Eighteen new scientists elected to Congress? No way.

A lot of people are crowing about the number of “scientists” who have just been elected to the U.S. Congress. I’ve seen claims of seven (also here), seven to eight (votes still being counted for one), nine, ten, “more than ten“, “at least eleven“, and even 18. To be sure, Nature, the source of the “at least eleven” figure, and The Scientist, which touts “more than ten”, both characterize the electees not as “scientists”, but as folks having “backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or medicine”. In other words, STEM people, and not necessarily those who were even working in STEM before they were elected.

The rest of the articles characterize the victors as “scientists”, like this one at Quartz:

Well, let’s take an intermediate number: the nine given in the article below from IFL Science (IFL stands for “I fucking love”):

What I mean by “scientist” is “someone who is doing professional science”, i.e., working as a scientist: trying to use the scientific method to find out truth about the universe. This is what the readers will understand by the term, although I have said that plumbers and car mechanics can use the scientific method. But plumbers and mechanics are not scientists in the way the public understands the term, which I think aligns with my own understanding.

Here’s IFL’s list, indented, with my characterization flush left:

Sean Casten (D-IL)

Casten’s background is in chemical engineering and renewable energy. He was previously the CEO and founder of a company (Recycled Energy Development) that recycles excess heat produced during industrial processes to make electricity. So, unsurprisingly, energy, the environment, and climate change were all big campaigning points of his.

“Once elected, I look forward to working to make green business the business of America, as well as working on some more immediate solutions to climate change,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

My take: Not a scientist: a CEO. He may have a degree in chemical engineering and renewable energy, but degrees in science don’t make you a scientist.

Joe Cunningham (D-SC)

Cunningham worked as an ocean engineer and then retrained to be an environmental lawyer. He calls climate change “the single greatest non-military threat to our nation” and favors the creation of a “high tech, green economy” built on renewable sources like solar and wind energy. Given his previous work, he has been particularly outspoken against offshore drilling, saying “As an ocean engineer, I know firsthand how destructive drilling for oil – and even just testing for oil – can be to a coastline.”

My take: Not a scientist. Engineers aren’t really scientists, although they can use science, but at any rate Cunningham is not working as a scientist but as a lawyer.

Kevin Hern (R-OK)

Hern has a degree in engineering and has worked in the aerospace and computer programming industries, which he left to pursue a career at McDonald’s and now, politics. Unlike the other scientists on this list, he opposes the Affordable Care Act and doesn’t list any other science-related priorities on his campaign website.

My take: Not a scientist. He has degrees in science, but it looks as though he never worked as a scientist. He’s now working as a politician, and yet even so, IFL Science calls him a “scientist”. Nope.

Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA)

Houlahan has had a varied career, working as an Air Force Reserve veteran, industrial engineer, and high school chemistry teacher – and now is in politics. Affordable healthcare, women’s health, and the environment are all top priorities of hers.

“Instead of rationing healthcare to only the rich, Congress should be working to expand access to it, and to control costs through legislation that insists on the incorporation of sound competitive practices into the businesses of drug development and distribution, and hospital management,” she explains on her website.

My take: Not a scientist. Teaching high school chemistry appears to be as close as she’s come to being a scientist.

Elaine Luria (D-VA)

Luria takes over from Scott Taylor, a Republican who opposed the Paris Agreement. Before seeking office, Luria spent 20 years in the navy, where she was deployed six times and operated nuclear reactors.

Luria ran on a platform of security, equality, and prosperity, campaigning on the idea that security means “we are healthy – and have reliable and affordable choices in healthcare” and “we must protect our environment – so that we, along with future generations, can breathe fresh air and drink clean water.” She also calls for the repeal of the Dickey Amendment, which limits the CDC’s ability to study gun violence.

My take: Not a scientist. Operating nuclear reactors doesn’t qualify you to be a scientist, any more than flying a jumbo jet qualifies you to be a scientist. There’s no evidence that Luria ever actually did science.

Kim Schrier (D-WA)

Schier is a pediatrician, who also happens to have a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from the University of California-Berkeley. She was inspired to run after the seven-term incumbent, Republican Dave Reichert, voted in favor of a bill removing healthcare for thousands in her district. Schrier’s main focus was healthcare – which is also the principal concern of most voters, according to the exit polls.

