The widespread belief that scientists are brainier than non-scientists is hurtful to everyone who doesn’t fit the “scientist” stereotype.
Science writer Kat Arney delved into this issue in detail in a recent column for the (UK) Royal Society of Chemistry. As she points out, the problems with the “brainy scientist” stereotype are manifold: that science is a meritocracy, and that non-scientists are somehow less valuable.
There is also a lens of gender that impacts these views.
This problem disproportionately affects white girls and children of color. (There’s a complicated exception for some children of Asian heritage, who have another set of stereotypes to cope with.) School-aged girls slightly outperform boys in math and science, but men take up a higher fraction of positions at each successive level of academia, from undergraduate science majors to faculty positions to administrative positions with the power to hire and promote. In other words, the message of braininess corresponding to scientific skill is applied more heavily to boys and men than to women.
To make matters worse, “intelligence” itself is weaponized by the status quo against people of color and white women. That’s especially evident in the continuing battles over the interpretation of IQ test results.
The problem is far worse when used to generalize about groups, such as gender and especially race. When combined with the cultural belief that only the “brainy” are worthy of science training, it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: only certain white men are inherently “smart enough”, as decided primarily by other white men. You’ll hear (and I’ll bet cash money that someone will argue in the comments) that African-American underrepresentation in science is because they’re not “smart” or “motivated” enough, not that black-majority school districts are often underfunded, lacking teachers, supplies, and other necessities for STEM prep — not to mention daily challenges to their authority and intelligence for those who do earn STEM degrees.
Challenges in how we frame, or view genius, or intelligence.
By framing “genius” as something intrinsic rather than situational, we deny even the potential for achievement to a huge fraction of the population. As paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Panda’s Thumb, where he wrote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
The truth is, none of us are born scientists. When we say “children are natural scientists”, what we mean is that they’re naturally inquisitive and willing to experiment in ways adults are generally trained out of. We have to be taught to channel that inquisitiveness into productive pathways, both in STEM and non-STEM fields. And we have to do a helluva lot better at not reinforcing the message that scientists are intrinsically smarter than non-scientists, and that only the geniuses can do science.