What Does it Mean to be a Scientist?

If we can leave Sam Harris aside for a moment. The question of “who can call themselves a scientist” is an important one, but I’ve found it very difficult to reach a conclusion.

First, an aside… In my research, I work mostly with undergrads and I begin to call them scientists once they start planning, executing, and interpreting their own experiments. I know full well that few people would agree that this is all it takes to be a scientist, but in this context, I’m doing it to motivate them and also to help with their self-actualization. (I’m at an institution where almost all students are some combination of low-income, first-gen, and underrepresented minority, so most of them did not grow up with people telling them they can be a scientist if they want to.) So in that context, I’m going to call them scientists well before most others would and you can’t stop me. :slight_smile:

But for realz, we all agree that Bill Nye is not one and should stop pretending he is. A tougher example is Carl Zimmer. He knows more about genetics, genomics, and heredity than any scientist I know. He’s written multiple TEXTBOOKS, on evolutionary biology, no less. He speaks at conferences on genetics to specialists, not just scientists - SPECIALISTS in the area that he’s speaking on. He’s a thought leader! He’s won awards from the NAS, AAAS (three times!). But he doesn’t have a PhD and he doesn’t do experiments (though his most recent book has him exploring his own genome in a very scientific way). I don’t think he would meet anyone’s definition of a scientist but has had more impact on science (not just public understanding of, but real science, like I said, he runs in scientific circles with other thought leaders) than most scientists. So this begs the question - does impact matter? Some people have PhDs and tinker in their labs, but rarely publish and when they do, no one reads their papers. So they have zero impact on science. But they’re scientists. technically. So should impact matter?

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I get what you’re saying here, but another way to think about it is that “scientist” is a permanent label. I’m not saying I agree with that, exactly, but it’s something to consider.

What about someone who gets a PhD, postdoc, faculty position, publishes a lot, moves up the ranks, tenured, then full professor… but then moves into administration. If she becomes a dean and gives up her lab, is she not a scientist anymore? I think it could be fairly said that she’s earned the label for life because being a scientist is not just about what you do, but what you know and what your expertise is, no? That Dean may still read the journals in her field and attend seminars and conferences, contributing to conversations, if minimally. She may even sit on dissertation committees and things like that. Again, I’m not taking a position (yet), but I would feel very strange saying that she’s not a scientist. Could it be that once you’ve earned the label, you get it for life?

Another example… Ian Tattersall is retired and doesn’t do any lab work anymore, but he publishes about a book a year (mostly in university presses, so scholarly and peer-reviewed) and still writes articles in the peer reviewed literature, mostly commentaries and review articles, but those are scholarly and can have impact, even if they aren’t primary papers. If someone said he wasn’t a scientist anymore, he’d certainly be surprised and probably offended. I’m not sure that someone, once they are a scientist, can ever really stop being one. I might be in the minority on this one, though. Maybe he counts because he’s “active?” But what does active mean?

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Like @evograd, I slightly disagree. Scientists do have a unique role in society through their pursuit of truth and knowledge. I know that sounds like I’m romanticizing it, or fetishizing it, as you would put it, so please keep in mind that I mean this in a narrow sense and I also don’t think it’s the the only thing that matters.

The difference between a scientist and a mechanic (or an MD, actually) is that the work that those professionals do, as individuals, would still be done without them. If one particular mechanic didn’t exist, it would change nothing about the state of car maintenance and someone else would simply do the work they would have done. The same isn’t true for science. At least some of my papers, my “discoveries,” might not have been done by others for many years, if at all, at least not in the same way or context (and context is important in science). Our contributions are unique. The same would be true of historians, philosophers, and social scientists, btw, so I’m not saying that only scientists can claim this status. And I don’t think it IS a status, actually. Many people would put plumbers and car mechanics above scientists in terms of their importance and impact in the world and I don’t want to quarrel with that. I’m just saying that scientists contribute something that does make their role unique, if often esoteric: knowledge.


Now that you’ve spelled out your position more, I definitely disagree. But, FWIW, I don’t agree that a car mechanic that stops working as such stops being a mechanic. I’m not saying my position is entirely defensible here, but I think there is something like a permanent label when you go through the training, become an expert, work and contribute, etc. Obviously, you can take this too far. I put myself through college waiting tables, but I’m not a waiter anymore. I bartended in grad school, but I’m not a bartender. But “scientist” is more like a vocation, an orientation, a way of thinking about the world, and I don’t think that goes away just because you don’t author primary articles any more. I don’t know, I probably can’t fully defend that, but it’s how I prefer to use the term.

