What is a scientist?


This post was inspired by my earlier rambling on whether I’m enough of a scientist for sci-comm. After publishing that post, I decided to step back and look again at what factors decide who a scientist is, and why the question matters to me.

I’ll begin with a logical starting point, the dictionary. The word “science” comes from the Latin word “scientia” meaning “knowledge”. So if science is fundamentally knowledge, is a knowledgeable person a scientist? That’s an easy statement to reject, as people can be knowledgeable about many other topics without knowing much science. Also, although the word science dates back to roughly the 12th century, the word scientist was only coined in 1833; for roughly 600 years, science knowledge existed without people being called scientists.

The next angle is legality – whether there’s a legal criteria which has to be met for someone to call themselves a scientist. Many occupational titles are legally protected, meaning they can only be used by people who meet certain criteria. Only people with a medical degree can call themselves a medical doctor, while only people with legal education who have passed the bar exam can call themselves barristers.

My Master’s degree is in science communication, so I can advertise myself as a “science communicator”. However, I could have done so without the degree; the title isn’t legally protected, so anyone can use it. My BSc degree is more complicated, because the title “psychologist” is not legally protected, but its subdivisions are. In theory, I could call myself a psychologist, but I couldn’t advertise myself as a “clinical psychologist”, an “educational psychologist”, or a “registered psychologist”.

Science is in a similar place to psychology, as individual disciplines within science have protected titles. To claim a title like Biologist, Chemist, Geologist or Engineer, someone generally has to have a qualification which has been approved by the governing body of that discipline. However, “Scientist” itself is not protected, so anyone can use it. As the legal avenue hasn’t made things much clearer, let’s move on to other concepts associated with science and knowledge.

For knowledge, an obvious association is education. So is everyone with a science education a scientist? Although science education is a necessary condition of being a scientist, to me it’s not a sufficient one. This train of though sets up an educational red line, where those on the line are scientists while those behind the line are not. If that is true, where is the line? Does a BSc degree make someone a scientist, or is an MSc or even a PhD required?

For science, the first association I think of is the Scientific Method. Science as we understand it now is a systematic search for knowledge gathered through observation and experiment; a process, rather than a collection of knowledge. Does looking at the world in a scientific way- finding out more about the world through study and relying on evidence – make someone a scientist?

Thinking about it this way, science connects well to its ancestor, philosophy. The word “philosopher” can be used professionally to designate an academic philosophy scholar, but its original meaning- a lover of wisdom- describes a quality which anyone can have regardless of their status.

Is the same true for science? Can the word scientist fork into a professional status and a personal quality in the same way as the word philosopher? Personally, I would like to see this approach, as this is the logic I sometimes use when thinking about science communication and talking about science with others. Perhaps that convention- big-s Scientist for the job, and little-s scientist for the trait, would be useful.


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