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The fastest way to shut down a conversation . . .

December 28, 2009

. . . is to tell someone you are a scientist.  Really, I promise you.  Biologist, chemist, geologist, astrophysicist.  Pretty much anything that ends in “-ist.”  I’m a biologist, and nine times out of ten, after I am introduced to someone, the conversation goes something like this:

Someone:  And what do you do?

Me: I’m a biologist.  I work at Fairly Famous Mid-Size University.

Their eyebrows jump in horror, their eyes glaze over with disappointment and their mouth makes a strange, forced little smile.

Someone:  Wow.  Well then.  Ah huh.

At this point I usually smile brightly and change the subject to keep them from slowly inching away.

Many scientists share my experience.  A few refuse to tell the truth about what they do (particularly to members of the opposite sex at University mixers).   Some say they are in grad school, or that they teach, or that they work on a project that involves (insert name of discipline here).  At best this prolongs the conversation a few more minutes, but inevitably the facial gymnastics arrive.  Why does this happen?  Do other professions have this problem?  Could some non-scientists please comment and let me know what you are thinking during this part of the conversation?

I have many guesses as to what people are thinking immediately after they meet a scientist.  Here are the most plausible/entertaining:

1)  I hated science in high school.  This person is going to be a real bore.  I wonder if I can slip away and talk to that hottie over there instead. . .

2)   Science!  I don’t know anything about science!  What can I say to this person that won’t make me sound like a drooling idiot?  Is idiot even the proper scientific word?  Oh my God!!  I wonder if I can slip away and talk to that hottie over there instead. . .

3)   I wonder if this person can diagnose my mysterious butt rash. . .

Please keep in mind these phrases are only my best guess and may not bear any resemblance to the actual thoughts of non-science types.  But for the record, regarding #3, no.  Not even if they admitted to being a biologist.  Please see the upcoming post “Not That Kind of Doctor.”

Seriously people, what is the deal?  I think science is fantastic.  I love talking with scientists and non-scientists.  I want to know what people think about the vast array of disciplines that make up the world of science and technology.  Unfortunately, I have discovered that most non-scientists don’t think about science very deeply (if at all).  A lot of what is discovered is either overlooked, over-simplified, or over-politicized.  Science and science news are a major source of frustration for many people.  But if the ideas are simply stated, put in the proper context, and backed up with some evidence, can this frustration be overcome?

That’s why I started this blog.

Scientists need to start talking directly to the public.  I want to use this as my platform to talk about the science that shapes the world in a simple, straightforward way, with links to as much raw information behind the explanation as I can get my hands on.  If there is a report on the news, I will try to explain the story in a less sensational way (perhaps a future post  Swine Flu and You: After the Pandemic?).  If there is a bill in Congress, I will try to provide information on the studies the politicians are working from and explain the science they are trying to understand (Copenhagen Climate Treaty anyone?) .  And if there is anything vaguely scientific swirling around in the collective social atmosphere, I will give a scientist’s take on the story (there WILL be a post called “Please, Stop Calling it ‘Darwinism'”).  So next time I tell someone what I do, they can say, “Wow, really?  I read this post on a science blog the other day. . . “

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3 Comments
  1. April Case permalink

    You should get people to stop saying “It’s not rocket science”
    Rocket science isn’t really that hard in the grand scheme of things.

    • Says you. You are smarter than the average bear, you know. That helps a lot. : )

      It’s a good idea though. Maybe instead of “Stop calling it Darwinism” I can do a post called “goofy things that people say, science edition” and include “rocket science,” “no cure for cancer,” “Darwinism,” etc.

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