The Phrase “I’m Not a Scientist” and Why You Might Be Wrong

The phrase ‘I’m not a Scientist’ has made its way into the vernacular of politicians, particularly those that are members of the Republican party in the US. When asked about climate change or the age of the Earth, politicians such as John Boehner, Rick Scott, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Mitch McConnell, have all used their perceived lack of scientific professional background as a way to wriggle out of questions that they don’t want to answer.

The phrase was singled out by Barack Obama during his 2015 State of the Union address, saying:
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence [of global climate change] by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe.”

Whilst I agree with Obama that we need to be listening to scientists that have weighed up the evidence on subjects like climate change, I don’t agree with his immediate dismissal of him being a scientist.

This phrase ‘I’m not a scientist’ cropped up much closer to home whilst I was at Peterborough STEM Festival last weekend. As people were looking through the item’s I’d taken with me for the Science On A Postcard stall, people were looking for pin badges that they felt described them or their future goals. A young boy of around 6 asked his Dad to buy him an ‘Engineer’ pin as he told me in intricate detail how a steam engine worked, and a young girl of around 8 used her pocket money to buy herself a ‘Science Communicator’ pin because she liked talking to her Grandparents about science and by her rationale that meant that she was a science communicator. As well as making my heart do warm fuzzy feelings, these interactions made me realise just how open children are – the contrast was stark when compared with the children’s parents who were saying things like, ‘Oh there isn’t one for me, I’m not a scientist’. These were parents that were clearly engaged with science in some way; they were at an event held in a conference centre on the outskirts of Peterborough on a Saturday morning. Whether that was because their children wanted to be there, they wanted their children to be there, or if they actually wanted to learn something themselves; there was clearly an interest in science there.

Whist lots of people are not scientists by trade, I would argue that everyone is a scientist in some way. Science is a mindset, a way of thinking, rather than simply a job title.

If you type ‘what is science?’ into Google, you get about 2,750,000,000 results. Now, I haven’t been through every single one of these results for obvious reasons, but after clicking my way through the first few pages it’s pretty clear that there isn’t one definition that the world has reached consensus on. The UK’s Science Council define science as “the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.” In reality, the word science comes from the Latin ‘scientia’, simply meaning ‘knowledge’. To me, that means that if you are interested in expanding your knowledge, then you are a scientist. Whether that’s asking why your voice sounds different in your own head than it does on a recording, wondering how your car manages to run out of anti-freeze on the first day that it snows out of the entire year, or pondering why you can never find the end of a rainbow.
You might choose to focus your questions on society and how humans interact – in which case you’re a social scientist, maybe you’re more into figuring out why every house plant you own dies despite your best efforts – you’re a botanist or plant scientist, perhaps you’re like me and you want to know how people make decisions about taking part in trials and why they do or don’t stay in them – you’re a trials methodologist.

If you’ve ever asked a question, you’re a scientist, and the incessant use of the phrase ‘I’m not a scientist’ achieves nothing other than to give politicians a get out when they’re asked to give answers that may split their potential supporters.