Bully for Science

In Education by Brian Koberlein3 Comments

I’ve been watching lots of science demonstrations lately as part of work on Prove Your World, and I’ve started to notice a recurring theme: scientists are bullies.

As a case in point, take a look at the video above.  It follows the typical demonstration video, where the “scientist” is always in control, and the lovely volunteer is distracted and teased.  When she expresses concern for her safety, those concerns are downplayed and mocked.  There are times when she is visibly uncomfortable, but that apparently makes for good television.

Granted, you could argue that this is not science but rather entertainment, and it follows the same form as magic shows and comedy routines, but this is what’s often presented as science.  It reinforces common stereotypes: scientists don’t smile;  scientists decide what is true and what is not; scientists are smarter than you.  So just give them your lunch money or else.

At least those are the thoughts floating in the back of my mind after watching dozens of videos.  I’d love to hear what others think.


  1. I think scientists can be intimidating even when they are down-to-earth and friendly, but only if one knows that they’re a scientist. The everyday person may feel as though they are going to, at best, bore a scientist with everyday person things or, at worst, embarrass themselves for saying something stupid. So, yeah, there is certainly a lot of bias for a scientist to deal with perceptions of their character no matter what.

    That said, I think this video exemplifies less about scientists being bullies and more about them being white and male. The sort of bravado displayed here is not at all unique to scientists, but I think it *does* happen more with men and especially ones in positions of authority, and a lot of them just happen to be white, at least in Western society. Well, this is a whole other can of worms and it’s hard to write about, because it sounds accusatory and like I’m blaming whiteness and maleness. There is, of course, more to it than that.

    Small biases in a large and complex system such as human society can have profound effects.

    1. Sorry I kind of messed up that last sentence in the first paragraph. Hopefully the point is made, anyway. I can’t even think of a way to fix it.

      1. Wow, I couldn’t have thought about that better than the way you have written it. I have had my share of men bullying. It is not strictly isolated to the hard science field of study. It also isn’t restricted to white males. I have my share of bullies who are all male but they vary from wealthy to poor, from college educated to self taught. All in all, a bully is just a bully. The bigger issue for me is this generic TV science.

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