Home > Burns My Shorts > The Greatest Scientists Of Our Time?

The Greatest Scientists Of Our Time?

There’s an interesting new ad campaign on the Scienceblogs site from Honeywell Interactive. It includes short video podcasts of scientists discussing their work and ideas. See an example here, down on the navigation bar at right.
Here is a quote from the Honeywell folks supplied to me by my Scienceblogs guru Katherine Sharpe:

Designed to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists, The Honeywell ­ Nobel Initiative establishes a forum for students worldwide to learn directly from Nobel Laureates in Chemistry and Physics through a combination of live on-campus events, interactive content and broadcast programs that expand upon Nobelprize.org¹s educational outreach efforts. This innovative partnership seeks to teach students the complex science behind Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry while encouraging their highest aspirations in ways that are motivating and engaging.

I think all of this is a nifty idea, especially for an ad, but if Honeywell wanted to inspire the next generation of scientists, they could have designed their ad campaign to be a bit more inclusive. The tagline on the ad block is “Learn From the Greatest Scientists of Our Time”. This really burns my shorts, because who are we going to see depicted as the greatest scientists of our time? Drawing from the pool of Nobel Prize winners, they are going to be primarily white, and primarily male.

Which, I suppose, isn’t a problem if you don’t think there are any women or any non-white men among the greatest scientists of our time. Otherwise, it is a problem, so don’t write in and tell me how it isn’t, and I’m oversensitive and all that crap. I don’t mind them drawing on the Nobel Prize winners to promote science learning; I think it’s a nifty idea. I just mind having a pool of scientists who are overwhelmingly white and male described as the greatest scientists of our time, because it’s not an accurate description. It leaves out too many of the greatest scientists of our time who don’t happen to have been recognized by a Nobel Prize.
Word choices like this matter. If “the greatest scientists of our time” is a group comprised of, primarily, white males, then that leads people to conclude that women are not and have not been great scientists. And it’s one short step from there to thinking women cannot be great scientists, ever. It’s pernicious. And minor bits of language like this here, there, everywhere add up to a climate of lowered expectations for women and girls – and to a climate of belief that, no matter what women do, it just isn’t ever quite as good as what men do.
Oh christ, I hope Susumu Tonegawa isn’t included in this ad campaign. That would totally make me have to barf on Honeywell’s shoes, which would be so embarrassing what them advertising on Sb.com and all.

Categories: Burns My Shorts
  1. JD
    January 8, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    I took a look at this:
    And counted back to 2000.
    There were 80-some males, and 4 females. This Honeywell thinger seems to be all about Nobel winners. If that’s the standard they use to judge who is the “greatest”, then that’s their standard, and it’s a perfectly legitimate one – perhaps not the best, but I’d say they could certainly do worse. If their selection is overly white and male, that is because of the Nobel Prize winners, not because of Honeywell. While encouraging women to pursue academic and scientific careers is certainly a worthwhile goal, they are not obligated to do so.
    I’d like to ask an honest question here – ARE the “greatest scientists of our time” predominantly male?

  2. grigory
    January 9, 2007 at 12:07 am

    I’m a white male. I probably wouldn’t have noticed that if you hadn’t pointed it out, but I completely agree with you. I bet they wouldn’t have done that if someone had pointed it out to them. I wonder how much of this sort of thing goes unnoticed.

  3. Zeppo
    January 9, 2007 at 1:41 am

    “It leaves out too many of the greatest scientists of our time”
    You should do us all a favor and name some of these non-male scientists who are among “the greatest of our time”.

  4. JW Tan
    January 9, 2007 at 4:36 am

    Oh christ, I hope Susumu Tonegawa isn’t included in this ad campaign.

    There’s nothing wrong with learning about science from Tonegawa. Adolf Hitler, no matter what his other faults, was a great orator, and one can learn a lot about public speaking watching him.

  5. January 9, 2007 at 11:01 am

    One should also look outside the subjects for which you can get a Nobel prize.

    I’d like to echo this point. I work in a field that by no stretch of the definition will ever qualify for a Nobel in physics, chemistry or medicine, yet it is considered one of the core scientific fields. Are there no “greatest scientists” in my field? By my count there are, and a few women among them.

  6. January 9, 2007 at 11:26 am

    Oh christ, I hope Susumu Tonegawa isn’t included in this ad campaign.
    So non-Europeans like Tonegawa only qualify as worthy if they’re also radical feminist?

  7. January 9, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Well, there are a bunch of questions. Are most of the “greatest” scientists of our time male? Answering yes doesn’t imply that women are lesser scientists due to some innate differences in ability, but is perfectly compatible with the idea that men receive more advantages in science education and science professions. In fact, if women made up most of the greatest scientists of our time, discrimination in the sciences would be hard to demonstrate. So the answer is probably yes.
    But before we can really answer it, another question arises: how is Honeywell supposed to determine who the “greatest scientists of our time” are? Using scientific prizes seems like an obvious solution, and the Nobel is the most prestigious. The only other even remotely objective methods I can think of is to pick people from the departments recognized as the best in particular fields, or to look at who’s published the most important works (based on cites, say) in the most important journals. Unfortunately, doing so will inevitably yield far more men than women, those are two areas in which discrimination manifests itself. This is why, as I’m sure Zuska knows, discrimination is self-preserving.
    So here’s my challenge to Zuska in particular, but anyone else can feel free to jump in. Since we both agree that there is rampant gender discrimination in the sciences, particularly the math-dominated sciences (physics, chemistry, engineering, computer sciences, etc.), and since this implies that pretty much any objective method for selecting the “best scientists of our time” in these sciences is going to yield a bunch of males and very few females, the problem that we, like Honeywell, face, is to come up with a fair and inclusive method that will select female scientists who are as good or better than the males who would be included using the most straightforward methods. So, how would you select them? Let’s come up with a method, and get a bunch of people together to write to Honeywell suggesting it. Specifically, we can SBers to sign on, and we can write to the other places where Honeywell is advertising, and ask them to suggest our more inclusive method.
    Also, while I understand your motives, isn’t it a bit odd to rail against the inclusion of too many white males, and then, when selecting a Nobel to disapprove of, you pick one of the few non-white males? I mean, yes, he’s a misogynistic ass who denied a very, very talented female scientist her dream job, but he’s a less than calculated, rhetorically neutral (at best) selection. One probably wouldn’t have to look hard to find examples of misogyny among some of the white Nobel laureates.

