Why I’m Uncomfortable With #IAmAScientistBecause

I’m fairly new to Twitter, and given my inability to express thoughts concisely, I don’t tweet too often. I mostly just retweet things I find interesting, and use Twitter to publicize my articles and blogposts. But every now and then, I compose a tweet to add my voice to a hashtag movement. Most recently, I tweeted with #scishirt, because I feel strongly that our clothing shouldn’t objectify anyone, and with #IAmANaturalist, because I believe academia doesn’t value natural history enough. For both of these hashtags, I imagined the primary audience of these tweets to be other scientists.

But social media doesn’t get more public than Twitter, and there now seems to be a sub-genre of online journalism that is devoted to collating tweets into articles that likely reach a broad audience. Also, I’d imagine that at least some scientists see Twitter as a medium for engaging with non-scientists about science. Given that, I think it matters how scientists come across on Twitter to non-scientists, and I’ve been thinking about this after a recent hashtag, #IAmAScientistBecause.

Initially, I didn’t bother tweeting with #IAmAScientistBecause because I didn’t have anything new to say. I’m a scientist because I like nature and logic and figuring things out, and because I was privileged enough to be exposed to science as a career option. Almost everyone was tweeting about being motivated by curiosity, and I didn’t want to add more of the same into the pile. But as I read more and more tweets, in which some cast their lives as scientists as “quests for the truth” and contributing to “saving the world,” I started to dislike the picture of scientists that was emerging from this trend. There’s obviously nothing wrong with an individual scientist being motivated by curiosity or by wanting to make the world better, but when scientists say again and again and again that they were compelled by curiosity (or some sort of saviour complex) to become scientists, it starts to sound as though we think curiosity (and saving the world) is the exclusive domain of scientists. It’s striking to me that the hashtag was started by @naturejobs, and lots of the people who found it “inspiring” were also scientists. Did we stop to think how these tweets might look to people currently outside science?

Then Buzzfeed collated some of these tweets into a listicle, and I started to get really uncomfortable with how we were portraying ourselves. Included among the “29 Reasons You Should Be A Scientist” was “because regular jobs are boring.” And we wonder why the “public” doesn’t like us? Most of what’s distressing about this listicle comes from Buzzfeed’s commentary, but I think it’s worth thinking about how a collection of tweets celebrating ourselves to ourselves can end up looking like this to a broader audience. Perhaps ironically, I turned to Twitter to see if anyone else shared my discomfort. Some did, and they expressed it better than I could.

As I see it, neither the relationship between scientists and non-scientists nor the relationship between the academic scientific establishment and the people who choose to leave it are doing particularly well. #IAmAScientistBecause may actually have hurt both these relationships, and I think it’s worth pausing a bit before jumping onto a largely self-congratulatory bandwagon to consider its effects on the people we need to engage and improve our relationships with.

UPDATE: Here is a post from Stephen Heard who, as you can see in the tweet above, has enjoyed this hashtag and explains why. As Dr. Heard put it:

Thanks to Dr. Heard for sharing my piece, and for such a pleasant and respectful disagreement 🙂

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