Respect for the Lay Person

This is a letter to the scientific community. People who aren’t scientists may read this too, and share it with anyone who has ever called them a lay person to their face.

I take issue with this term. What exactly is “lay person” supposed to mean, out of the mouth of an academic? What are you thinking when you refer to someone using this term? Is a lay person just someone who isn’t a scientist? Someone who doesn’t belong to the world of academia? Someone who hasn’t been educated in science? Or someone who hasn’t been educated at all? Please ask yourself these questions and really think about which category you are unconsciously placing the majority of the human population. Most lay people probably don’t know that this is what scientists call them. I think “lay person” is a name we project onto those who we think of as the “average person, who does not share our scientific ability”.

The actual definition of a lay person is: someone without specialized knowledge within a profession. Guess what? This means that a scientist could also be a lay person in the eyes of, say, an architect or a social services worker.

The bad feeling that I detect behind the language how we use it boils down to this: Do scientists think they are beyond (or dare I say it, above) the average person? This is dangerous, especially because there really is no such thing as an average person. Who is to say what the majority of people look like, act like or do for a living? An egotistical mindset is for certain the road to separating everyone else from ourselves as “other”.

Think of the non-scientist not as someone who is not like you, but just another human being, with their own passions, talents and sense of purpose in life. Scientists benefit from existence of artists, musicians and athletes, just as they do from ours. A scientist may say, “we enjoy what they do, but they need us”. There are many things a society needs to function, one of which is culture – propagated by those of us who are more attuned to emotion than logic. Please, imagine what society would be like if everyone was a scientist and science was all anyone ever did. It takes a certain type of person to do science for a living, and I’d say we would drive each other crazy before burning the world down.

My dear scientist, don’t make the mistake of thinking the so-called lay person knows less or doesn’t share your interest in science (maybe not to the same degree). Don’t avoid these people or play the role of the know-it-all in front of them. They are allowed to know things that you don’t, and you are allowed to not know things they might expect you to. Do not get stuck in a role, you are more than your job. Don’t forget this. Don’t forget to be a human first.

Our hope ultimately is that the lay person thinks of us as humans as well. All of the human population should not be categorized as either “scientist” or “non-scientist”, after all.


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