Some thoughts on ‘I’m a Scientist’.

For the last two weeks I have been taking part in I’m a Scientist: Get me out of here. Now, I know that I am a few years late to the party on this and there has already been plenty written and several awards, but here are my thoughts on the experience.

Firstly, it’s bloomin’ brilliant! As many other people have said before me, it is a fantastic experience. It is great to chat to kids and answer the questions that they really want to ask. Whether this was a question about what my work taught us about the evolution of intelligence or what I do in my spare time, it was great to engage with a group of people who wanted to engage with us. I loved the fact that what we did was break down the term ‘scientist’ and make it real for them. Hopefully they could see that we’re not all in a lab coat, cackling to ourselves as we divide our time up between curing cancer and splitting atoms.

Secondly, I have learned so much. Being asked questions and having to justify my own research (and, to some extent, my life in general) to people with huge curiosity is great. It helped to clarify my own thoughts and it forced me to think about how I think. It has also inspired me to work out how I can do some new projects. For this I am really grateful. The effect, as with any good public engagement project, has certainly not just been one-way.

Thirdly, competition is sometimes a neat driver. I often approach human behaviour wearing the hat of someone who works on its evolution, so for me it is fascinating to see the effect of certain conditions. Humans are very cooperative (when compared to other species), but a heathy dose of competition does us some good sometimes. The fact that there was a gentle competitive element to the event meant that I was definitely spurred on to go the extra mile. The fact that there were four other scientists who were all phenomenally good, also answering questions meant that I was always thinking that I had to be good enough to match them. It is not sufficient to say “I don’t know” to an enquiring mind, I needed to do more (although sometimes that had to be explaining that this wasn’t my area of science and that physics usually boggles my mind as well!).

Fourthly, community is great. As much as I got competitive and wanted to win, I felt a great feeling of camaraderie with my fellow scientists and with the kids that were involved. It was great to see the same names popping up in the chats and asking questions, and it was a real shame when we got to the second week and scientists started ‘disappearing’.

And finally: we really need to think about how evolution is taught and discussed. I worry that there are so many basic misconceptions about how evolution works. Now, many of the school groups that I was talking to were of a younger age group for the event – years 7 and 8 (11-13 year olds), but the issues here were issues that I have seen popping up time and time again. It worries me that there were so many questions such as ‘if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?’. It worries me that this elegant theory that underpins the whole of biology is allowed to be so thoroughly misunderstood. And it worries me because I fear that people are being encouraged to have some sort of blind faith in evolution.

Let me be clear, this is not a criticism of those asking the questions. There are many people who would say that they think that evolution by natural selection is the explanation for the diversity of species on Earth, but when it gets to the nuts-and-bolts, they don’t know the answers. Unfortunately, I think that many of them are too afraid to ask questions about evolutionary theory for fear of being thought stupid. That, somehow, it is better to be ignorant but supporting, than question the mechanisms of evolutionary theory.

Who is to blame for that? Well, us – those of us who study and research evolutionary questions. I fear that shouting at fundamentalist religious fanatics has become such a pastime for certain proponents of evolution, that a dialogue with our friends is viewed as some poor and useless substitute. Cults of personality and metaphors of war have been allowed to distract people from constructive dialogue. We don’t need to batten down the hatches or march into battle, we need to chat and we need to listen.

I know that the points in this post are not new, they have been said elsewhere many times; but I wanted to add my voice to those many people by thanking all at Gallomanor for devising and running I’m a Scientist. It really has been a blast and it has certainly got me thinking.

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