5 September 2010

Simplistic stereotypes: under the lab coat

My significant other is an archaeologist. If you had to draw an archaeologist, you'd probably be tempted to draw someone who looks a bit like Indiana Jones. (Come on, wouldn't you?) Archaeologists are very aware of this. In the pub last weekend, I watched three archaeologists claim - dead pan - to own whips and Indy hats. One of them recalled an incident where he had had to scramble out of a snake pit. No one seriously believed him, of course. Although I've seen more than one person genuinely disappointed on hearing that Mr Hayley doesn't own a brush for dusting off bones.

The reason I'm telling you this is because I've been mulling over some things that were said about stereotypes at the Science Online conference this weekend - scientific stereotypes in particular. It was all the usual stuff about beardy old white men with mad hair. But what really got me thinking was one particular project that was mentioned - one in which children were asked to draw a scientist. Lots of them, unsurprisingly, drew men in lab coats with glasses on.

Now, if someone asked me to draw a scientist, I'd *think* what they were asking is for me to draw someone who would be recognisable as a scientist. Otherwise, how are they going to know it's a scientist? It's like asking me to draw a caricature. As a visual prop, a lab coat is brilliant because it's big, easy to draw and well known to be associated with the profession. I might also add some goggles/glasses and, who knows, a beard. (I like beards.) What I'm getting at is that the fact that people draw these things doesn't necessarily mean they believe them.

Another example: if someone asks you to draw a cat, what do you draw? This is what I'd draw:

Okay, this is probably over simplified (I'm not a fantastic artist). But the point is: you know what it is. How? Well, it has triangles for ears, whiskers, and a tail. Those are the three essential components for drawing a cat. It doesn't even have legs, for crying out loud. But you still know what it is. It doesn't mean for a moment you believe that cats are basically snowmen with whiskers.

The difference for archaeologists, I suppose, is that they probably don't mind being portrayed as Harrison Ford. Plenty of scientists, on the other hand, may object to being thought of as 60 year old men with beards... Thinking about it though: isn't it a bit harsh on 60-year-olds (and beards) that we consider them negative stereotypes?

Regarding the other aspects of the stereotype, the terribly confusing thing is that plenty of scientists do wear lab coats and have mad hair like the Doc in Back to the Future. I was in a chemistry lab at the University of Bristol only last week. Everyone in the lab was wearing lab coats and goggles - it's THE RULES. And you've only got to browse through the web pages of your local university's science department to track down some wild haired-looking fellows.

I'm playing devil's advocate a bit here. The trouble is that while people see cats all the time, they don't see scientists and archaeologists all the time. So perhaps they don't know whether the caricatures bear any resemblance to the real thing. They wouldn't have a clue whether scientists really have big beards and wear lab coats any more than if they have frying pans for faces. Or triangles for ears, for that matter.

But when it comes to this drawing a scientist thing, I'm not convinced it's exactly a fair test. There's one particular project circulating online - and it may or may not be the same one mentioned yesterday - in which some children were asked to draw "a scientist" before and after meeting some real-life researchers at FermiLab. It appears that the children changed their perceptions of scientists after meeting them, with a few more drawing women and many failing to include the obligatory lab coat in the second picture.

Now, first of all, there were only 31 kids and this wasn't published in any sort of a peer-reviewed journal, so we have to be very careful about what we extract from this study, but it's caught quite a bit of attention and so I'd be interested to know more about how it was done. From what I can tell, these kids were just trying to get the right answer - in both cases. (And I think it's worth pointing out that this "right answer" syndrome is also a concern for those surveying adults). They were asked to draw a scientist, so they tried to draw something they thought would look like a scientist to someone else. After they met some scientists at FermiLab, they had been "taught" that scientists were "fun" and "normal" - this is obvious from some of the comments the kids added to their drawings - so they tried to incorporate these aspects.

I do truly believe that going to FermiLab was a great experience for these kids. I'm sure it changed how they felt about scientists. But I'm just saying that you have to look a little bit closer than the obvious and try not to make sweeping conclusions. For instance, some of the kids in this "study" wrote very positive things about their perceptions of scientists in the first place. From a kid called Ryan (before the visit): "I think a scientist is smart and logical. I think scientists are wanting to discover new things. They want to investigate and to make a theory. They want to see if their theory is correct." Sweet, huh? It's not a negative description. And I wouldn't argue with it.

I'm not disputing that the stereotype of all scientists as white and male and old is a bad thing. Clearly, it would be beneficial to encourage people of other descriptions into the field. But it's a bit simplistic to say that everyone believes this stereotype through and through. Also though: we want kids to take up science, but do we really want them to believe that all scientists are funky-haired, Superdry-sporting hipsters? Do we want them to think all the stuff about chemicals and studying hard and needing to be unbiased is a myth and that science is really a right lark? Surely that would be misleading. Science is difficult and often boring. As is being an archaeologist.

I guess all I'm trying to point out is that both are misconceptions. All stereotypes are. Of course, it's important that people meet scientists and understand more about what they do and that they're not emotionless nerds or whatever, but people aren't as stupid as we sometimes make out. I'm sure if you probed further and asked what they thought scientists did at the end of the day after leaving the lab, they'd tell you they probably went home and sat in front of the telly or to the pub like the rest of us.


