13 September 2011 by Roger Highfield
Magazine issue 2829.
Science has transformed our world, so why does the public have such an old-fashioned view of scientists, asks Quentin Cooper
What is the problem with the public’s image of scientists?
If you ask anyone, they will tell you that science has transformed their world with amazing discoveries. But then if you invite them to draw a scientist, what they depict is precisely what people would have described 50 years ago, back when the anthropologist Margaret Mead came up with what we now call the “draw a scientist” test.
How do people generally depict scientists?
It is uncanny: they draw someone with a hangdog look, frizzy hair and test tube in hand, all in a scene where things are going wrong. There are national variations. In Italy, scientists tend to be scarred and have bolts in their necks, like Frankenstein’s monster. In general, though, they are mostly white, male, bald and wearing a white coat. No wonder we have a problem recruiting scientists.
What do you think of attempts to make scientists cool, like the Studmuffins of Science calendar and GQ’s Rock Stars of Science?
They are doomed because for geek calendars and suchlike to work, they have to bounce off the stereotype. As a result, they reinforce it.
On TV there are plenty of science presenters who defy the stereotype, such as the physicist Brian Cox. Surely that helps?
It is true. They are not all white, male and old. Some have hair. Some, like Brian, arguably have too much! But while people know them and are familiar with their TV programmes, it is surprising what happens when you ask the public about their favourite science presenters. In the UK they usually nominate veterans, such as David Attenborough. In fact, in the last poll I saw, half the people could not name a TV science presenter. They don’t seem to recognise them as scientists because they don’t conform to the stereotype.
And this stereotype also applies to the best known scientist of all time, Einstein?
The image of the old Einstein with tongue out is the one everyone knows – the one taken on his 72nd birthday. But he was a dapper 26-year-old when he had his “annus mirabilis” and wrote the four papers that changed physics.
What do you think about the depiction of scientists in films?
What I find striking is you almost never see scientists on screen unless they are doing science. There are very few characters who happen to be scientists. And those scientists shown tend to be at best eccentric, at worst mad and/or evil.
How can we improve the image of scientists?
Even though the “draw a scientist” test started half a century ago, it was only in the 1980s that someone had the idea of introducing children to a real scientist after they had drawn one, and then asking them to have another go at drawing. One of my favourite examples is of the schoolgirl who initially drew a man with frizzy hair and a white coat, but afterwards depicted a smiling young woman holding a test tube. Above it is the word “me”. I still find myself choking up when I show it.
Quentin Cooper is a science journalist and presenter of the BBC radio programme Material World. He is hosting the Cabaret of the Elements at the British Science Festival in Bradford on 10 September.