Sunday, November 25, 2012

What’s a scientist?

I have just read Alice Bell’s paper about sciene bloggers. She mentions “science studies’ long-standing obsession with the way in which professional boundaries are formed and articulated through the popularisation of science”. I didn’t know science studies were obsessed with that (I don’t know much about science studies, I am afraid; I am going to have mend that), and it made me think.

Skeptics are also obsessed with boundaries of science, but with the epistemological, not professional ones (epistemology is a word I feel free to use based on listening to 70+ episodes of Rationally Speaking). That is: what’s science and what’s pseudo-science, anti-science, bad science, woo or BS. This is the famous the Demarcation Problem.

But is it possible that all while reinforcing the epistemological boundaries of science, skeptics actually blur the social ones?

A case to the point: one of the leading figures in Israeli skepticism, arguably the most committed among us, a person who almost single-handedly made the Israel Skeptics Organization happen. She also gives talks about skepticism, and in her bio line for the talks she writes “a skeptic and a scientist”.

I must confess that I feel uncomfortable with that. She is a person of many talents, including an undergraduate degree in the sciences, but that’s not enough to be a scientist, the way I understand the word. But my understanding is just that – my understanding. Clearly her understanding is different.
Another prominent Israeli skeptic defines himself more cautiously as “a science fan and an amateur scientist” (hmm… it sounds better in Hebrew). I say “cautiously” because talking about “amateur scientists” implicitly acknowledges the category of “professional scientists”. But while an “amateur scientist” isn’t a professional, she isn’t a layperson either, so boundaries do blur.

And what about myself? I am super cautious, and wouldn’t dare calling myself a scientist, with or without qualifiers. But I do after all allow myself to publicly critique the research methods of practising (social) scientists, don’t I? Isn’t that boundary blurring, in practice if not by name?
What do you think? Do you agree about blurring the social border of science, or am I blowing things up? And if I don’t, doesn’t it clash with all this talk about what science is and isn’t?

P.S. – I ran this post by the people mentioned as I thought it would be fair to ask them before I publish what might be interpreted as criticism. They both OKed it. They also both felt there was a problem here, and had already or will now change the way they describe themselves. Which makes the question even more complicated, I guess…


  1. In my opinion, a scientist, in this time and age, is a vocation, similar to fireman or tailor. I think this definition makes it easier (for me) to determine who is who, and what is what. It could be someone who works at the university, as a researcher in a company or even in some extremely rare cases someone all alone at his home. Earning money of it, by the way, is not the issue.
    This should not be confused with the 'science fan'. The fan could sometimes have a wider knowledge about science than some scientists, be he just isn't one. He does not do scientific research. The two are not mutually exclusive, though. One can be a scientist and a science fan.
    I don't see any problem with critique of scientific work by anyone, be it scientist, science fan, journalists or a lay person, as long as it is done with humility and self-awareness. Science should be an open affair (to a reasonable extant). However, the real trick is to know how to put the proper weights to such critique. No easy answer there.

    1. I think that's quite sensible. I can't speak for the science studies people, as I haven't actually read them. I should. If I read something interesting, I might write another post about it.

      In the context of science communication, I think the question is less who is and isn't included in the category of scientists, but who is "allowed" to speak for science, and who is allowed to criticize it. Here again I think that your attitude is quite broad and inclusive. Which may count as affirming my point...