“I was ticked off. Frankly, if Congress was doing its job, I would not have to run for office. I would be back holding little babies,” she told volunteers, reported The Seattle Times.

My take: Not a scientist. To check on Schrier’s credentials, which aren’t clear here, you can read her Wikipedia bio. She did get a degree in astrophysics but then got an M.D. and became a pediatrician. There’s no evidence that she ever did science. Doctors can be scientists, but only if they’re doing scientific research. If they’re practicing medicine, they are doctors, not scientists.

Lauren Underwood (D-IL)

Underwood is a first-time candidate but has experience in politics, having worked for the US Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. She is also a registered nurse and has a master’s in health policy. In contrast to her predecessor, Randy Hultgren, who was in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act and stepping out of the Paris Agreement, Underwood is a strong advocate for affordable healthcare, reproductive rights, and environmental protections as well as measures to reduce gun violence.

“My experience as a healthcare provider informed my belief that every American has the right to high-quality, affordable healthcare,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I aim to implement reforms to make healthcare more affordable for middle class families, such as empowering the federal government to negotiate fair prices for prescription drugs.”

My take: Not a scientist. She’s a registered nurse, but that doesn’t qualify in my book.

Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ)

Before spending three terms working as a New Jersey state senator, he was a dentist. It is because of this experience in the American healthcare system that he says he understands the need to make it “accessible and affordable“. He hasn’t always voted in line with the Democratic party – for example, he has voted against gay marriage and minimum wage, has an A rating from the NRA, and frequently picks industry over the environment. But he does side with the party when it comes to subjects like offshore drilling, Social Security, and Medicare.

My take: Not a scientist. Seriously, a dentist? That isn’t a scientist, but a doctor who fixes teeth. And he’s certainly not a scientist now.

And in the Senate:

Jacky Rosen (D-NV)

Rosen has a background in computer programming and degrees in psychology and computer science, but she currently serves as the US Representative for Nevada’s 3rd congressional district. In winning a Senate seat for Nevada, she succeeds Dean Heller, who lost support after his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act even though he promised to not vote for anything that threatened cover for pre-existing conditions. As well as improving access to affordable healthcare and standing up to hardline anti-immigration policies, Rosen ran on a platform that prioritized investment in STEM education.

My take: Not a scientist. Her Wikipedia bio says she has an associate degree in computing and information technology, but there’s no evidence she ever worked as a scientist. A computer programmer is not a scientist. A biochemist or an ecologist or a worm geneticist is a scientist. Not a computer programmer or a dentist.

Total verdict: There is not one scientist on the list. 

Now I’m not trying to be uncharitable here. Some of these people (not all!) have degrees in science, though none of them appear to have worked—or be working now—in science. Still, even some scientific training is likely to be useful for assessing matters like climate change or pollution. But let’s be honest, too: does the opinion of a dentist, or a registered nurse, weigh a lot more in these matters than does that of the average person? I’d rather know that someone is a Democrat than has a degree in engineering as a proxy of whether they’d have reasonable opinions on climate change.

We can celebrate the election of people who have degrees in science without having to distort their professions and pretend they’re scientists in a lame attempt to show that things are going uphill in Congress. They’re going uphill mainly because Congress is now Democratic, not because it has seven, nine, or eighteen new “scientists.”


  1. varney33
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    [Who is writing for WEIT, now??? JF]

  2. GBJames
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Now, hold on there, professor. I think you’re being overly stringent here. If one has to be actively doing science in order to qualify then there will never be a person who qualifies since serving in Congress is a full time commitment in itself!

    For purposes like this, what matters is whether someone is trained as a scientist, since that is what will (hopefully) allow them to make wise policy with an understanding of science.

    • Gamall
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      I believe if that *had* worked in science at some point, they would qualify for PCC’s criteria, though I don’t see that explicitly stated.

      • Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and I don’t see any one of those people having worked as a scientist, ever. And besides, most of these are new members of Congress and COULD have been scientists before they were elected.

        My point is that none of these people, by virtue of either past or present employment, can be called a “scientist” by reasonable criteria.

    • Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I agree that increasing the number of elected politicians who have been educated in a scientific subject is desirable even if they have not practised as a research scientist. In the UK most politicians have a background in humanities (many have studied politics and economics) and the law and there is a poor level of scientific literacy (and, I would suggest, even numeracy). I imagine this is also true in the US and other countries. Having more people with an understanding of science and how it works can only be a good thing.
      Having said that, I also agree that calling these eleven people scientists is massively stretching a point to no good purpose.

    • Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      For purposes like this, what matters is whether someone is trained as a scientist, …

      But “trained as a scientist” means doing a PhD. A first degree does not qualify you to do scientific research.

      • GBJames
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think that is a sensible perspective.

        For one thing, I remember a recent post countering some creationist nonsense about Darwin not being a scientist. It was quite rightly shot down.

        Is a person with a Master’s degree in Astrophysics not doing science while working at CERN? There are countless people with Masters, or even BS degrees, doing actual scientific research. Usually under the direction of someone else, but not necessarily. (To say nothing of those with PhD degrees who are working under someone else.)

        We’ve had many discussions on WEIT, as PCCE references above, about the nature of science broadly construed. I don’t think that quite applies here, when labeling political leaders. But I also don’t see any value in the overly-rigid, papers-please label restriction, either.

        • Mikeyc
          Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          To me it’s simple; a scientist is someone who does science. If you are an engineer but your job is doing science, you are a scientist, PhD or not. It appears that irrespective of their training, none of these politicians actually did any science. Therefore, they aren’t scientists.

          • tomh
            Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            Well, all of them have careers now, but that doesn’t mean that none of them have ever “done science.” Looking up the first one, Casten, after a degree in molecular biology and biochemistry we find, “worked for two years as a scientist at the Tufts University School of Medicine in a laboratory investigating dietary impacts on colon and breast cancer.” (Wikipedia) Is that enough to qualify him as a scientist? Not here, I guess.

            • clarkia
              Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

              In these days, from the point of view of making good legislation, the key point must be “does the person respect the scientific method and accept scientific fact”. Could be a high school graduate. But no doubt correlates with increasing scientific immersion.

            • mikeyc
              Posted November 17, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

              The information you posted about Casten was not presented above.

              That does qualify him as a scientist. Or rather, a former one. He *did* science, that makes him a scientist. I feel I was pretty clear about this; “To me it’s simple; a scientist is someone who does science.”

              • Posted November 18, 2018 at 5:37 am | Permalink

                Everybody in Congress is a former whatever-they-were-before-becoming-a-professional-politician. At least I hope so. It really pisses me off when my representatives in parliament are not representing me full time.

        • Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          Would you call a medical student who is working in a hospital, under supervision, a “doctor”? No, they’re a medical student, not (yet) a doctor.

          Ditto for masters and PhD students doing science. Even if they’re doing science under supervision, they’re not (yet) “scientists”.

          I accept that a PhD isn’t fully necessary if they earn their spurs publishing scientific papers instead.

          • Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            Yes, it’s a little different for doctors and lawyers who have clients. Most scientists are not really licensed and, as you point out, a PhD is not strictly required.

          • GBJames
            Posted November 17, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            False equivalence, Coel. “Doctor” and “scientist” are different kinds of things. The former is a specific certificate. The latter is a behavior/action/way-of-doing-things.

        • Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          I agree with you but the articles should have acknowledged that the titles were a bit sensational and misleading. While we want more scientists in public office and recognition of the importance of science generally, we also don’t want the scientist concept to be diluted. After all, by their definition of “scientist”, how many already in Congress could claim to be such? My guess is that some of the climate change deniers are scientists by their implied definition. Many of the executives and lobbyists from the energy industry probably have Petroleum Engineering degrees.

      • Posted November 18, 2018 at 5:32 am | Permalink

        Since you have to do original research to get your PhD, that’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.

        Anybody can do scientific research. A PhD is just a piece of paper that says you did it really well – once.

  3. Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    How many avowed atheists are in Congress?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      None. Jared Huffman D-CA is closest:

      “I suppose you could say I don’t believe in God. The only reason I hesitate [to describe himself as atheist] is — unlike some humanists, I’m not completely closing the door to spiritual possibilities – we all know people who have had experiences they believe are divine…and I’m open to something like that happening.”


      • davidintoronto
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        Senator-elect Krysten Sinema?

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

          The New York Times, November 28, 2012. Krysten Sinema’s campaign stated that

          “the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character”

          thus she isn’t an “avowed atheist” SOURCE

          • davidintoronto
            Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            Agree she’s not “avowed.” But in terms of the “closest” thing to, Jared Huffman might have some company.

    • Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I believe there are reasons for hiding one’s atheism if one wants to be elected in the US (unfortunately). Being ‘openly scientific’ is less of an impediment to getting votes (though sadly, it seems, being openly anti-science is even less of an impediment…).

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, atheists in congress tend to stay in the closet — same way gay Republicans do. Difference is, the former are a lot less likely than the latter to get arrested for practicing their predilections in a public restroom.

  4. Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    It is hard to see what motivated these publications to hype this “new scientists in Congress” meme. Surely they knew they were fudging it. Or are their editorial departments clueless as to what a real scientist does?

    • Gamall
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      The latter, I believe. Hanlon’s razor is in effect, here.

      Most people are as clueless about science-as-a-profession as I am about, say, bakery.

      • Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but clearly they see science as an important, positive thing or they wouldn’t have published the articles at all or they would have had a different viewpoint.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I think if you suggested to average Americans if these people are scientists, I’m pretty sure they’d mostly agree.

  5. Christopher
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Point well made. I have a degree in history but I am not a historian. Reading books or watching tv programs about history does not count. I am not researching or writing anything. Now, if this obnoxious millennial IFL Sciene site had written that We the People are sending 18 people to congress who have science or science-related educational backgrounds, then I could agree, but that still means much less than what they are claiming. After all, Dr. Oz has a medical background and that doesn’t mean shit!

    Still, it’s better than sending yet another batch of lawyers…

  6. tomh
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    “Still, it’s better than sending yet another batch of lawyers…”

    Well, some of them are lawyers, in addition to having a background in science. What do you have against lawyers?

    • Christopher
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      It has long been noticed that our government has a preponderance of lawyers, and that such a narrow range of education and expertise is not particularly beneficial. I assume you would prefer a doctor to decide the best course of action for a particular medical treatment, no? Or a scientist on how best to manage climate change? Or even, broadly construing science, a plumber to sort out your malfunctioning toilet? Yes, lawyers in congress are useful for sorting out the drafting and implementation of laws but we need a more diversely educated and experienced group of Congress people to know what laws are needed and why.

      • tomh
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        Of course there is a preponderance of lawyers in government, they make laws. Nothing new about that, over half the signers of the Constitution were lawyers. I have no objection to diversity in Congress, it merely rankles when people sneer at lawyers in order to sound clever.

        • Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that bugs me too. I’m sure part of it is because involvement with a lawyer is associated with bad events in one’s life: divorce, disputes, deaths, etc. Even in business, they cause deals to cost more and take longer than they would otherwise. A necessity but one we’d prefer if we could go without.

        • Christopher
          Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          Well, nobody’s ever made the mistake of thinking I’m clever and I see no reason to start now.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The standards for laying claim to the mantle of “scientist” are quite low for those in electoral politics. For example, former congressman and current Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the swampiest swamp monster extant of all the swamp monsters Donald Trump slid into his cabinet — currently the subject of 17 separate federal ethics investigations, one of which has been referred to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution — frequently claims to be a “geologist,” though his only credential is an undergrad degree in the subject.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      …..Zinke, the swampiest….I’ve got to steal, no borrow, er, is there a way I could lease some of that material👱?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        Purloin away, my friend; it’s all bread cast upon the waters. 🙂

  8. chewy
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    So what I’m hearing is that with my undergraduate degree in Political SCIENCE and my Juris DOCTOR degree, I don’t qualify as a scientist?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Correct, unless you have other unspecified scientific attributes. I think you may be jesting.

      Political science = an oxymoron. (IMO)
      Juris doctor = a law degree, nuffin’ to do with medicine. Any more than a Doctor of Divinity is. 😉


      • Diane G
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        “I think you may be jesting.”

        No shit.


  9. Yvonne Wilder
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I think this stringent criteria of who is a “real” scientist is the sort of elitist blather that drives people away from the Democratic party. If they have an undergraduate degree in science, I am thrilled and hope their training gives them a better appreciation of our world and rational thinking. You don’t need to have a graduate degree to be a scientist. Every heard of citizen scientists? They aren’t publishing papers but they are definitely gathering data and contributiting to scientific knowledge. Stop trying distinguish your designated real scientists above other people who are trainied science. I usually agree with you but think you are way off this time.

    • Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      And stop telling me what to do. That’s a Roolz violation.

