Uncool boffins, all - children's stereotypes of scientists
by David Bradley
The wacky characters that introduce kids to science may be doing more harm than good. Reinforcing the white-man-in-a-lab-coat or mad-scientist stereotype could diminish not only children's interest in science, but also the diversity of future scientific workplaces.
The Web is littered with "Ask a Scientist" sites aimed at getting children "into" science. Some of these sites do provide useful resources for youngsters curious about things such as "Why is the sky blue?", "Why do men have nipples?", and "How can I best extrapolate a Hurter-Driffield curve in my experiments on photographic material transmission densities?"
OK, I made that last one up. But the critical feature of many of these sites is the personification of the so-called expert with names like Ask a Boffin, "Find Out Why with Dr. Calculus," Ask a Mad Scientist, or some such. Almost invariably, a cartoon character will be a stumpy guy in a white coat, with wild gray hair, waving a test tube around or wielding a clipboard. And, on the whole,he will be white. I was personally involved in one such "expert questions" site several years ago, and to my chagrin, the editor called the site "Ask the Egghead" - and created just such a character in the form of Professor Hypothesis.
What does this say about the common adult perception of how children perceive scientists? Well, for a start, it reinforces the classic stereotype that scientists are somewhat scatty, as in the absent-minded professor clich