Monday, July 21, 2014

The History of the Word "Scientist"

Dr. Melinda Baldwin from Harvard University wrote a short yet fascinating and timely history of the word scientist and its association with the discipline of science titled "The History of 'Scientist'", a term historically more controversial than most would think.

Here are some excerpts from Baldwin’s piece:

In Britain, many researchers viewed “scientist” as a term that threatened their social and intellectual identity, a term that would open science up to any “Barney Bunkum” rather than confirm it as a selective, expert endeavor. Most nineteenth-century scientific researchers in Great Britain preferred another term: “man of science.” The analogue for this term was “man of letters”—a figure who attracted great intellectual respect in nineteenth-century Britain. “Man of science,” of course, also had the benefit of being gendered, clearly conveying that science was a respectable intellectual endeavor pursued only by the more serious and intelligent sex.

“Scientist” met with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. By the 1870s, “scientist” had replaced “man of science” in the United States. Interestingly, the term was embraced partly in order to distinguish the American “scientist,” a figure devoted to “pure” research, from the “professional,” who used scientific knowledge to pursue commercial gains.

Feelings against “scientist” in Britain endured well into the twentieth century. In 1924, “scientist” once again became the topic of discussion in a periodical, this time in the influential specialist weekly Nature. Physicist Norman Campbell sent a Letter to the Editor of Nature asking him to reconsider the journal’s policy of avoiding “scientist.” He admitted that the word had once been problematic; it had been coined at a time “when scientists were in some trouble about their style” and “were accused, with some truth, of being slovenly.” Campbell argued, however, that such questions of “style” were no longer a concern—the scientist had now secured social respect. Furthermore, said Campbell, the alternatives were old-fashioned; indeed, “man of science” was outright offensive to the increasing number of women in science....

Tracing the acceptance or rejection of “scientist” among researchers not only gives us a history of a word—it also provides insight into the self-image of scientific researchers in the English-speaking world in a time when the social and cultural status of “science” was undergoing tremendous changes.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Read also the link to the 1964 paper by Sydney Ross titled "Scientist: The Story of a Word". This paper provides some broader historical insights.