Why study ‘the scientific mind’?

The idea that scientists think differently from non-scientists is a deep and recurrent cultural assumption. It gained one of its most popular and enduring twentieth-century expressions in C.P. Snow’s famous invocation of the notion of ‘two cultures’: an intellectual divide between scientists who, according to Snow had ‘the future in their bones’, and literary scholars, who he thought backward-looking and scientifically illiterate. It endures to this day in the sharp, simplistic division politicians often draw between STEM and non-STEM subjects, and continues to shape – and often harmfully limit – our perspective of who can be a scientist.

In common with the great cultural categories and classifications that structure our society and individual perceptions – those of class, race, and gender – the idea of a ‘scientific mind’ has it roots firmly in the nineteenth century. Indeed, it was born and raised within the interlinking matrix of class, race, and gender assumptions, that continue to frame and influence our understanding of it down to this day.

If our predominant idea of a scientist, and of a scientific mind, remains that of a middle to upper class, white, male, then that is no accident. It is a historical inheritance, and it is a harmful one. It is harmful because it rests upon a misunderstanding; because it limits opportunities and access; and because it skews the future development of science and scientific research, to the detriment of all.

The reason to study the notion of ‘the scientific mind’ – historically and in dialogue with contemporary understandings – is to deconstruct it from its foundations. Not as an act of vandalism, driven by anti-scientific sentiment, but as a contribution to the building of a new, more open understanding of science and those who practice it.