Monday, October 6, 2014

Am I a scientist? Are you a scientist?

In our most recent podcast we talked at length with Janet Stemwedel, from the Doing Good Science blog on Scientific American, about the obligations that scientists have to society. One of the earliest questions in the podcast (~ ) was about defining what it meant to be a scientist. The conclusion was more or less that it wasn't very easy to define, but many broad definitions were possible - just like you don't need to have a record deal to call yourself a musician you probably don't need an active R01 grant to call yourself a scientist.

Enter Emanuel Derman:

This Tweet makes me incredibly angry. The science community on Twitter is strong - it's the only reason I'm even on Twitter. Yes, there are incredible science journalists, but actual practicing scientists (myself included) have a very strong Twitter presence. There are entire lists of scientist to follow (some much, much better than others - but that's a discussion for a different time). There are Hashtags used primarily - or only - by practicing scientists. #RealTimeChem is one that comes to mind. #RealTimeChem is a hashtag for Tweeting about chemistry research as it is being done. It's a hashtag that wouldn't be possible without scientists contributing in real time.

But what makes me angry about this tweet is not that Emanuel Derman is wrong. It's that he attempts to define the identity of tens of thousands of individuals with one conjecture. On Twitter you will find scientists in every field, of every race, of varying ages and beliefs. Bad things happen when you generalize identity, and it's even worse when you try to define someone else's identity. I am a scientist and most of the people I follow on Twitter are scientists. So how does Emanuel Derman define scientist, I wonder? Is it someone actively doing research? Someone with a published paper in the last N months? A Nobel prize winner? Someone with an active R01 grant? Someone that is in a lab this instant discovering something? With each and every one of these - on just about any given day - you will find someone on Twitter meeting the requirements of a scientist. Emanuel Derman's conjecture quickly becomes a "No True Scotsman" fallacy (thank you, @jfreebo).

Conjecture: If you're making a statement about someone else's identity you're probably wrong.