      You have no experience of civility in argument, do you?

  10. max blancke
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    From OED:
    Scientist: A person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences.

    I no longer work in my academic field of study, but I still have what would likely qualify as “expert knowledge”, as I continue to follow the literature.

  11. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I add more parameters to help define “scientist”


    number of top-tier publications

    Order in author line

  12. harrync
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think whether a person qualifies as a “scientist” is that important. The key thing is we now have several more congresspeople with a scientific outlook, as opposed to the “I make my own reality” view. Yes, it would be better to have said “science oriented” or some such than “scientist”, but if that was the worst thing the press had done last week, I would be happy.

  13. rickflick
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I would not defend the media for their references to elected “scientists”, but from a different perspective science really is an application of a process of inquiry. It is a rational, skeptical, empirical approach which can be helpful in government. Merely an appreciation of the approach should improve policy decisions. So, while scientists, formally defined, would be expected to employ this approach instinctively, many others with not so much education and practice can handle technical questions that face the nation. If only by knowing when to defer to experts. To decide who to vote for, look for someone who shows they know the difference between evidence based conclusions and hand waving.

  14. Historian
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    “What I mean by “scientist” is “someone who is doing professional science”, i.e., working as a scientist: trying to use the scientific method to find out truth about the universe.”

    I think that historian, economists, sociologists, and political scientists that have done research in their respective fields would claim that they use the scientific method to find out truths about the universe, albeit one small part of the universe – our planet. Therefore, would members of Congress who previously actively worked in these fields be rightfully called scientists by the above definition?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Shouldn’t they rightfully be called “social scientists”?

      • Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Social scientists are scientists.

        The category that is often forgotten are what Bunge calls the “mixed sciences” – he suggests that linguistics, psychology and anthropology (for example) qualify.

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    They certainly not doing scientific inquiry or investigations of any kind, though they may have some expertise and training in existing sciences.

    • max blancke
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      It is very likely that once elected to congress, a person would stop actively working on scientific endeavors, because of time issues if nothing else.
      By that definition they would stop being scientists.
      It might logically follow that no scientist could serve in congress.
      But the definition of scientist is not about employment or publishing, it is about having specialized knowledge.

      • Posted November 18, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        And to be pro-science. I don’t necessarily trust a scientist who goes into politics to not be bought by anti-science elements.

  16. yazikus
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I think a piece written about new congressmen/women who are fans/appreciators of science would be more illustrative.

  17. Christopher
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    So at the end of the day, while most here do not believe that those most recently elected to Congress are in fact “scientists”, Infind no actual coherent definition of who IS a scientist. Does one need a degree? Ok, which degree? A.S., B.S., M.S, Ph.D? Post doc? and what about Newton or Darwin? Maybe writing books or publishing papers? Ok, so do popular science books count, or must they be obscure and “academic”, and which journals count as “scientific” enough? Must they be employed? Is a research “scientist” enough, if they don’t meet these other points? Is a person with a B.S. in biology working for a conservation department collecting data a “scientist”, or just a “researcher” and is there a difference? Are they not “doing science” and if not, why not What if they are getting paid, or what if they are volunteers? What about someone with a PhD but working at a university teaching science, are they scientists, even if they aren’t published? What about people like Francis Collins, or Behe, or Bernard Heuvelmans, or Roy Mackal, who’ve done all that but still think up some weird sh!t, be it about gawd or Mokele Mbembe? And I’m sure there are more categories I’ve missed but what I miss the most is a solid definition of exactly WHO are scientists? I hope this is discussed more thoroughly in the future, I’d like an answer at some point, if there is one. And hopefully I’m not seen as being rude and violating “da roolz”, because the question I ask is an honest one.

