Embracing the scientist stereotype

Being a scientist is cool. It means you know absolutely everything there is to know about anything across all disciplines without having to even glance at the latest literature on the topic. At least that’s according to movies, and movies would never lie.

This ridiculous stereotype is so often regurgitated that non-scientists are starting to think it’s true. But to be able to do their job, a good research scientist needs to be a “T” person. We have a breadth of knowledge sufficient to understand how our research fits into a broader context and the depth of knowledge to advance scientific understanding in our particular field.

Which is exactly why the scientist stereotype doesn’t make sense. Science has been studied in so much detail across so many different topics by some many people for so long that it is rare to find anyone across more than one discipline, let alone a true polymath who knows everything about all disciplines. The last true polymath to make any significant scientific discoveries was maybe Da Vinci.

I understand that a movie audience is supposed to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. It’s just that the story would be a whole lot better if the writers bothered to spend two minutes on Google to discover that measuring the purity of a chemical is not done with a light microscope. (Yes, really. That one still makes me cry a little.)

But if we were to look at a movie as just a story, the scientist character is useful. They enable the writer to explain the goings on at a particular point in the tale or unveil a discovery that leads to a new twist in the story.

Overall it’s the story matters, not the details.

The limitations of budget and script-writing prevent the more accurate depiction of different scientists from different disciplines solving the range of problems required for the movie or TV series.

In terms of the eccentric or socially awkward stereotype, it could be worse. Accountants are always boring personality-vacuums and police must suffer the continual humiliation of having amateur detectives solve their crimes for them.

If a stereotype has to exist for scientists I’m glad it’s one of a knowledge-laden virtual superhero.

But just once I’d really love to see the scientist character roll their eyes at someone and say, “Why are you asking me? I’m an organic chemist. You need to ask a microbiologist. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to rewire your house, why ask a chemist about biological systems?” and then march out of the room. Ah, nerd fantasies.

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