It’s pledge week on NPR, so lots of our favorite shows are getting interrupted in order to ask us for money. Now, I’m fine with this, even though I’m already a member, but this year I have a request in return. In fact, if NPR were to get this right — even for just one week — I’d gleefully up my donation and still be happy with pledge week.
What is it I want?
Stop using “scientists” as if it means something.
Some recent examples:
- “Some scientists in Peru are closely watching microscopic marine life.”
- “For more than 50 years, scientists who study the brain have been misled by squid.”
- “Lasers on this scale can produce tiny light sources, which in turn can help scientists capture images of tiny things we really care about, like the molecules inside our bodies.”
Using “scientists” in each of these sentences is about as useful as saying “humans” or “adults.” Worse, by bandying it about like a talisman, the authors both attempt to make an argument from authority and assume that their listeners aren’t astute enough to care that we learn less from the story. Consider these versions:
- “Some microbiologists in Peru are closely watching microscopic marine life.”
- “For more than 50 years, doctors and biologists who study the brain have been misled by squid.”
- “Lasers on this scale can produce tiny light sources, which in turn can help physicists and biologists capture images of tiny things we really care about, like the molecules inside our bodies.”
The real world isn’t Gilligan’s Island or Fringe, where the “professor” knows everything about anything. By granting the title of “scientist” as a blanket imprimatur for “knows everything”, speakers are allowed to speak as authorities when they shouldn’t. A Nobel Laureate in chemistry may have only a lay person’s knowledge of cosmology, evolution, or climate change. Knowing the domain of knowledge gives us clues about whether the person is really an expert or not.
I would expect NPR to understand this.
I am regularly disappointed when they do not.