    • tomh
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      I’m having the same problem, but you said it better than I could. For instance, Rep. Bill Foster, D-IL, has been in the House 10 years. Has a Ph.D. in physics (Harvard), worked 22 years at Fermilab, on teams that won various awards, is he a scientist? A glorified engineer? “Doing science” seems too vague for an outsider like me to quantify.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      “So at the end of the day, while most here do not believe that those most recently elected to Congress are in fact “scientists”, Infind no actual coherent definition of who IS a scientist. ”

      I’ve been wondering about this too and I think in fact it is a case where, though no clear cut definition can be laid out, we still have every reason to say if the individuals in question look like a scientist on paper or not. That is, we can point to examples that do not match what we expect of a scientist as part of the process of developing the definition itself…

      Am I losing it or does that make sense?…

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Why don’t you give your definition? There isn’t a hard line that can be drawn, but I’m happy with a fairly fuzzy one: “a scientist has, or has had, hands on expertise in natural or physical sciences”

      P.S. I don’t consider experts in the social sciences [such as history, economics] to be doing science because there’s too many dimensions that interact in ways we can’t model [predict] for any social science to yet have that status, but tightly constrained human studies with fewer dimensions [such as linguistics] are science. There are areas I’m dumbfounded by that may, or may not, be pseudoscience such a psychology & psychiatry – they have a vast number of dimensions – where ‘theories’ seem to change with the wind or cultural fashions re homosexuality etc.

    • Posted November 18, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      While it’s true that “scientist” is a somewhat vague category, we can still agree on a test. How about if we ask someone, “What do you do for a living?” or “What was your profession before you became a politician?” If they answer, “I’m [was] a scientist.” or the equivalent, we should accept it unless we have evidence they are lying. IMHO, none of these new congresspeople would self-identify as scientists.

      • GBJames
        Posted November 18, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        That would work. Except for the bit: “or the equivalent”, upon which there would be much disagreement.

        • Posted November 18, 2018 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          By “equivalent”, I was allowing for “I was a biologist” and the like. Of course, we already have a congressman who often claims to be a geologist who clearly was not. There’s not going to be an easy answer.

          • GBJames
            Posted November 18, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

            I think there’s no easy answer for the same reason as there’s no easy way to tell which version is the one true form of Christianity. We can come up with a near-infinite number of ways to do the taxonomy but don’t have anything like DNA upon which to root it.

            • Posted November 18, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

              Yes but the one true form of Christianity doesn’t interest me. 😉

  18. Matti K.
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I would describe a scientist to be somebody who uses scientific knowledge to produce new (original) scientific knowledge. Plain fixing of things (f.ex plumbing, teeth, cardiac veins) does not make one a scientist. On the other hand, developing new products (including computer code) is science, IMHO.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 18, 2018 at 2:49 am | Permalink

      I’d disagree there. I’m an engineer. However I’d argue that the investigations I’ve done into why certain pumping stations were behaving in the unexpected but undesirable way they were doing, including calculating portions of flow dynamics using Newtonian equations, was pretty close to science. Gather the evidence, form a hypothesis, model it mathematically and see if the result fits.

      On the other hand, the substantial computer program I wrote which keeps track of a friend’s car parts inventory, his customer accounts, and prints out invoices – I wouldn’t call that ‘science’ at all. (If it was cataloguing star positions and guiding a telescope to the coordinates maybe it would be ‘science’ – lines are fuzzy).


    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 18, 2018 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      But who plans the plumbing installation before it exists in tangible form? That is not “plain fixing”. In fact “plain fixing” could very well mean redesigning the installation because obviously there was a flaw somewhere in the works.

  19. RPGNo1
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    I have studied chemistry for six years at an University and earned a (German) diploma (equivalent to a Master’s degree).

    However, since 17 years I am working in Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs in the pharmaceutical industry. I have a solid scientific background, but in no way I would call me a scientist.

  20. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    It would have been more precise if the cited articles had written how these individuals are scientifically literate, instead of going for – dare I say – the identity politics appeal of cheerleading for “scientists”.

  21. Andrea Kenner
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    PCC(E), YOU are a scientist. Maybe you should run for office! I think the state of Illinois could use your help!

    • GBJames
      Posted November 18, 2018 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      But then he would no longer be a scientist, per many comments on this page!

      • Andrea Kenner
        Posted November 18, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        In MY view (not that it matters), he still qualifies.

      • Diane G
        Posted November 19, 2018 at 2:48 am | Permalink

        Wonder if they’d also consider that people whose children are grown and no longer dependent on them are no longer parents?

  22. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    This is a challenging topic, I am glad PCC(E) chose to highlight it. Yes I’m asking for trouble with this mixed bag of comments:

    A quote: “Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

    I think the question of what defines a scientist is prone to reduce to the No True Scotsman fallacy. I can always think of some bar for a scientist to clear, with the Nobel Prize being the limiting criterion. Where does that leave us?