  8. bsci
    January 9, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    No worry about Tonegawa. I don’t think he won in Chemistry or Physics – the Honeywell selection criteria. Those criteria seem to be in line with the type of work that the company does.
    Anyway, I see the company problem as interesting. They want a finite number of names so that they can give a prominant position to each person and fully explain the research. While the Nobel Prizes award only a certain type of research, the other option for the company would be to generate its own recognition criteria. This would essentially be creating a Honeywell Recognition Prize, which would be a much larger project. The two other options would be to select winners of other prizes (but I don’t know if the other prominant Chem/Physics prizes are any less biased) or to make a few affirmative action picks of women and minorities in addition to the Nobel winners which would probably please no one.

  9. transgressingengineer
    January 9, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Cheers to Bill’s post above, pointing out that there are *very real* systematic reasons for the lack of white women and women of color in the category of ‘greatest scientists of our time.’ I’d also like to add to this that systematic reasons also explain the lack of men of color in this ‘category.’
    As Bill described, one way to view this issue is through the ‘systematic disadvantage’ towards white women, women of color [and men of color]. But how would our views/comments of these issues change if instead we discussed this in a different manner, putting the focus on the *systematic advantages* given to white men?

  10. January 9, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    Transgressingengineer, this (systematic advantages for men) is one of the things Virginia Valian discusses so eloquently, completely, and well in her book “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women”, which is a book I highly recommend to all.

  11. January 9, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    You should do us all a favor and name some of these non-male scientists who are among “the greatest of our time”.
    I’ll start. Off the top of my head, without even trying: Elizabeth Blackburn, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Pamela Bjorkman, Anita Roberts, Jane Goodall, Linda Buck (Nobel a couple years ago?), Julie Overbaugh. These are mostly people I’ve seen present their work or with whom I’ve had some sort of contact, but Google should quickly demonstrate their scientific standing.
    This goes to Chris’ idea, too: given that discrimination is self-preserving, a kind of affirmative action may be called for: simply suggest to Honeywell a long list of women who are clearly among “the greatest scientists and engineers of our time” and ask that they strive for a little more balance in their program.
    They will likely brush it aside, since they are focused on the Nobel Prize which — whether one thinks it deserved or not — has a clear standing with the lay public as the epitome of “great science”. Nonetheless, it can’t hurt to remind them that the community they claim to serve is not impressed.

  12. zeppo
    January 9, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Bill, I notice your list doesn’t include any women of color. Your racist list (which it is if judged by the standards being used here to call the Nobel Prizes sexist) might lead African-American women to believe they can’t be great scientists.
    Buck won a Nobel, by the way, so I guess the comittee isn’t fully committed to sexism. Or maybe Buck deserved her Nobel, and those other women don’t?

  13. bsci
    January 9, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    This conversation has happened here before, but if you limit your list to Physics and Chem nobels (all their profiles living?) makes an extremely short non-male list. Most of the female Nobels listed in an above post are the Medicine prize.
    I partially agree with Zuksa, but I do like the “Great scientists of our time” header. That is good marketing. (I noticed I changed “greatest” to “great” without looking at the original post. “Great” gets the same point without being as charged a term).
    The question is, for a company that doesn’t want to devote significant labor to create a consistent criteria for selecting people, what can quickly use besides the Nobel. Zuksa’s note that an engineering firm isn’t highlighting engineers is very good and there are many non-white male engineers that they can highlight. Some of her links are also good resources.
    Perhaps another option would be to link directly to their company. Find the people who fundamental concepts and devices behind the devices they produce. That would have a better sample than the Nobel, would show how basic science relates to applications, and promotes the products of the company.
    Perhaps this could lead to a companion post with a postive spin for once: “What criteria would you use to make a list of great scientists and engineers?”

  14. Kristin
    January 9, 2007 at 10:43 pm

    If prizes are a starting point to find the great scientists, Honeywell could look at Macarthur Prize awardees. They have recognized a more diverse group of scientists than the Nobels have done (in recent years there have been several female awardees in the physical sciences, for example). The “genius grant” winners have to have some pretty big accomplishments to merit their awards.

  15. bsci
    January 10, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with negative posts and I never said stop complaining. Both are good. And yes there are positive posts here so my “for once” was probably not appropriate.

  16. Frumious B
    January 12, 2007 at 11:20 am

    You should do us all a favor and name some of these non-male scientists who are among “the greatest of our time”.
    Do yourself a favor and put some active effort into learning about them instead of putting your figurative feet on your figurative desk and shifting the burden of your ignorance onto Zuska.

  17. zeppo
    January 13, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    It’s easier to call others ignorant than name all of these overlooked female scientists who are “the greatest”, isn’t it Frumious B?
    Dayna, you’re right that a “a great proportion of Nobel Laureates were Jewish”. If the maleness of Nobel winners is because of sexism, then shouldn’t we also conclude that the Jewisness of so many Nobel winners is the result of a bias in favor of Jews?

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