Is an English professor a scientist?

At a Faculty Senate meeting last April, in a discussion about the reorganization of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education position, I said something about the VCRGE working with scientists across campus. One of the Senate members responded immediately, saying that the VCR “needs to serve all faculty, not just scientists.”

That comment surprised me because I thought I was talking about all faculty when I used the word “scientist.” I opened my mouth to argue with him, then realized that the Senate meeting wasn’t the time or place. So I’m going to use this blog to pose the question, “Who is a scientist?”

I have always used the word “scientist” as a reference to academic researchers, not just those in the biological or physical sciences. I admit that this could be because I was trained as an economist; in every economics department where I’ve been active, my colleagues always insisted that they were scientists as much as any physicist or botanist.

I’ve always believed that “scientist” describes a way of looking at the world. What differentiates a tenure-track faculty member or a senior researcher from an informed journalist or interested layperson is that academic researchers are trained to think theoretically. That is, they are trained to bring intellectual frameworks to their exploration of knowledge. They are trained to use evidence to build an argument, often calling upon one or more theoretical frameworks and testing how the evidence supports or does not support the conclusions that a particular theoretical framework would suggest. This may occur in a formalized “scientific method” process inside a laboratory; it may occur through verbal analysis of text; or it may occur by analyzing the results of a participant observation study or a series of focus group conversations. What makes a scientist is not the topic that she or he studies, but the intellectual rigor that the researcher brings to bear upon the question of interest.

Hence, I’ve always believed that an English professor discussing the feminist implications of a medieval manuscript is as much a scientist as the microbiologist analyzing the impact of a particular chemical agent on cell reproduction. What differentiates academic researchers from others who write on similar topics is the intellectual rigor they bring – it is their scientific training in coherent observation and ordered argument that earns them a position at UW, whatever their field. I want to consider all of our faculty and researchers as “scientists.”

But language is used in particular ways that develop meaning over time. I understand that we infrequently apply the term “scientist” to the art historians or musicians on campus, frequently substituting the term “scholar.” I want to use both terms, to emphasize the academic training that our faculty bring to every field of endeavor. But I suspect not everyone will agree with this viewpoint. So I invite you to tell me what term you would use.

If “scientist” is not the right term to refer to our faculty and researchers across all fields, is there another term? I invite you to let me know in the comments section if there is alternative language that you think is better.

So let me know if you think I can continue to refer to English professors as scientists. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is “yes.”

10 thoughts on “Is an English professor a scientist?”

  1. I am a sociologist and identify as a scientist. But there are many more humanistic sociologists who object to the “science” label, and I’m sure few who do literary criticism would identify as scientists, much less musicians. I’ve always thought that the more general label is “scholar,” of which scientist is a subset.

  2. Anyone who is not trying to bring anything new to his field is not a scientist. Similarly, you can also teach math, physics or chemistry in a top school. As long as you don’t have your own research interests and projects, you are just a lecturer not a scientist.

  3. Yes! I’m a grad student in the Dept of German, working on my doctoral research, and I would call myself and those I work around “scientists”.

  4. The problem, I think, is that many equate “science” with the deductive approach to discovering knowledge. The “scientific method” taught in high school and introductory college courses ephasizes this approach. On the other hand, many social sciences and humanities discover knowledge through observational – inductive approaches rather than hypothesis driven deductive reasoning.

    In my view, any process of discovering knowledge is science.

  5. Interesting take on the topic! Being a chemist I have never given the definition any thought, but I can certainly agree that to interpret data or take a look at and interpret historical events does qualify as using a scientific method. I also have to agree with the thoughts on lecturers expressed above. Which could also apply to “scientists” who perform well defined routine work.

  6. A scientist follows the scientific method and develops hypotheses and designs experiments to test hypotheses. Those experiments can be theoretical. A professor in the humanities, though clearly a scholar, would probably not consider her/himself a scientist.

  7. It is the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Research, not of Science so, let’s use the term “Researcher”.

  8. German, of course, has a word for it: Wissenschaftler (singular or plural) is the catch-all word used to describe those who work in the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), the social sciences (Sozialwissenschaften), and the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften). To translate “Wissenschaftler” into English, one needs these days to use a phrase like “scientists and scholars.” “Researchers” would be too narrow.

  9. I’m an English professor at UW-Madison and consider myself a scientist. I don’t mind other labels, such as “scholar,” but “scientist” is the one that captures the methods of inquiry that are applied in my field: collecting data, formulating hypotheses, collecting data to test them, refining hypotheses, and integrating them into a theoretical framework. (For the record, I’m a linguist — and feel very strongly that scientists belong in an English Department.)

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