks who only typically represent the views of their wealthy sponsors or contributors.

I consider myself better-informed than most people, but I can't think of any living scientists other than Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall.

Stephen Hawking counts as alive, right?

It did take me a few seconds.

Sigh, public schools. Never mind that the fundamental underpinnings of existence and the foundation of the incredible abundance we enjoy today, now it's all minority contributions and Earth Day.

That people can't name Pauling, Planck, Rutherford, Wheeler, Tesla, Edison, Bohr, etc is practically criminal. Norman Borlaug arguably saved billions of lives, yet I doubt 1 person in 100 even knows his name.

created or saved

Agreed, except all those people you named are dead (including my countryman, Lord Rutherford of Nelson).

Venter came immediately to mind. Of course that's because he has a puff piece published every 4-6 months.

The fact that people did not say Watt, Ohm or Ampere shows that it is not the names they do not know, and what about Newton, Galileo Darwin or even Pythagoras most people have heard of them. I think this shows something more than just that scientist are not celebrities, but that people think science is about inventing clever things they don't quite understand.

From the article: "...the presidential election of 1964, when scientists organized opposition to Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate. Goldwater was defeated, but, Mr. Greenberg said, the effort left many researchers feeling “we have sullied science.” "

I found that amusing, since in college I received a Goldwater Scholarship (

"The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years of service in the U.S. Senate."

There isn't much need for scientists to be famous. The famous ones are all popularizers of science anyway. If you go by name recognition, it would be understandable to think that Stephen Hawking was the world's greatest living scientist (understandable, but not excusable, if I may channel my inner Sheldon Cooper). It's like asking "How many medical doctors can you name apart from your own?" It's the work that matters, not the name recognition.

This is what I've always said about France and Bernard Henri-Levy. He may be a pompous hack, but the fact that a public intellectual can be a celebrity is a good thing.

Of course, the main problem here is that the man in the street has a pretty narrow idea of what a scientist is; the question might as well have been "Name a biologist, chemist, or physicist."

It took me a while, then the first names that came into my head were "PZ Myers" (though I've only looked at his blog a couple of times) then "Ed Witten" (because I remember an online discussion where he was involved). I completely forgot about Dawkins and Hawking until I read these comments.

Ed Witten is the first name to come to mind for me, because he actually could be the greatest living scientist.

Steve Weinberg is more accomplished in physics and still alive. Witten may be more active at this point.

How have we got this far without mentioning Jim Watson? Has he really become an unperson?

He was excommunicated because he violated the state religion.

One of the state religions. We have a pantheon.

I don't see any more of a barrier keeping scientists from public policy than there is for businessmen of anyone else doing something productive and rewarding. Academic scientists frequently take on roles in university administration and federal program offices. Back in graduate school, I was doing some fluid dynamic simulations of the Widnall instability (an aircraft's trailing vortices pinching off into vortex rings). I assumed that Dr. Widnall was still at MIT, but instead she turned up in the news as Secretary of the Air Force.

Dean Kaman. It's hard to be a real scientist and also influence more than a handful of other scientists.

Scientists in politics include Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. Amerika will see a woman as president before it puts a scientist there or on the Supreme Court because Amerika is a most religious nation and almost all scientists of any note are atheists.

An atheist can barely be elected to a school board in this superstitious country, especially since Dr Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

They used to do demonstration to paying audiences. I think that they need to more TV.

I could name a bunch but do Adam Savage and Jamie Hienamin count?

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