It’s Complicated: The Relationship Between Scientists and The Public
News Article by Shannon Loelius, PhD Candidate
“Oh you must be so smart, I’m too stupid for that.”
I was buying some arugula from a farmer when he asked me what I researched. I started to explain when he drops that line. I’m caught off guard – I’m always caught off guard by this line, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.
“Oh, you’re a scientist? I could never do that, I’m not smart enough.”
The sentence strikes me to my core, causing a sense of wrongness to knot up in the pit of my stomach. Yet, I can never fully convey just how untrue it is. My weak response of “that’s not true” seems weightless and placating, almost condescending, and my self-deprecation (saying that I don’t understand half of what I do) doesn’t hit the heart of the matter. There is no intelligence divide between scientists and non-scientists: there is a language divide, there is an experience divide, there is a knowledge divide, but there is not an intelligence divide. The societal divide between scientists and the public is real only because it is perceived.
The idea that scientists are smarter than everyone else is pervasive and overwhelmingly accepted as fact. This is perpetuated by the unapproachable feeling scientists seem to exude. We’ve all (scientists and non-scientists alike) been convinced that this unapproachable feeling exudes because scientists are just so much smarter than everyone else. However, it’s tragically hilarious because most scientists don’t actually think that they themselves are smarter than everyone. Rather, many scientists believe themselves to be imposters that simply have not been found out. Scientists think they are not smart enough for science too.
“I’m not as smart as you.”
I am a PhD candidate in immunology (study of the immune system). My older brother has his PhD in particle physics (no idea what that exactly means). We speak entirely different languages when we explain our work. He talks about cyclotrons, I talk about isolating cells, and neither of us understands the other. If my brother were to say that he wasn’t smart enough to understand my work, I think most people would scoff. It is clear that if the PhD in particle physics doesn’t understand my research, it is because I did not explain it in a language he understands, not because he lacks intelligence. So why do we think this is different when I explain to my oldest brother (a plumber) or my twin sister (an artist)?
It makes me want to scream. To me, football is a mystery. When someone starts talking to me about football using all its jargon, as my dad often does, I don’t understand a word of it. I also tune it out pretty much immediately. My intelligence has never been questioned because of my lack of football knowledge (at least, not that I know of). However, what would happen if I spent as much time learning about football as I have immunology, or if my dad spent the time he watched and read about football instead learning immunology? The roles would be reversed when we spoke; football would mystify him, and immunology me.
I really could go on with such examples. History? Not my cup of tea. Tell me some historical fact and, try as I may, it will slip from my mind like sand through fingers. The only reason I know anything about science and immunology is because I’ve dedicated thousands of hours to learning it.
So, next time I hear an “I’m not smart enough for that”, I’ll continue to make it known that it’s simply untrue. If I’ve explained a concept to someone and they think I’m speaking another language, it’s probably because I am. I speak immunology and sometimes forget to translate it. If someone seems to be tuning out when I talk about science, I’ll think about how I tune out when football is talked about, and remember to translate my jargon. I hope you do the same, whatever your profession.
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