Ed Yong said...

I love this post so much. This was exactly my reaction to the stereotype discussion - all professions have some sort of stereotype or another and we have to try and work out whether these are actually harmful or not.

To me, the major problem with the bearded-man stereotype is the potential to put off young female scientists.

But I care little about the fact that people don't think scientists are cool. Or that people can't name many famous scientists. I can't name many famous historians or a single famous cardiac surgeon or a single famous plumber - this says nothing about the value I place upon history or cardiology or plumbing.

Anonymous said...

Ha! There's a whole bit in the methodology section of my PhD on why draw a scientist tests are v limited.

Love the cat example. I tend to use houses, but think your "it hasn't even got legs" line is much better.

Michelle said...

However, could a physical stereotype may be equated in the mind with a stereotype of non-physical traits which may have negative connotations?

Ed Yong said...

On the subject of cats...

Khalil A. said...

I agree with you that the scientists' drawings do not necessary entirely represent how children think scientists are but given that a number of them (I presume) draw old guys, this latter piece of info has to be significant. Is it the consensus that scientists are old (possibly translating to uninteresting)?

I also disagree with Ed about naming famous scientists and all... These people are part of mankind's history and a basic knowledge of some of them (at least the greats like Newton, Darwin and Da Vinci) should be known by people--especially scientists themselves.

Agree with Alice: that cat line is awesome!

Ali Macleod said...

Oh, I like this. I was bothered by the example at the time, and couldn't work out why. Also, kids don't understand very much about ANY job.

Hayley said...

@Khalil A. Okay, quick tally on the "old" front - for their first picture, about half the kids in that project drew scientists that I subjectively judge would pass for 60 or older, based mostly on baldness (and one comb-over). Although actually I was thinking more about what seems to be the prevalent view in science communication - we all seem to believe that kids think scientists are old, for whatever reason.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I do some stuff with a science ambassador scheme and sometimes worry that they push the "cool" thing a bit too much. I almost didn't get involved with it because I didn't think I fit the template of what they wanted to present a "scientist" as. (Really glad I did though, it's been brilliant.)

NeilA said...

A fascinating study and some really interesting ideas. For most primary-age children, of course, they will likely not have had contact with a 'real' scientist, so naturally their ideas are drawn from media portrayal of scientists. I wonder if children in the first year of secondary school would make the link between a scientist and their science teacher?
The power of the media to distort our perception of scientists is incredible - ask anyone about Einstein and they picture the wild, white hair - Einstein's most groundbreaking work was, of course, done when he was a young man; true of many important breakthroughs.
Perception, however, has an inertial lag. I also wonder whether the impact of the current media makeovers of science will affect the next generation's perception?

Joanne said...

Drawing an engineer is one of the survey questions given by our engineering camp for girls (not my idea). They purposefully populate the camp with women in science and engineering to counteract stereotypes. I do believe that young men and women need to see scientists of each gender and all races articulating science to the public. It's a shame we have to make such a concerted effort to make this happen. Regardless, I am happy to be an example of someone who is doing what she loves, which is what I would wish for any child...to have the inner confidence to choose to do what you like and know you are good at, despite what any stereotype or societal norm says you should do.

Janne Morén said...

"...but given that a number of them (I presume) draw old guys, this latter piece of info has to be significant. Is it the consensus that scientists are old (possibly translating to uninteresting)?"

Think about it: You mostly see scientists when interviewed over some recent discovery (likely involving mice and cancer) or award; hosting a science show; or being a talking head in a debate program.

This is not the kind of media job that goes to the young postdocs in the lab (they're too busy figuring out how to use the lab equipment without electrocuting themselves anyway). This kind of job belongs with the lab leader. The PI. the department head. The guy who initiated the research, the guy with the publications, the popular books and the generations of students ready to refer to him when asked if they know a good scientist.

Department heads and leaders tend to be white and male (well, asian and male where I live), because most science students were when they started out. But most importantly, they all tend to be old. No matter how brilliant you may be, it takes a lot of time to make your scientific mark on the world, then leverage that into a career that eventually leads to the corner office and the resulting media gigs.

So yes, portraying scientists as old is quite correct, as long as you base it on the kind of scientists that appear publicly. You would portait CEOs, politicians, physicians, psychologists and so on as old for much the same reason.

Athene Donald said...

A late comment because I've been on holiday.....I agree with Ed, these (mis)conceptions really matter in particular in case they put off young girls from thinking science is a suitable career for them. The UKRC published a report on a similar matter in 2008 (http://theukrc.org/files/useruploads/files/resources/report_5_whitelegg.pdf) which was mainly concerned with portrayals of scientists on children's TV, but also included a 'draw a scientist' section. And very few children drew women: this is probably more important than the white lab coat syndrome which is, as you say, simply a mental shortcut. The other problem to my mind is, stereotyping persists - see my post from yesterday http://athenedonald.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/committee-etiquette/

Sarah Knox said...
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