5 Misconceptions About Science and Scientists

Ask the average person what they think about science and scientists, and you’re likely to get a range of responses.  Whether because of the portrayal (often translating to stereotyping) of scientists in popular media, the general mystique and mystery associated with what they do, and a general reverence for their brilliance, people carry many misconceptions and misunderstandings about what scientists are really like.

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In our latest blog post, Labguru dispels our top five:

1. Failures are just failures

Let’s face it—science involves a lot of failure.  For every successful experiment, blockbuster paper and groundbreaking discovery, there are many more that never panned out.  Few fields require as much resiliency and patience, especially during graduate studies, as science.  But unlike other fields, scientists learn as much from the experiments that don’t work as from the ones that do.  In the ongoing search for an HIV/AIDS vaccine, several recent failed clinical studies were viewed as beneficial because scientists were able to change strategies for attacking the virus.  Indeed, a recent study in the RAND Journal of Economics found that “biologists who were given more time and latitude in their research—as well as the freedom to fail—before they were evaluated produced more hit papers and more duds.”  So the next time your experiment doesn’t quite work the way you thought it would, don’t despair – in the world of science, it is still considered valuable data!

2. Scientific breakthroughs are planned on schedule

Yes, it is true that science is a rigorous, empirical and highly precise field of work.  Discoveries in most, if not all, disciplines are built on the backbone of hundreds’ of years of other smaller experimental discoveries, ideas and even failures (see above).  However, groundbreaking breakthroughs are not always the result of a linear progression of knowledge, nor are they often made on the timeframe that either scientists or their funding institutions would like.  Did you know that many seminal scientific cures and discoveries were entirely serendipitous?  A list of some of the best includes penicillin, Coca-Cola, Teflon, plastic, and (yikes!) radioactivity.  It was even more recently that a Pfizer chemist named Ian Osterloh, self-admittedly doing research “in the hope of improving people’s lives,” accidentally discovered that a pill being developed for the treatment of heart disease had some rather unexpected side effects.  That little blue pill turned into Viagra, with a profit of over $2 billion per year.

3. Science isn’t creative or fun

Easily the biggest misconception about science, it’s also one of the least true.  Science is thought of as austere, serious, dedicated and repetitive, but sadly, rarely creative.  Recent neuroscience research suggests that “connections between the frontal lobes and temporal lobes are more important than those between left and right hemispheres” for creativity and idea generation, reversing the age-old misconception that right-brained, artistic people are creative, while left-brained science-types are more number oriented.  Scientists have to constantly think outside the box, come up with ideas and hypotheses that have never even been imagined before, all while often managing their own projects at a very young age.  It is no wonder that the creative process in scientists and artists is remarkably similar!

4. Scientists’ objectivity means they lack emotions

There is a huge difference between objectivity and lack of emotions.  Scientists must be open-minded, fair, unbiased, and dedicated to inquiry via the scientific method and peer review.  But it requires a lot of passion to devote upwards of a decade to a specific field of study (in many cases a highly specialized subset thereof), to work the long hours required to execute projects on a multi-year (or multi-decade) timeline.  In addition, the rigorous tenure process in academia requires many personal and professional sacrifices.  This is usually the reason that if you ask the average scientist about his or her research, they could opine for hours about it and its potential benefit to mankind.  In fact, leading scientists in India recently told aspiring students that it is “passion for a subject and not marks to pursue brilliant careers in science.”

5. Scientists have to work in traditional scientific fields

It used to be that choosing to pursue graduate studies in science meant a pre-decided career track in either academia or industry, usually at the bench.  To this day, many professors and programs continue to groom their PhDs for these traditional paths.  But with programs worldwide producing too many PhDs, compounded by an academic job market with too few jobs to employ them, there has been a steady rise in alternative and non-traditional careers for scientists, including patent law, science writing, journalism, finance and business, and yes, even the arts, among others.  Many PhD programs now include joint areas of study, the ability to take classes outside of one’s field (even in non-science fields) and speaker series where they bring back alumni and notables who have successfully pursued non-science careers.  If you have an inkling that you’d like to apply your graduate training beyond the bench, or even beyond science, take advantage of these opportunities.  It will not be long before scientists and engineers will have a plethora of options across many fields after their graduate studies.

What do you guys think?  Have we covered the biggest and most common misconceptions?  Do you have any that you’ve encountered and would like to add to the list?  Drop us a comment or feedback below!