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Passionate enthusiastic scientists – just another way of saying Geek?

By Jack Ashby, on 19 November 2013

Last week I went to a presentation at the Zoological Society of London about the impact on museum visitors of meeting real scientists. The speaker, Amy Seakins, is just finishing a PhD which examines this topic, specifically on visitors to the Natural History Museum (NHM) who encounter real scientists through the excellent Nature Live programme.

Among the many interesting findings were her results on how the visitors’ concepts of what “scientists” are like changed after seeing them speak. Seakins asked them to describe what they think of scientists before and after the events.

Scientists are Geeks
Before, the common theme from the answers was that scientists are socially awkward boring geeks fixated on their single topic. These are obviously negative constructions. If this really is how the average person (who is engaged enough in science to visit a museum about it) sees us then there is a problem. Thankfully it’s a problem that formats like the NHM’s Nature Live can fix…

Scientists are Passionate
Answering the same question after a session with the museum researchers, scientists were described as passionate about their subject, engaging, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. This change in attitude isn’t exactly surprising, as before the “scientist” was in the abstract, encouraging people to mentally conjure the stereotype. After, the mental image was attached to a real person.

But really, what’s the difference between being enthusiastic and passionate about your discipline and being a geek? Not much, I would argue. What has really changed in the opinions?

Where do the stereotypes come from?
I was interested in where the “before” scientist came from. The scientist that is most regularly presented on modern television is overwhelmingly positive. Science on TV is full of passionate, engaging, enthusiastic people – all “after” scientists.

Could it be from school? It’s possible that most people haven’t had a lot to do with people who love science since they were at school. It’s a terrible generalisation if it’s true, but the school stereotype of sciency kids is that they are geeky and socially awkward. This is conjecture, but if this is the source of the stereoypes collected by Seakins then I’m amazed that media-friendly scientists haven’t managed to change people’s minds through television. Seakins suggests that more personal engagement is necessary – like at a museum.

Where did the school geeks go?
Geeks are all the rage these days. Given that being a geek isn’t considered as a negative today why did people change their answers to more traditionally positive words.

With apologies for the inevitable generalisations in what follows, and I mean no offense by it. (The Grant Museum motto is “In Spod We Trust”). For a lot of my scientists friends, whether at the NHM, UCL the Zoo or elsewhere, I wouldn’t hesitate to call geeks. I am a geek. In many cases they are not going to be any more or less boring or passionate or enthusiastic than they were at school. I suspect that all that’s changed is that they’ve/we’ve become less socially awkward, and people are responding to this. In fairness, there aren’t many people who haven’t become less socially awkward since leaving school.

I don’t want to get in to the debate about whether describing people as geeks is useful (it probably isn’t. See what non-geeky but passionate and enthusiastic Alice Roberts has to say about that) but, it’s interesting that the stereotype of the science nerd has prevailed.

Another question that was asked at Seakins’ presentation – if people thought that the scientists they were going to see would be boring, why did they go to the event? One for another time maybe.

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.

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