Who Is a Scientist, Anyway?

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices when producing an abstract for your manuscript or presentation.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

Ostensibly, this question should be easy to answer. One answer might be that a scientist is someone trained in the scientific method who applies that knowledge to the conduct of research. Unfortunately, the proliferation of social media and other platforms for dissemination and criticism of scientific studies has blurred the line considerably. For example, some definitions of “scientist” you might find in a quick Google search require only expertise in science to qualify. By this definition, a person with an undergraduate degree in biology who keeps up with the scientific literature and writes a scientific blog would meet the definition. On the other hand, if a person with no scientific training conducts a study of mushrooms in his basement and posts the results online, is she a scientist? Do we require people to both complete formal, specialized training and conduct scientific studies before they are deemed scientists?

To emphasize the importance of shared terminology, I will share an anecdote about a time when inconsistent terminology imploded a blind date:

Justin: “So what do you do?”

Blind Date: “I’m a writer.”

Justin: “Wow. That’s impressive. What have you had published?”

Blind Date: “Nothing. But I’ve written a lot of poetry.”

Justin: “Oh. You’re not a writer; you just like to write.”

—END OF DATE—

While this story is amusing (to me…now), it does beg the question: do you have to be actively engaged in the creating of a product (eg, a book, an article) to consider yourself a member of a group that creates things?

Related, these definitions lead one to question the definition of “science.” For example, what qualifies as science? As the outdated and inaccurate terms “hard science” and “soft science” suggest, we have a desire to delineate types of science. Sometimes this is for clarity, such as “basic science,” “applied science,” and “translational science.” But if the basic sciences (eg, chemistry, physics) are undoubtedly science, what about the applied sciences? For example, is medicine science? If it is, then a physician, nurse, psychiatrist, or any other clinician could claim to be a scientist by a liberal definition of the term, despite minimal to no training in the scientific method. What about public health? Is an epidemiologist who conducts surveillance a scientist even if she never conducts a formal study? In the end, do terms and titles even matter?

Ultimately, I think titles do matter. If we fear that we are witnessing The Death of Expertise, then it is important to advance only the most qualified individuals to represent our interests to the public. As such, we should reserve the term “expert” for those with formal training and experience (not just those who are well-read), and “scientist” for individuals who conduct (and publish?) research in their areas of expertise. You can be an expert in medical science, for example, and not be a scientist. You can also have an informed opinion on a scientific matter but not be an expert. However, as Tom Nichols bluntly states in The Death of Expertise, others should not ascribe equal weight to the opinions of experts and non-experts.

Most importantly, none of this should be seen as a way to create a barrier to participation in the scientific process or contributions to the scientific literature. You don’t have to be a scientist to publish an article in the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice. Team science can facilitate your participation in a way that will undoubtedly improve the quality of the final product. For example, a public health practitioner can provide an important voice on a writing team to ensure that the results are not too dense to be useful to a practitioner-reader or protect against a paper becoming too esoteric to be of value to the field. For that matter, the applied epidemiologist in the example above should not hesitate to write up her findings and submit to the Journal, if the surveillance project she’s conducted uncovered novel findings of general interest to the field, as scientific publishing is egalitarian and doesn’t require one to hold a specific degree, job, or title. Similarly, citizen science has been used successfully to expose members of the public to the scientific method, while allowing for a more robust dataset.

In the end, titles matter. Titles help others quickly assess our qualifications and decide whether to give credence to our positions or statements of fact. In short, titles matter, because if they didn’t, folks like me wouldn’t need to drop the line, “not that kind of doctor” from time to time. For as useful as I may be in designing a study, measuring a construct, or running statistics, you don’t want me to attempt a fix of your broken leg.


Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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