Scientists: cast off your labcoats!

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.

14 Responses to “Scientists: cast off your labcoats!”

  1. 1 Julia 25/05/2009 at 6:34 pm

    Hell yeah! My labcoat is languishing at the very bottom of a large chest, underneath my old school ties, my undergrad gown, my Cub Scout leader uniform (ten years out of date) and all my field kit. Which shows you how often I wear it. In fact I think its last outing was for a fancy dress party.

  2. 2 Paul Barrett 25/05/2009 at 7:52 pm

    Actually, I do wear a lab coat from time-to-time, specifically when doing acid preparation (where is it a strict health and safety requirement) and when handling large grotty bones. I’ve never been asked to don one while being filmed, however, and can’t recall any palaeo documentaries in which people are wearing one, except in an actual lab setting (our conservators and preparators wear a lab coat most of the time). Indeed, as far as palaeontologist are concerned, the media actually has a different stereotype – of the grubby, bearded, cowboy hat and boots wearing field man. Indeed, one time I was asked to do an interview I thought I should decline as I had a couple of days stubble and was wearing shorts and a t-shirt (not my usual form, but it was the summer). The interviewer said that was great as it was what the public expected us to look like! I think you’re worrying about the wrong stereotype as far as palaeo is concerned.

  3. 3 Cat 25/05/2009 at 10:52 pm

    The only time I’ve warn a lab coat is when I’m working with radiogenic isotopes. However, because this requires a clean lab I also have to wear the silly show cap hat and booties – not an outfit I’d want to be filmed in! 🙂

  4. 4 David Hone 25/05/2009 at 10:54 pm

    Perhaps I am concentrating on the wrong one Paul, though of course Richard was forced into one for the display on Dino Jaws at the NHM a few years back (I remember him telling me he had to borrow it from someone else for the shoot). I have cetainly seen palaeontologists in Europe in them for photographs and plenty of biologists who never wear them end up in them. You are right that the ‘field palaeontologist’ icon is perhaps more pervasive for our field, but the ‘labcoat’ image is still one that is pervasive for science as a whole and one that I do not think is necessary or accurate.
    Look at the way Ben Goldacre has criticised the use of labcoats to try and promote a concept of accuracy and academie in people like Gillian McKeith. Of course large numbers of us do wear them from time to time (or all the time), but the idea that we live in them, or that a coat makes you a scientist (or worse, makes a non-scientist an expert) is (to my mind) clearly silly and unrepresentative.
    I don’t want to be defined by a pice of apparel, white coat or cowboy hat. (Even if I do look quite dashing in the latter).

  5. 5 Richard 25/05/2009 at 11:40 pm

    Indeed I did have to wear a labcoat for my two thumbs-up “Dino Jaws” photo shoot, and indeed I had to borrow one. However, it would me misleading to say I was “forced” to do so – I thought it was amusing. I can see where they were coming from – a labcoat is simply a visual shorthand for a scientist. If you want a member of the general public or a child to look at an image of a person and realise instantly that it is a scientist that is being portrayed, then you have to give that person some kind of symbol that represents science – a labcoat, a testtube etc. I would agree with Paul that in general encouraging palaeontologists to don labcoats for interviews seems to be unusual (based on my limited experience).

  6. 6 mythusmage 26/05/2009 at 6:07 am

    Yankee Doodle used to be an insult, we adopted it as our own. “Nerd” and “Witch” used to be insults, a deadly one in the case of “witch”. Now witches and nerds use them as badges of honor. So here and now I do proudly proclaim that I am an egghead. I am not a credentialed egghead, much less an anointed egghead. but I am an egghead. I am a proud egghead, proud of using my bean to my best ability for its proper role, to think. Use your noggin for cognition? Then be proud of it and let the world know…


  7. 8 David Hone 26/05/2009 at 10:56 am

    Hi Richard, apologies (to you or the exhibitors / photographers) if I misrepresented what had happened. It did seem to me though (regardless of exact circumstances) an exact example of scientist = labcoat, though the more I think of it, yes I agree with you and Paul that for palaeontologists, it’s not a major issue. My intended target was more general though of the portrayal of labcoat = scientist, even if I am writing as a palaeontologist.

    Mythusmage, I’m proud to be a nerd / geek / whatever if it implies I’m smart and work hard, but I’m not sure the two are quite the same here. At one level, while we might not be offended at being called geeks etc. there is a definate sense that the use of such terms in the media are (at least at times) being used to deliberately undermine the credibility / ability of the researchers or their research as exemplified in my post on ‘predicatable vs surprising’.

  8. 9 David Raikow 26/05/2009 at 9:17 pm

    I know an prominent entomologist who, when profiled in a magazine, was photographed with erlenmeyer flasks in the background filed with various colorful liquids. What had they to do with his woprk. Absolutely nothing. Why wer they placed there? Because his lab didn’t look “scientific” enough.

  9. 10 David Hone 26/05/2009 at 9:35 pm

    Sounds about right, like I say dod a goodle search for ‘scientist’ and it’s pretty horrible.

  10. 11 Tor Bertin 23/01/2010 at 4:49 pm

    Thought this kinda fitting:

  1. 1 More on science reporting « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 06/10/2010 at 8:14 pm
  2. 2 The framing of scientists « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 23/05/2011 at 8:56 am
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