Scientists are “normal” people, children discover

In Drawings of Scientists, seventh graders draw and describe their image of scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab.

The scientist has big square-shaped glasses and a big geeky nose with brown hair and blue eyes. I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows. Scientists are very interesting people who can figure out things we don’t even know exist. My picture of a scientist is completely different than what it used to be! The scientist I saw doesn¹t wear a lab coat. . . . The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about.

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Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science.

In How the sex bias prevails (The Age), Shankar Vedantam describes a randomized, controlled psychology experiment that proves the existence of unconscious sexism in the laboratory:

Madeline Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

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Scientific findings are not public service announcements.

When a newspaper publishes an article about a recent scientific study concerning humans, it is almost expected that people with a political agenda will pick and choose parts of the article that support their view, and ignore those parts that invalidate it. The science writers may even intentionally and deliberately insert clarifications and disclaimers to make sure the article is inconsistent with a popular incorrect political view, but people with an agenda will ignore the clarifications and disclaimers because they don’t understand it, they reject nuances, or because they simply ignore information that does not fit into their worldview.

However, sometimes members of the public will also take into account the public’s tendency politicize controversial studies, and then accuse the study’s researchers of “knowing” that their study could be used to support a political agenda and conducting the study with the “intention” to stir up controversy and support said political agenda.

Of course, this is a complete misunderstanding of how scientific research works. Almost all scientific studies are not done to educate the general public; they are done to explore the unexplored territory in the field. The primary audience of a scientific paper is other scientists in the field. Only after the original paper endures years of debate and replications among the scientific community do the new findings make it into the canon of an undergraduate textbook. Most published studies do not make it into this canon, and are read by only a small circle of specialists.

In other words, many members of the public assume that scientific studies are conducted for them instead of for other scientists. Given this assumption, it is not too much of logical leap for them to suppose that the scientists conducted a particular controversial study with the nefarious intention to advance a political (e.g., right-wing) agenda.

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