Geeks and Boffins, alive, alive-o

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

2 thoughts on “Geeks and Boffins, alive, alive-o

  1. Hi Martin,

    I agree that it’s not the use of the word “boffin” by the media is not the most critical problem facing science. That being said, I think it’s a fallacy to say “problem Y is smaller than problems A-X, so we shouldn’t even try to highlight or fix it while A-X go unsolved”. It wouldn’t take as much from the science/communication community to change the public perception of the word “boffin”, or the acceptability of using the label at all, compared to, say, convincing everyone that man-made climate change is real and we should all do something about it.

    Also, thanks for linking to my post. To be clear, I agree with you that the show made the “boffins” in question look very approachable and human. This is a Good Thing. I admit that I was fairly rambly and could have separated out the different issues a bit better.



    • Hi Alex, thanks for commenting. I think your post covered this well, and you’re right to say “because problem X is less of a problem than problem Y we should ignore problem X” is ultimately flawed. If I remember rightly, it was Richard Dawkins’ response to “elevatorgate”. I’ll charitably file that under “not helpful”.

      If someone says, like I have in this case, “I don’t think this is something I want to spend much energy on or pay much attention to”, it’s reasonable for others to disagree and say “well I do”. Or “there are reasons why you should”. As yet, I remain unconvinced. The main arguments in favour I can see are 1) the boffin stereotype hurts access to science (which we both agree they took steps to dissolve) and 2) this discussion will make scis think about wider issues of perception, access, outreach etc.

      Maybe the framing would help me find this more interesting 😉 – if there were some sort of discussion with people who aren’t scientists about their conception “boffins” – e.g. whether scientists are geniuses, crazy, disorganised, authoritative and esoteric in their knowledge, lacking in social skills and circles – I think that would be more interesting and critical than a community taking umbridge in public. We might well ask how this stereotype empowers scientists as well as hinders.

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