A popular science education outreach activity for children in early elementary is “draw a scientist.” The name basically explains the whole activity: you tell the students to draw a scientist and then you share the drawings. Inevitably, the children draw the same thing ““ an old white man in a lab coat, sometimes with Albert Einstein crazy hair. This is what a stereotypical scientist looks like.
The activity works because it is generally repeated at the end of the outreach. By that time, the children have met and talked to and learned from a lot of different scientists and their new drawings reflect that. Suddenly, the drawings look a lot more diverse and reflect the true age, ethnic, racial, and gender ranges of scientists. It’s cool to see the students’ personal science narratives shift and develop, but it’d be great to see that same shift happen on a much larger scale.
What do you think of when you think of science? If possible, share your first impressions in the comments. From what I see in internet memes, pop culture, and the answers of my friends, a lot of people see test tubes, beakers, and flasks. They see brightly colored liquids, some of which might be bubbling. They see smiling scientists leaning over microscopes, growing bacteria in petri dishes, or standing near large plants in a greenhouse. Sometimes there are white rats in cages and notebooks with long strings of numbers. Science is shown well-lit and crisp, all straight lines and order.
Science does not follow that narrative.
For starters, science isn’t a discrete category, but more of a continuum. Scientific methods can and are applied in non-scientific fields, and many fields fall somewhere between “pure science” and “art” or “humanities.” Secondly, science is tedious and long and sometimes gross and it rarely looks like the pictures. So why do we keep taking those pictures? Why do we keep forcing it into the same neat narrative?
I don’t have an answer to that question. I’m not sure why science is represented the way it is. I find it frustrating to have the reality be so interesting and exciting but not reflected in the narrative. It is not even an issue of total accuracy; it’s just that real science, as opposed to narrative science, feels so much more accessible and tractable and real.
That’s my biggest problem with the science narrative: science is always done far away with expensive supplies by people who are impossibly smart. In reality, science is done and happens everywhere. Some tools are expensive, but many are not. And scientists are regular people who sometimes like to tell terribly dull pipette-ing or greenhouse stories. I don’t think I’m blowing any minds with these statements, but nonetheless, these are the things that are often not shown in the narrative.
Providing real stories about real scientists, as many publications are starting to do, would go a long way to shifting the narrative. Showing the real struggles and obstacles that scientists face when doing research, showing the sometimes non-linear movement of research, helps shift the narrative. I hope this shift continues: progress has been made, but there is still a way to go.
I expect that very similar comments and critiques can be made of the representation of basically every other field. What we see and what the reality of the job is are widely different and this is a gulf whose existence I do not understand. The reason I do not focus on those fields is because I’d be a total outsider ““ I would probably end up projecting some of the very narrative I’m critiquing here. I welcome you to share your experience, your field’s gulf between reality and narrative, and how you think it can be addressed.