Stereotypes about Scientists Over Time among U. S. Adults: 1983 and 2001

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Stereotypes about Scientists Over Time among U.S. Adults: 1983 and 2001

Susan Carol Losh

Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems

Florida State University

Tallahassee FL USA 32306-4453

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, August 2006, Montreal, Quebec. I appreciate assistance and insights from Jon Miller, Ryan Wilke, Crissie Grove, Connie Qun Guan, Ying Guo, and Brandon Vaughn. This research was supported by NSF Grant 0532943; the analyses and interpretation of the findings, of course, are my own.

Public Understanding of Science, in press

Stereotypes about Scientists Over Time among U.S. Adults: 1983 and 2001


Prior research demonstrates that students and some teachers often depict scientists as socially inept workaholic males; however, scholars rarely examine representative samples of adults. How the U.S. general public stereotypes scientists may influence accepting science expertise because its practitioners can appear so eccentric. By expressing negative stereotypes, “typical adults” also can discourage youthful interests in science. This study analyses general public interview data using identical questions from the 1983 and 2001 NSF Surveys of Public Understanding of Science and Technology, probability samples of 3219 adults. Despite many positive changes over nearly 20 years, and strong approval of a child’s potential science career, sizable minorities of adults continued to negatively stereotype scientists. Women were more positive than men but had considered a science career less often. Images of scientists also were affected by age, educational variables, parental status, and a religiosity measure.

1. Introduction

Scientists, educators, executives, and journalists often discuss the “condition of science”, including why students appear unprepared for college science or avoid science concentrations (Burris, 2006; Gates 2005; Lemonick, et al., 2006). A related concern is gender composition among scientists: although more U.S. women now enter life and health sciences, their participation in some physical sciences or engineering remains lower. For example, the percentage female among physicians rose from 16 to 32 percent between 1983 and 2005, among biologists from 41 to 49 percent, and among chemists from 23 to 35 percent, compared with only 18 to 24 percent among geoscientists or from 6 to 10 percent among engineers 1(U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000, Table 669; 2007, Table 602).

A prominent reason cited for such gender disparities is that girls and women perceive “science culture” as largely and inhospitably male (Eisenhart and Finkel, 1998; Etzkowitz, et al., 1992; Harding, 1991). Further evidence of sex typing occurs in many studies in which students, and preservice or inservice science educators, draw or describe scientists as stereotypically masculine (e.g., Bianchini, et al., 2000; Finson, 2002; Schibeci, 2006).

Stereotypes are cognitive schema or prototypes; clusters of perceived personal traits applied to social groupings, e.g., occupational categories. It can be cognitively efficient to describe groups using labels; however, stereotyping exaggerates group differences and under-estimates within group variability (DeLamater and Myers, 2007). Although stereotypes can be positive (“scientists are smart”) or negative (“few scientists are happily married,” Fraser, 1981), some older studies (Brush, 1979; Hagerty, 1964) found that the psychological distances students perceived between themselves and traits imputed to scientists are important.

This study examines how two representative samples of U.S. adults nearly 20 years apart stereotyped scientists, and appraised a science career for their children or themselves. Compared with student or teacher samples, stereotypes among the general public are under explored. Because the aggregated findings largely refer to “one-shot studies,” social stereotypes about scientists have not been compared over time or with concomitant changes, e.g., gender occupational composition. Yet, modified scientist images among adults may contribute to a climate affecting science attitudes and policy among other adults and youth.

Furthermore, at least superficially, politicians are sensitive to citizen concerns; thus public science funding can depend in part on images about scientists. For example, adults stereotyping scientists as impractical may distrust their expertise in policy recommendations. Beliefs that science can be dangerous or even fraudulent can make greater government oversight of science appear essential (e.g., Funk, 2003; LaFollette, 1992).

Because of concerns about sex stereotyping in science, and changes in the status of women between 1983 and 2001, I focus on net changes in how gender and time affected scientist images. However, because other factors such as educational achievement also changed over this period, it is imperative to institute statistical controls to see whether changes in stereotypes are simply spurious artifacts of changes in correlated variables such as more exposure to science classes in recent years (see Schneider, et al., 2007).

^ Stereotypes about scientists

Stereotype items are common in attitude measures (e.g., 20 percent of the TOSRA is either stereotypes about scientists or science careers, Fraser, 1981). Although scientists are typecast as clever or diligent, and surveys indicate that science careers are prestigious (Harris, 2007; National Science Board, 2008), scientists are also described as socially inept or even dangerous (Barman, 1999; Bianchini, et al., 2000; Finson, 2002; Fort and Varney, 1989). Images of scientists not only portray them as male, but also often depict science careers as uninviting.

For example, speaking at the National Bureau of Economic Research, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers “explained” why senior tenured science and engineering female faculty are scarce at major universities. Among the necessary qualities he listed were classic stereotypes portraying scientists as one-dimensional workaholics:

The most prestigious activities in our society expect of people… near total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency…and they expect…that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job (Harvard Crimson, 2005).

Sources of these images are frequently sought in media portrayals, or in verbal and other behaviors science teachers enact (Hagerty, 1964; McDuffie, 2001; Schibeci, 2006). Media and teachers may depict lonely science careers that can seem particularly daunting for young women (Evans, 1996; Ford, 2006; Gerbner, 1987; Gerbner and Linson, 1999; Terzian and Grunzke, 2007). Yet equally probable sources of stereotypes are other adults with whom youth interact in their immediate environment—parents and other relatives, neighbors, counselors, health care workers, or pastors.

For example, parents who view sons as more competent in science than daughters can communicate this to their children (Andre, et al., 1999). Parents, counselors, principals, friends, and media, as well as teachers, influence career choices (e.g., Hagerty, 1964). And, of course, adults create the media that children use and they train science educators. Thus, it is important to study the “typical adults” who asymmetrically influence youth, other adults, and who transmit stereotypic images of scientists across generations.
Social distance and scientist stereotypes

Some research suggests that students who stereotype scientists more often perceive themselves as dissimilar to and distant from scientists. Even as college freshmen, students who contemplate science careers hold more positive images, (Bogart, cited in Beardslee and O’Dowd, 1961) and see their own personalities as more similar to scientists (Brush, 1979). In a general population of adults, other similarities would include higher educational achievement, exposure to science courses, or being male. As U.S. adults increasingly earn higher degrees or elect more science courses, or as more women become scientists, general public images about scientists can also change, again making statistical controls for variables such as degree level important.
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