Scientists are not that smart

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

This article I am describing is more of an opinion piece than a scientific study, but I think it does cover some important points head-on for why non-scientist members of the general public may have false assumptions about scientists being smarter than non-scientists. I have had people tell me before that I must be really smart for being a biologist, and that they didn’t go into science because they couldn’t do well in a math class (trust me, things like calculus and physics did not come easy to me and I barely passed these classes – I was just so determined to be a biologist that I wouldn’t give up on it just because I struggled through these subjects).

The author Chad Orzel says of scientists, “We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.”  I had never considered this before, but I think it is true.  Less-educated people think it might be doable for them to do lots of reading to become a historian or study literature, or to get a higher degree in art by learning how to master some artistic technique they enjoy, but they think they have no chance at becoming a scientist, or engineer, or mathematician because they aren’t “smart” enough (I am broadening the term “scientist” to people in the STEM fields). Now, I’m not saying anyone can decide to get a master’s or PhD in a STEM field and successfully complete it and have a STEM career, but I have learned through graduate school that the so-called “smarter” students are not always the ones who complete their degree or are more successful.  We scientists learn a lot about our field of study through the time and dedication we put into reading articles and discussing our ideas with others, which enables us to do research. I don’t think that only the most intelligent people are capable of doing this, or that only a select group of people with high IQs can become scientists.

Orzel makes a good comparison of being told he’s really smart for being a scientist to his lack of carpentry skills.   He says he is a mediocre carpenter at best, but “I can do it if I have to, but my work is slow and plodding, and when I try to speed it up, I make mistakes and end up needing to start over. Professional woodworkers or even serious hobbyists, who do enjoy those tasks and put in the time practicing them, are vastly better at the essential tasks. This is not merely physical, either — they’re also better at the mental aspect of the job, figuring out how to accomplish a particular construction goal, which is where I generally fail most dramatically. But you’ll never hear anyone say, “A carpenter? You must be really smart.”  He also enjoys playing basketball for a hobby, and even though he is not very good, “Nobody expects us to say, “Well, I can’t make it to the NBA, so I’ll never touch a basketball again.”  Why is it that high school or college students assume (or maybe hear from their teachers, friends or parents) that if they aren’t doing great in their math or chemistry class, that they won’t be able to get a degree and succeed in a STEM field?

The next point Orzel makes also is very familiar to me.  “There’s no social advantage to having an amateur interest in science; in some contexts, it’s even a liability, marking you out as a nerd. This problem is unique to science — nobody thinks it odd for people who can’t make a career in academia to continue to read literature, go to art museums, or take an active interest in politics and history.”  Thinking back to the friends I have made that didn’t get a degree in science, only three come to mind that show this amateur interest in science, and two probably don’t fully count because one did take some science courses they really liked but just didn’t major in it, and another married a scientist and has to discuss science all the time with their mutual science friends.  Why is it that we often expect members of the general public to be well-rounded in their interests and spend time in art and history museums, to be avid readers and be knowledgeable about current events and politics, but it’s normal if they know nothing about science and can’t even identify plants and animals in their own backyards?  Why shouldn’t they know some of the constellations in the night sky if they aren’t astronomers, or how earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur?  This common misperception especially needs to change if we want the general public to properly understand evolution and climate change, and unfortunately many of our politicians and lawmakers do not believe scientific evidence in support of these subjects.

Orzel argues that non-scientists use many scientific principles in their everyday decisions or in pursuit of their hobbies that may seem unrelated to science, such as playing cards, doing crossword puzzles, and collecting coins or stamps (I would add two more popular hobbies: cooking/baking and gardening).

I hope non-scientists stop refusing to believe they can ask questions or understand something about the STEM fields, even if they did not study that in school.  You are capable, especially when scientists speak to the general public without using jargon and technical terminology.  (I will try to continue doing this through my blog.) A great way to develop your interests in science is to participate in citizen science projects, which normally require no scientific background and teach you all the techniques you need to know in a subject you would like to collect data for. Science can be really interesting and fun no matter how smart you are, and I hope non-scientists can keep an open mind to learning about science!

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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.