08 March 2017

Why people with university degrees still can’t name a scientist

I was thinking about the “Most people can’t name a living scientist” factoid again. Something that often puzzled me was that the fraction of people who can name a living scientist is often reported as being so much lower than the fraction of people with a university degree.

Why, if so many people have university experience, do they not know scientists at those universities? Even non-science majors usually have to take some introductory science classes to meet breadth requirements.

I had an hypothesis about that, so I ran this poll:

The results were consistent with my hypothesis. Maybe one of the reasons people wouldn’t name a professor as a “living scientist” was because they mainly associate the occupation of “professor” with the role of teaching more than research.

But I realize now that I was probably operating under a false premise. My question was premised on the idea that science classes were taught by people with doctorates. That is, tenured and tenure-track faculty.

I saw some data a few years back showing that my university bucked a lot of national trends for a long time. The proportion of tenured and tenure-track instructors had increased in the 2000s. But this is not the case for most institutions. This article forcibly makes the point that most higher education instructors across the United States do not have a doctorate and were not tenured or tenure-track.

Consequently, even people who go through a full university degree may not have very much contact with instructors who have ever had an active research program. That might be another contributing factor to why so few people can name a living scientist.

External links

The decline of faculty tenure

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