When I chose my current field of study I was promised fame and glory. I was told that I’d be seen as a liberator and welcomed with flowers and candy. I didn’t have enough foresight to envision the resistance from those I’ve tried to free from the shackles of ignorance.When people ask me what I do I use one of two responses depending on my audience. For most people it’s a simple, “I’m a chemist.” Which almost invariably elicits a response about drugs. On the east coast it’s which pharmaceutical company I work for, while on the west coast it’s whether or not I make crystal meth. Yes. I am spending nearly a decade of my life, putting myself into major debt and working on a PhD. so that I can make crystal meth to support the habit of the people that stole the old shoes and flashlight out of my car at 3 AM.
The other response I give to people that I don’t particularly feel like talking to is, “I am a theoretical chemical physicist.” That usually does the trick. The only response I ever get is a genuinely disinterested, “hmm.”
These examples highlight a major problem facing scientist everywhere. The image that society holds of scientists is one of crazed anti-social lunatics that adhere to no moral or ethical standards. On the contrary I’d say that scientists, who have been trained to thoroughly analyze and reanalyze everything until they’ve exhausted any potential ambiguities, are in a better position to make moral and ethical decisions regarding their research than the average citizen and by proxy any politician. We have to live with the personal responsibility of our decisions. While there may be a collective guilt regarding the atom bombs used in WWII, think about how Oppenheimer felt.
When the words “cloning,” or “stem cell,” are brought up in conversation, people automatically envision growing babies in glass beakers. This is simply a misunderstanding grown from misinformation. People just don’t keep up with science like they used to. It’s the “what have you done for me lately” syndrome. During Oppenheimer’s time it was honorable to be a theoretical physicist since they were “ridding the world communism” and people were more informed. Modern society has chemists and physicist to thank for almost every little thing that defines our day to day lives. The computer you are now on, the CD’s, ipods, cameras, LCDs, anything digital are all by-products of quantum mechanics. But somewhere there is a disconnect between the people that make the things and the things themselves. We don’t get credit for doing anything for people lately and end up invisible, so we end up with a bad rap and people are afraid of us and what we do and feel they need to control us with legislation and purse strings. It is an image problem. Doctors, by the way, don’t have this problem. They have George Clooney and the entire staff at Seattle Grace to help them out. We get people like this.
This is why more scientists should be getting involved in politics. And not the Bill Frist kind. He should be stripped of his degrees for his involvement in the Terri Schiavo debacle. We need to restore our image as upstanding citizens, not as rogues setting out to dismantle society. A few TV dramas couldn’t hurt either.