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Scientists are People, Too ...

We enjoy a little supersition like anyone else.

Published: Thursday, November 7, 1996


Page: 9A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

Game four, bottom of the ninth, Braves are behind. Polonia steps up to bat. He is 0 for 3 tonight, in spite of batting better than .400 in the Series. He is due for a hit!

Wrong. I know that statistics has no short-term memory: the luck of his next swing does not depend on the past. Still, he's due one. He flies out. The game is over.

In last year's Series, a happier one for us Braves fans, I found myself trapped in superstition: maybe if I sit on the same place on the couch they will win again. Joking with my colleagues and students, I've found they too share some rituals: if I don't actually pay too much attention, they will win the game. They lose when I watch!

Hey! What's going on? Aren't scientists supposed to be cold, calculating creatures who are not prey to such foolishness? Don't we base our lives on logic and deductive reasoning, forsaking voodoo practices?

Wrong again--scientists are people, too!

Yes, Virginia, we eat, drink and sleep like other mortals. While we may not get serious about jinxing the Braves, we share most of the fancies and foibles of others. We have families and friends, vices and virtues. Some of us drink, a few smoke. We watch sports. We are not all nerds.

Neither are we all "atheist scientists". A survey of members of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, found that we have essentially the same distribution of beliefs and affiliations as the rest of the you.

I think these distorted views color our vision, preventing enjoyment of science by the average person, and sidetrack kids from a potential career or liberal education in science.

This stereotyping begins before you have any say in the matter, with Saturday morning cartoons caricaturizing us as white-coated, bespectacled geeks usually up to no good. Clearly not something to grow up to become!

Is it then any wonder that Johnny may not be attracted to science? We encourage him to shoot hoops although there are ten times as many astronomers in the US as there are players in the NBA, and astronomy is probably the smallest discipline among the sciences. Not to mention engineering. Where is Johnny's future?

The situation for Jane is even worse. In the past, girls were never encouraged to enter science. Fifteen years ago I could recognize all the same females at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting. Not hard to do, with perhaps several faces out of several hundred. The girls of my generation had been steered clear of science. I wonder how many potential geniuses, Alice Einstiens, never came to be?

This is improving, but females are still a minority. Special efforts are well under way--for example, I notice that WJZY (Ch.46) is inserting "buy your girl a chemistry set" public service announcements after the Melanie Mall ads during cartoons (egad--scientists watch cartoons?).

We need to shed these misperceptions about scientists and their work so that the benefits (and problems) provided by research will be appreciated (and understood) by all. Science has only begun to address this PR problem, and there are just a few of us who have achieved the notoriety necessary to command the public's attention. A few superstars. After all, how many living scientists can you name? Ok--there's Carl Sagan. And you've probably heard of Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist confined to a wheel chair. How about paleontologist/evolutionist Stephen J. Gould? Name another. Now, start naming sports stars ...

When Gould gave a talk at Appalachian a few weeks ago I lamented that we had to pay him $8,000. Who can be worth that much? But what a speech! What an inspiration to the young minds in the crowd. Gould is also a baseball fan, even having appeared on Ken Burns' "Baseball" series on PBS. He has offered perhaps the best explanation on the disappearance of .400 hitting from baseball. I wish every baseball fan could hear him tell it! And its connection to the statistics of evolution. I think we got our money's worth. After all, many Major League players also get that much for one night!

Charlotte groups can help--invite a scientist to speak at your luncheon or group meeting, or your classroom. You should find a ready supply at UNCC, and public service is part of our job. After all, how many Panthers or Hornets can you listen to?

Now, perhaps next year I should only snack on pretzels during the Series...

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