27 August 2002

Don't call me "Sir"!

This is a short essay that I wrote for my introductory biology students. A lot of them call me “Sir.” I'm trying to get them to stop.


I really dislike being called, “Sir.” I have a few reasons for that: a couple of minor ones, and one major, serious one.

First, “Sir” is for knights. Heck, I’ve never even met the Queen! (Though, as a Canadian, I am her loyal subject.) Never bent down on one knee, had the taps on the shoulders with the sword, none of that. So don’t call me “Sir”: I haven't earned it.

Second, imagine if almost everyone around you started calling you, “Your Honour” or some other honorific title. It’s not a bad thing, but it's rather unexpected. I’ve worked in universities around the world for years, and was on a first-name basis with everyone. I come here, and suddenly I got hundreds of people calling me, “Sir.” It just feels weird.

Third: Joking aside, there’s a serious reason not to call me “Sir,” and it has to do with science. I’ll bet a lot of you had it drilled into you that you have to “respect your teachers.” If you’re going to understand science in a “deep down in your bones” kind of way, you're going to have to let go of that.

Science tells me, you, everyone to take a flying leap.

Science doesn’t care if you’re famous. Science doesn’t care if you have a degree. Science doesn’t care if you wear a necktie. Science cares about ideas and the evidence supporting them.

To paraphrase an anonymous quote, “Science stones rebels. Science also stones conformists. Only the ideas that survive the constant barrage of rocks deserve attention. (Science often gets upset with its critics, not because it’s being criticized, but because those critics so often throw marshmallows.)”

And that quote points out that criticism is vital to doing science. When I write a research paper or research grant proposal, it goes out for review. That means other practising scientists have a chance to examine what I wrote, look for bad ideas or bad experimental design, and generally take it apart at the seams. That sort of criticism corrects mistakes and weeds out bad ideas (nobody’s perfect, after all), so that science can improve, and create theories that predict, control, and explain better than our current ones.

If you’re going to be involved in science – which you are by taking this class – you've got to be able to ask critical questions. You’ve got to feel that you can pick up a rock, chuck it at an idea, and see how it holds up.

I honestly do not believe you can tap into that scientific mindset while you’re calling someone, “Sir,” all the time.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for politeness. But a lot of people go way past “respect” to “deference,” “kow-tow,” and “don’t argue.” Look at the military; “Sir” is used to reinforce a chain of command where the lower ranked officers follow orders quickly and without question.

Science is partly about constantly questioning and challenging authority. Too much respect is bad for science.

So don't call me, “Sir.” It’ll make you a better scientist.


Still at page 652 on The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

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