This post is not about scientists escaping the lab, but escaping stereotypes. Amongst my many gripes with the media is the stereotyping or pigeonholing of scientists. These are, I feel, mostly negative or at least not exactly positive (terms like ‘boffins’ or ‘eggheads’) and they are pervasive. I do of course accept that many of these stereotypes are well fixed in the public consciousness and the issue may be more about the media perpetuating and reflecting the public perception of researchers than them driving these, but that doesn’t mean they can’t escape bad habits, or stop taking the easy option.
The most pervasive of all these is the labcoat. You are, apparently, not a scientist if you don’t wear a labcoat, so whenever the cameras roll or the photop comes round for the university magazine or news media out come the labcoats. (I made the mistake of using various search engines to look for images for ‘science’ and ‘scientist’, you often have to go through several mpages before you find a non-labcoat bearing scientist). They are hard to avoid – watch any science documentary and no matter how inappropriate or unnecessary sooner or later you’ll see someone in a gratuitous white jacket so you know they are a proper researcher and err, not some random bloke in a white jacket. Ok, yes the medics and molecular guys need them, but I’m not sure I’ve seen one in a museum in the last ten years, certainly haven’t worn one and know for a fact that several colleagues I have seen in them on TV had to borrow them for the filming.
I think it’s got to the point of silliness by now. How exactly does owning and wearing one make someone a scientist compared to the person standing next to them?
I think respect for our intelligence, knowledge and expertise can come from the fact that we have those characteristics rather than a piece of laundry. Doctors don’t need stethoscopes or an x-ray to prove their credentials on screen so why do we need labcoats? The media (and by extension the public) can be weaned off them and I honestly think this would be a good thing. But of course this won’t happen without the researchers themselves refusing to put up with such things. So I say to you my colleagues (and especially those in palaeontology) the next time a photographer or film crew asks you to don a labcoat for a stupidly inappropriate shot (like sitting at your computer, or standing outside the building) point out that it is unnecessary and pointless, you are defined by your abilities not your outfit and if the photographer or public can’t work that out then there’s probably not much point in printing the story in the first place. And that goes double for when it’s actually your institution’s own PR people who want you to do it.