Tuesday 5 August 2014

When 'men of science' became 'scientists'

There is a very interesting post by Melinda Baldwin, author of Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal (due out in 2015), at the consistently excellent The Conversation blog.

I was well aware that 'science' in its modern meaning is of relatively recent provenance and that most of those early moderns we anachronistically call 'scientists' were known amongst themselves as 'natural philosophers'; however, I was unaware of how recently it was that 'scientist' became accepted as a professional title, at least in Britain.

In 1894 the word 'scientist' was considered positively vulgar with 'man of letters' being the preferred term. Until 1924 Nature had a policy of forbidding the use of 'scientist.' Even after Nature removed this policy many refused to adopt the term.
[In the 1920s] The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any “Barney Bunkum” might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. “I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists”, he argued. “‘Scientist’ has acquired – perhaps unjustly – the significance of a charlatan’s device”.
In the end, Gregory [the journal's editor] decided that Nature would not forbid authors from using “scientist”, but that the journal’s staff would continue to avoid the word. Gregory argued that “scientist” was “too comprehensive in its meaning … the fact is that, in these days of specialised scientific investigation, no one presumes to be ‘a cultivator of science in general’”. 
Nature was far from alone in its stance. As Gregory observed, the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and the Cambridge University Press all rejected “scientist” as of 1924. It was not until after the World War II that [the physicist Norman] Campbell would truly get his wish for “scientist” to become the accepted British term for a person who pursued scientific research.
It's interesting that detractors of 'scientist' feared that such a generic term would lack the requisite respect and authority. Today many philosophers of science argue against the monolithic designation 'Science' and for a more pluralistic 'the sciences.' Perhaps we should regret that Norman Campbell got his way in the end! If only scientists [sic] were "content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists".