Archive | January, 2015

On “seeming like a scientist”

24 Jan

So, I finally watched the Doctor Who Christmas special the other day. Yes, I know, I’m about a month late here – but the part of the special that I want to talk about isn’t exactly Christmas-specific, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. If you’re similarly behind on Doctor-Who-viewing, be warned that this post contains spoilers for the 2014 Christmas special (but not for any other episodes or ongoing plot-lines).

What I want to talk about is the odd ideas the episode seems to have about what scientists are like. So, first a quick recap: much of the episode centres on a group of scientists at a polar research base. Since this is Doctor Who, the scientists and the Doctor are fighting the Monster of the Week; since it’s the Christmas special, Santa Claus is helping too. Shortly after the Doctor arrives, we get the following scene:

(Shona, one of the scientists, is talking to Santa Claus; questioning how the stories about him can possibly be true. As she walks away from Santa, writing in her notebook, the Doctor enters the room)
Doctor: “You alright?”
Shona: “Yeah, yeah yeah. I’m trying to talk sense into beardy-weirdy” (gesturing at Santa)
Doctor: “You don’t seem much like a scientist.”
Shona: “Well that’s a bit rude, coming from a magician.”

This begs the question of what a scientist is supposed to seem like, and how Shona apparently fails to meet these criteria. So, let’s review her actions in the episode up to this point and see if we can figure out where she failed the “seems like a scientist” test.

What does Shona do?     Is it something a scientist would do?
Expresses fear at the prospect of going into a genuinely-frightening-and-dangerous situation (facing the monster of the week) and tries to get out of having to do it. Yes. Scientists are not emotionless robots; we’re allowed to have fears and not want to do scary things.
Admits that she hasn’t paid attention to the whole of the mission briefing (to be specific, she states that she remembers the briefing “until he put his hand on my knee; then I was just grossing”) Yup! You don’t need a superhuman attention span to be a scientist (there’s a reason we write things down in lab books). The only person failing here is the male scientist who jeopardises the mission by choosing to sexually harass Shona instead of giving a decent professional briefing.
Dances to a cheesy Christmas song Again, yes. Scientists are allowed to have (a) personalities and (b) fun. See above about not being emotionless robots.
Is revealed to have liked “My Little Pony” when younger, a revelation that Santa uses to humiliate her. Possibly-related: is female. Yes on both counts. While women are still rarer than they should be in science, being female doesn’t prevent you from being a scientist, and neither does liking stereotypically girly things. (I’m female, a fan of My Little Pony, and a scientist. So far this combination of circumstances has not caused any world-ending paradoxes).
Expresses disbelief and scepticism when Santa shows up, saying “This is totally not happening” and asking “Am I dreaming?” [Spoiler: she is] Very much so, and in most stories this would be treated as proof that Shona does seem like a scientist – she won’t believe in extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence, and instead correctly applies Occam’s razor to deduce that this is a dream.
Asks questions of Santa, probing his apparent impossibilities, and records his answers in her notebook Absolutely! Science is allowed – in fact encouraged – to investigate strange and improbable happenings that it encounters. Shona’s questioning instinct in this situation makes her seem more like a scientist, not less like one.

It’s while Shona is asking questions of Santa that the Doctor strolls in and tells her she doesn’t seem like a scientist. Which is odd, to say the least: he interrupts her in a situation where she’s behaving like a scientist in order to tell her that she can’t be a scientist! I wonder what criteria for “scientist” he’s using; what set of traits someone would need to have before the Doctor and his scriptwriters would recognise them as a proper scientist. I highly doubt that I’d fit their stereotype.

Now, you could argue that we’re not meant to agree with the Doctor here – that he’s a fallible character and this is one of the times when he’s wrong. Unfortunately, the remainder of the episode really doesn’t seem to back up this interpretation. After all the characters come to the realisation that they’re dreaming, they also realise that they are not, in fact, scientists. As they wake up, Shona has this exchange with two of the other dreamers:

Shona: “I work in a shop.”
Ashley: “I’m sorry?”
Shona: “I thought I was a scientist. That’s rubbish.”
Bellows: “Finally, something that makes sense.”

But it doesn’t make sense. There’s absolutely no reason why Shona couldn’t or shouldn’t be a scientist.[1] Or almost no reason, anyway. The main possible reason I can see is that Shona may have been kept out of science by people telling her she doesn’t seem like a scientist.

It’s time to get rid of the ridiculous notion that there’s a certain strict formula for “seeming like a scientist”, and that anyone who doesn’t fit this formula can’t truly do science. In the real world, all sorts of people can and do perform science. The more we acknowledge this, the more talented potential-scientists will end up feeling as though it’s okay for them to pursue science. And if we want more innovation, that can only be a good thing.

 
 


[1] In fact, I’d like to believe that she is one. In my personal headcanon, Shona works in a shop in order to help with her living costs while she studies for a PhD. The memories just came back to her in the wrong order – shop first, science later.