I don’t really mind the label “Boffin”. I mean I think it’s trivial and pointless, but I don’t think anyone should consume any of their time with it when there are much bigger issues in science. Last January I wrote a blogrant about the word “geek” and why I don’t call myself a geek. In October, I filmed for a show that I thought would be called something like “scientists telling jokes”, which last week popped up on BBC4 as “Some Boffins with Jokes“. Some people on twitter were upset with this title†, and some wrote blogposts like this or this explaining why in a bit more detail. I geared to write a follow-up called “why I don’t self identify as a boffin” but this was swiftly swallowed in a yawning chasm of meh. The point is: who is it hurting? Scientists’ egos?
An argument I made in my original post (and Alice Roberts had made) is that the label is a problem if people look at “geeks” and say “well I’m not like one of those weirdos, therefore I shouldn’t do science”. I think that would be a great shame. But “some boffins with jokes” featured normal-looking people (not weirdos, present company excepted), wearing normal clothes (not lab coats), doing a normal thing: telling jokes. Some puns, some dirty jokes, few requiring inside knowledge. There were a lot of people that look like me (white blokes), but there were women, and people who aren’t white, there were kind of hip-looking young people as well as the odder beardy older people like me, and it was quite nice to see that scientists don’t all look like Doc Emmett Brown on acid. I find this issue of representation a more interesting thing to think about.
I did make a point in my “geek” post that I’m a unique and precious snowflake and I object to society’s jockonormative* othering, but seriously? It’s a marginal issue. I’m a skilled person with a good education – it’s not a wrong that society needs to prioritize righting. Unless this “boffinification” blocks other people’s access to science as a career, educational prospect, or sphere of discussion. And arguably, in the way that this show is demystifying, humanising and humourising “boffins”, it took a step in the right direction.
†(I’m not referring to the comments that have been made over the programme’s accuracy, misspellling of names, or payment arrangements, issues that people have very reasonably complained about. For the record, I wasn’t told about the name change, when the show was going out or even whether I was in it, I don’t remember being paid but there were nibbles, and they spelt my name right; but I see these things as reasonable, but epiphenomenal to The Boffin Imbroglio.)
*jocks=sporty types who like fresh air