    I think many Nobel Laureates were retired at the time of their award. Thus they used to be scientists, before they were Nobelists. I don’t see that as a problem, so should it be a problem in this case? I don’t know.

    I think arguing from the scientific literacy angle avoids lots of trouble, including a descent into identity politics.

  23. Blue
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 7:40 am | Permalink

  24. tomh
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I think part of the problem of labeling someone is using the present tense. If you were a butcher for five years before moving on to other things, you’re not labeled a butcher for life. Forty years ago, I was a bartender for 5 years, yet I’m not labeled a bartender. Why should scientist be any different? If someone worked as a scientist for two years (Caster, for instance) then moved on to other jobs and is now a politician, why would he still be labeled a scientist? It seems pretentious that “scientist” would be in a different class than other jobs.

    Now, a job requiring an official certificate, a doctor for instance, would be different, I think. Once you’re an M.D., I would think you were a doctor for life, no matter what job you were doing at the time.

    • GBJames
      Posted November 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      “Scientist” isn’t a job like “bartender” is. You don’t see employment ads for “scientist”.

      Is Andrew Wakefield still a doctor? Wikipedia says he “a discredited former British doctor” (emphasis on “former” having been striped of his credentials).

      • tomh
        Posted November 18, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        ““Scientist” isn’t a job like “bartender” is. You don’t see employment ads for “scientist”.”

        You don’t see ads in the classifieds, but I’m pretty sure scientists are recruited somewhere. Are there not “ads” in journals or elsewhere for open positions? And it is a job, is it not? It seems odd that someone could work at it for a year or two and it becomes a lifelong description. Anyway, obviously if someone is stripped of their certificate they’re no longer a doctor.

        • GBJames
          Posted November 18, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          Of course they are. But the request are for “astrophysicist”, or “microbiologist”, or “archaeologist”… with some list of specific additional credentials. And sometimes the pay is minimal. “Scientist” is nothing like any of those. It is a broad term that describes a general pattern of educational background and, perhaps, a strategy for evaluating claims about reality. It isn’t a job.

          • tomh
            Posted November 18, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            OK, but if I understand the big majority of posts on here, one can’t call oneself a scientist unless one has worked, in a job, as a scientist. Someone who has the exact same “general pattern of educational background and, perhaps, a strategy for evaluating claims about reality,” but hasn’t spent, however briefly, time on the job, can’t be called a scientist. If they have, even for a year or two, they’re a scientist for life. Of course, since it’s not an official description, scientists can define the term any way they like. Perhaps you can see how it might be confusing, though, to the great unwashed public.

            • GBJames
              Posted November 18, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

              Phrases like “on the job” are just hand-waving the ambiguity away. Which job, exactly? For how long? Can you be a lab tech or do you need to be the principle investigator of an NSF-funded research project? Does a graduate student with a Masters degree who is managing the excavation of a site under cultural resource management programs count? If not, why not?

              • tomh
                Posted November 18, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

                I have no idea, and apparently headline writers don’t either.

          • Posted November 18, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

            Scientist isn’t a job in the context of this particular question. As many commenters pointed out, with a strict interpretation of “scientist” as someone who currently holds a qualifying job, none of the new congresspeople are scientists as they are now politicians. I think the argument that PCC is making is that not only are they not scientists at the moment, they weren’t ever.

  25. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Do scientists perform experiments with their own hands?

  26. Posted November 18, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget Lamar Smith and Robert Goodlatte. 🙂


  27. GBJames
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I expect we all would have spent far fewer hours arguing this issue if the headline writer had framed thing as “from STEM-Related Professions” as NPR does here.

    • Diane G
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 2:15 am | Permalink

      Indeed, much better.

      • Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Since most seem to be engineers (who qua engineers are technologists, not scientists), that would work.

  28. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    More criteria for the actions of a scientist – even non- professional- as disctinct from other professions:

    Having discovered something

    Then, how substantial that discovery is. Were some mystery reagents identified out of the lab freezer, discovering some more NaCl to use? Or was a biochemical pathway discovered?

    I add : Leuwenhoek (sp.?) wasn’t exactly a professional scientist but he still made a substantial discovery.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      … AND to distinguish from the merely scientifically literate.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      (Sorry I’m distracted badly today, also thinking while writing):

      To emphasize- I’d say a discovery is THE hallmark of any scientist.

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