Ask a child to draw a picture of a scientist, and it is likely you will be presented with a figure in a white coat, bald, bespectacled and quite probably bearded, possibly with some graphic indication of eccentricity at best and insanity at worst.
Britain’s Dr Quentin Cooper, one of the country’s most popular science journalists whose career includes being a BBC presenter and a regular host of the FameLab International Finals, challenges those stereotypes and is on a mission to change them.
Described by The Times as both “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and “an expert on everything from pop music to astrophysics”, he gave an interview to The Sofia Globe (TSG) ahead of his May 11 presentation at the 2018 Sofia Science Festival. These are edited extracts:
TSG: I’ve watched your presentation (Our Changing World Enlightenment Lecture) from October 2016; that was 2016, and the image problem of scientists no doubt endures. But since then, we’ve had the deepening of another problem, the election of people like Trump who epitomise an anti-science movement.
Quentin Cooper: When I was doing media training, I used to say there were three ways that science makes the front pages. One was triumph, two was disaster, and now there is a third category, which is science policy – we’re aware of what we should be doing, and yet we’re going and doing something else instead. Obviously, this is particularly in the case of the United States, where you see someone appointed to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who is a climate change skeptic, even though there is all the evidence to say that this is the wrong move and the wrong person at the wrong time. It’s a ridiculous position to find ourselves in.
TSG: The country that you’re coming to, Bulgaria, boasts an Environment Minister who says that global warming is a “manipulation”.
Quentin Cooper: Oh dear. I find it remarkable; the analogy that I sometimes talk about is that, I understand how humans are – if you’re in a car and you’re heading towards a cliff, you apply the brakes. Now if you’re in the kind of car where you have to apply the brakes five minutes before you get to the cliff, you would not forget to. But not only are we failing to apply the brakes, we are denying the knowledge that the cliff is even there, and that does not help.
TSG: To go back to first principles, where do we, in short summary, get our image of scientists from?
Quentin Cooper: It’s complicated. Obviously, pop culture is there, and one of the things that I find strangest is that if you ask a child to draw a scientist now, they will draw somebody unbelievably like a child would have drawn 50 or even 60 years ago. I think that comes from reinforcement from popular media, particularly cinema but also television, children’s literature too – there are characters like one I grew up with, Professor Branestawm, who is the eccentric scientist who is a genius but also not to be trusted to do anything very simple. It’s that double-edged element that I find particularly interesting, the idea of Otherness, that they’re incredibly smart in terms of their field, but they’re not everyday. I think that then feeds into the use of scientists as a very convenient Hollywood villain, particularly in the era of the old days where having an East European baddie or an Arab baddie or a Chinese baddie – which may have been useful in mainstream Bond films 20 or 30 years ago. So a scientist represents something clever but also not quite like you and me, in the perception of cinema audiences, and thus is perceived as being dangerous – because they are clever. In my 2016 lecture, that you watched, you saw how I mentioned looking up in the Time Out film guide regarding having mad scientists in them, and the list is well over 100 films which have a mad scientist character. And “mad” is used not only to mean “crazy mad” but also “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
TSG: In that lecture, you also did mention Professor Stephen Hawking – who died recently – and who has been a positive science icon. But apart from Hawking, are there other positive science icons?
Quentin Cooper: Yes, I think we have. I think that things have changed for the better. In my field, science communication, if we were starting this conversation 20 years ago, we’d have to spend a long time on “what is a science communicator”. Later, it would have been “what is the point of science communication?” Now, people accept the importance of science communication, and they accept that there are scientists out there who are very good at communicating – ultimately, I hope, rendering my job largely obsolete. But what I also think has helped is that there are now positive scientific icons. If you think of the character that Matt Damon plays in The Martian, he undeniably geeks his way to surival, and it’s a proud aspect of his character – he’s not covertly a scientist. The solution for him is that he’s not an ordinary member of the public stranded on Mars, he is a scientist, and there are eight key points in the film where him surviving depends on scientific knowledge. There is a lot of sound science and a bit of wobbly science in the book.
Similarly, and perhaps even more influentially, it’s not to be underestimated that children choose a career in science for all sorts of irrational reasons – and having Bruce Banner, the scientist who is also the Incredible Hulk, Tony Stark – an engineer – who is Iron Man, you get kids saying that they want to be scientists because of these things. Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity is a scientist and she uses some scientific knowledge to help her survive. We are seeing some more positive characters. It used to be that if a scientist turned up in a movie, you knew that if they were a heart surgeon, somebody at some point was going to have a heart attack, and if they were a brain surgeon, somebody’s brain was going to be needed to be transplanted. And if they were any other kind of scientist, at some point it was going to be relevant. But it wasn’t telling you much about the scientists themselves, and they remain those two-dimensional figures.
Oddly, this year, we’re going to see the return of a character who has been off our screens for a long time, that played by Jeff Goldblum in the original Jurassic Park movie, Dr Ian Malcolm, whose area of expertise is supposedly mathematics. But he’s just basically there to be a kind of doomsayer and talk about how things inevitably go wrong. He’s not really a scientist, he’s just basically an authority figure, saying “you really oughtn’t to be doing this”. And now he’s coming back in the Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.
TSG: The devil’s advocate question – Quentin, have you actually ever met anyone who conforms to the stereotypical image?