I agree with this if only the word scientist is replaced with “people who know a lot about science”. A lot of the times, indeed this is what people really meant when they say “scientists”. In this view I agree that your and @evograd’s position is reasonable. However, I think that my view that scientists are job descriptions is also reasonable, in the end, I will ditto what you said

Sure, we don’t have to all agree. :slight_smile: I can’t put my finger on it, but I don’t think “people who know a lot about science” (or history or philosophy or…) is quite the same because I do think that you are changed a bit by actually doing the science yourself. If you haven’t slogged through the long days and nights counting cells in the microscope (substitute whatever mundane technique you want) and also thinking about what experiment would reveal your answer, what controls to put in place, scratching your head at unexpected and confusing results, wracking your brain for some detail that you forgot that explains why your experiment is working… that’s very different mental work than just reading about other people’s results, and that’s the real, messy, often boring and mundane, grueling, frustrating work of being a scientist. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting to be working out in the frontiers because there’s no manual to follow. You don’t know if things will work because no one’s done it before. You can spend years on a project that goes nowhere through no fault of your own. If you haven’t been through all that, I don’t think you get the label. Shit, I’ve just talked myself out of calling Carl Zimmer a scientist. I may need to start over. :slight_smile:

This discussion about “what it means to be a scientist” is fascinating and will likely be moved into its own thread. Help me out by keeping the conversation about Harris in separate posts than the one about the meaning of “scientist.” @moderators


I understand what you are saying, and it does seem that people who have conducted science is changed in their way of thinking enough to warrant pointing out. I would be, however, happier if there is a different word to point this out than calling someone “scientist”.

So, according to these definitions, is SH a scientist? Now I’m not sure of my definition anymore, lol

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What seems to come through in these responses is that, for many of us, science is more than profession. It is a vocation. We are inducted into a grand effort much greater than us when we become scientists. It is an immense privilege. Not everyone is given opportunity to participate in such a grand thing that echoes through the centuries. This privilege, in my view comes with responsibilities. I also agree with you @NLENTS that I receive it as a vocation, a calling.

Of course, there are other vocations. Not everyone, however, is lucky enough to have the clarity of vocation that many of find in science. As for me, I found myself here. I was made for science.

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@swamidass, a vocation or calling to what?

Discovery? Truth?

After following the debate from both sides, I’m going to suggest a more sociological view: a scientist is simply someone who is affirmed as part of the community of scientists.

This isn’t simply a circular definition. What I’m trying to point out is that while the scientific method, or something like it, has been practiced in various forms for hundreds, even thousands of years, what distinguishes the practice of modern science is the network of knowledge-sharing between scientists which often transcends geographical and even political boundaries.

We can clearly point to certain people which are indisputably biologists, or physicists, or chemists. Who do these scientists regard as their colleagues? When they have a new idea, who do they talk to, who do they collaborate with, who do they regard as experts in particular sub-field? Who are they recommending to become professors of science in universities or scientists in research labs?

Getting a PhD is one step towards being connected to the scientific network. Normally, you have to submit your work to be examined by a collection of scientists, and when they approve of it, you’re tacitly acknowledged as having contributed something new to the growing body of scientific knowledge. So, at least for a moment, you are a scientist. But a PhD is not strictly necessary, especially when people start contributing beyond the original sub-field of their PhD. There are many examples of people who became affirmed as scientists simply because they became experts in science, started making original contributions, and are plugged deep into the network of scientific dialogue. Perhaps Carl Zimmer might fall into this category - I am not sure.

On the other hand, if you gained a PhD at a certain point but change profession and sever yourself completely from the scientific community, you are certainly not a scientist. I have met many people with a PhD in physics who are now working as a software engineer, data scientist, or financial analyst, and they normally would not describe themselves as a physicist anymore. They might still be said to have expertise in physics. But expertise is not enough to make you a scientist.

Now to respond to certain edge cases that have been proposed:

This depends on how connected the person remains to the community of scientists. If they still know a lot, but never give a presentation in a conference, critique papers publicly, and rarely get consulted as an expert by fellow scientists, then they are not a scientist anymore. On the other hand, consistently contributing original research is not necessary: writing review papers and doing peer review of papers is sufficient, if you’re still regarded as an expert by other fellow scientists.

In the case of Sam Harris, I’m not familiar with neuroscience, but if he published a few papers, but am now mostly doing popular science or other writing work, and rarely being consulted as an expert in certain special fields, then he is no longer a scientist.

There is also the interesting case of someone who once was regarded as a respected scientist in the past, but then a revolution occurs in the field and they refuse to adapt. Then, as Kuhn says in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

Though the historian can always find men - Priestly, for instance - who were unreasonable to resist for as long as they did, he will not find a point at which resistance becomes illogical or unscientific. At most he may wish to say that the man who continues to resists after his whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist. (Structure, XII)

I think this basic communal approach of defining professionals, i.e. that someone is X when their fellow X regard them as such, can be applied to a lot of other fields as well.


Another point that I want to make is that there’s a difference between what a person is at a particular point in time, and what we describe them as when we write their Wikipedia entry, biography, or obituary. Someone who contributed something significant to science but then became something else entirely might still be described as such in their biography, which is often meant to be a presentation of the totality of what they have done with their lives. Similarly, we still describe Jimmy Carter as a politician even though he has mostly withdrawn from public life.