Quentin Cooper: Very good question. And, absolutely. I have met many…I shall tell this story without mentioning the name. I once had to arrange for somebody to go to meet a prominent British scientist at Euston Station, which is a station where at any moment there are going to be 500 to 1000 people. I was able to say to them, “I could give you a detailed description, but if I say, ‘when you look at him, you will think “scientist”, you will find him”. And they did, having got no more details from me than that. Because he had the archetypal frizzy hair, and the glasses, and everything else. I do think that scientists, when they are defining their own image, look at the images that are onscreen as well, and sometimes they will go, well, in order to be a proper scientist, I have to look like that.
But another example I will name, because he’s no longer with us, Colin Pillinger was a great British scientist, who was behind the Beagle 2 mission, which was to land a probe on Mars. And he got a whole generation excited, he got school kids excited, he collaborated with the artist Damian Hirst, and the pop group Blur, and it became a big talking point. Unfortunately, the probe didn’t land. But Colin looked exactly like that kind of slightly crazy science image, and we debated long and hard, was Colin a good thing for the image of science, because he took it to a different generation, or was he a bad thing because he was also reinforcing those stereotypes?
To add to this, I think this is also an issue sometimes when you get scientists on television. These days, some of the well-known science presenters, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Alice Roberts, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, always insist that the title “professor” is used, so that when people see them, it will help change the image. But the trouble is, I think, that a lot of people see them, and they process them as, somebody’s who is a TV presenter – it doesn’t necessarily register that this is a scientist, and thus help to change the scientist’s image.
The best way to change the image of scientists is for people to meet scientists, and to realise that they are men and women and young and old and black and white and from all over the world, and some of them actually have social lives and hobbies and wives and husbands. And people then begin to realise that they’re not somebody who just does science 24 hours a day.
TSG: From that, a very basic question – why does it matter that the popular image of scientists is wrong, or inappropriate?
Quentin Cooper: I think it matters a lot, because the trouble is that if you don’t challenge that assumption of the scientist-as-Other, that leads to a situation that we found ourselves in, where a prominent government minister can stand up and say, “experts, what do they know?” The famous Michael Gove line. And that dismisses an important aspect of what governs our society. We need independent expertise in order to know what’s going on. If you then diminish and dismiss the role that that expertise provides, “oh, he’s an expert, what does he know?”, well, he or she knows more than you, and that’s the idea – I am happy to cede the idea that there are people out there who know far more than me about a subject, and hopefully are objective and trustworthy about that information as well. Obviously, Clive, there are scientists who are not completely trustworthy, there are scientists who do go against that, but you have to deal with these thing in a mass way.
One of the best pieces of science communication that I have seen in recent years is the British comedian John Oliver, where he tried to do the first ever statistically-accurate climate change debate. He pointed out that the evidence is that 98 per cent of scientists believe that anthomorphic climate change is a real phenomenon and we need to be concerned about it. Two per cent disagree. Now, normally what happens in a TV debate is you hear one person arguing one thing and another person arguing the other, and you just get the idea “we don’t know”. So he brings on one person for each side, one person to support the climate change skeptic, and 97 to support the person arguing that humans are causing climate change – all of them, of course, wearing white coats, thus reinforcing another scientific stereotype. The debate’s of course, completely anarchic, but it very nicely makes the point of, how to convey large numbers to people, and percentage differences, whereas the classic TV and radio format is just to have them one-on-one and the viewer or listener is just left with the idea of, they don’t know. And when you don’t know, you’re going to take the path of least resistance, which is “I don’t need to do anything if one person is saying you need to change your life, you need to lobby your politicians, while the other is saying, it’s all right”. You do not necessarily give those arguments even weight.
TSG: An issue that has come up in several interviews with Sofia Science Festival participants is the challenge of fake science on the internet.
Quentin Cooper: You can look at this one way and say this is one dimension of the problem, or you can look at it the other way, and say this is a potential other dimension to the solution. What we’re trying to get to here is a more scientifically literate public. People, generally speaking, are not stupid. We all have certain areas we’re ignorant about, but we have a certain amount of common sense, and the more we can point out, hang on, what’s that website you’re looking at? I agree, it get’s harder when people are saturated by media that will only reinforce certain views, so they think that they’re sampling widely, but they’re sampling widely within a sub-set that is only reinforcing one set of beliefs. That is dangerous and difficult. But if people can learn to source things and check things…in Britain, we all read certain newspapers, even ones we quite like, and will know that a story in one newspaper is probably more credible than a story than in another newspaper. And we will give them relative weight. So when we see a story saying “eat loganberries and you can lose five stone”, we don’t run to the shop and buy up all the loganberries. So the more we can increase, even incrementally, literacy, and the ability to think, “hang on a bit”, the more we can deal with that. Though I don’t want to understate this. I do think it’s difficult; the trouble is that there are people out there who do surround themselves competely with certain sources, and that is their world view, and anything that challenges that world view gets dismissed. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve with communication, having these people in these little islands of belief.
TSG: This is the question you weren’t expecting. What’s your favourite joke about scientists?
Quentin Cooper: One of the main things about science jokes is that most of them are truly terrible. There are all the “particle goes into a bar” jokes. But one of my old favourites, because it’s a lovely one-liner: “Heisenberg is driving in his car and a policeman stops him and says: ‘Do you know how fast you were going?’; and Heisenberg replies, ‘no, but I know exactly where I am'”.
Dr Quentin Cooper’s presentation, entitled “Who said nerd?” is at the 2018 Sofia Science Festival venue, Sofia Tech Park, on May 11 at 8.30pm.
For further details about tickets and venues for the Sofia Science Festival events, please visit the Festival’s website.
Created in 2011 by the British Council and the Forum Democrit, and under the patronage of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science, from its very first year the Sofia Science Festival has attracted a large number of supporters. The Sofia Globe is a media partner of the Sofia Science Festival.