The “Baffled Boffins” Narrative

February 12, 2009 at 9:48 pm (Bad Science, Media) (, , , , )

Recently, I wrote about a Daily Fail story (here – Scientists Red-Faced), in which the Fail reported that scientists were “red-faced as they admit they are baffled why people blush”. This was just one story depicting scientists in caricature. Ben Goldacre writes in his book Bad Science that science:

“…is portrayed as groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, ‘hard to understand’. Having created this parody, the commentariat then attack it, as if they were genuinely critiquing what science is all about.”

The “Baffled Boffins” narrative seems to have insinuated itself into scientific journals as well as the mainstream media. John Gribbin, in The Universe: A Biography, writes that:

“The discovery that the Universe is accelerating made headline news in 1998 […] and was widely reported (even in scientific journals) in terms which suggested that cosmology had been turned on its head and that cosmologists were baffled. This came as news to many cosmologists, who were already trying to find an explanation for the ‘missing’ 70 per cent of the Universe, and to whom bringing back the cosmological constant seemed just about the simplest resolution to the puzzle. After all, the idea of the constant had been around since the time of Einstein, and was discussed in all reputable textbooks of cosmology.”

For some reason, the narrative appears to be an attractive one. Maybe we enjoy hearing about smart people failing? That seems a bit petty and mean to me. Perhaps we find it comforting that even scientists don’t know everything – which misses the point somewhat, given that scientists tend to want to be scientists in order to discover things rather than to be some all-knowing font of knowledge. Richard Feynman calls it “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”.

Some more random examples of baffled boffins: Growing numbers of dolphins are shunning their own kind to fraternise with humans. Scientists are baffled.; Philippines-Pig disease has scientists baffled; and Scientists Baffled as Bat Syndrome Spreads. Or there’s Aliens Arrive in Latvia, if you prefer. Which also appears in the Daily Fail, meaning that this post has now come full circle. Beam me up: Scientists left baffled as mysterious columns of coloured light appear in the night skies.

7 Comments

  1. Neuroskeptic said,

    It’s an interesting one but I think in some ways it reflects an *over*valuation of science. Saying “scientists are baffled” about something is notable, because scientists are expected to know pretty much everything so it’s remarkable if they don’t.

    Whereas in fact there’s an awful lot we just don’t know, as every scientist knows, but non-scientists sometimes forget.

  2. rob said,

    “Maybe we enjoy hearing about smart people failing? That seems a bit petty and mean to me.”

    I think there is a more generous explanation. Maybe the enjoyment is partly driven by meanness but in large part it derives from a sense of relief. Many people are very insecure about themselves and observing bafflement in people who are “known” to be “clever” provides the thought “perhaps I’m not so dumb after all”. Ironically, I guess that many scientists are themselves wishing they weren’t so dumb so they could solve this bloody hard problem they’re wrestling with.

    As for the general popularity of this narrative, remember these guys are in the business of selling newspapers. Everyone loves a mystery and many people will be drawn to the article “just in case” they might think of a solution. Eyes will not be drawn to headlines such as “Solution of complex differential equation describing galactic dynamics fails to agree with observed data and prompts consideration of new hypotheses”. “Scientists baffled by unexplained X” does the trick.

  3. Mojo said,

    If there’s one thing that scientists love, it’s being baffled. Unanswered questions means, well, questions to argue about and answer. That’s what they do.

  4. John R said,

    “If there’s one thing that scientists love, it’s being baffled. Unanswered questions means, well, questions to argue about and answer. That’s what they do.”

    Quite, I agree this a common public misconception about what ‘Science’ actually is. People get the idea, largely driven by the media, of know it all boffins who’ll never admit they don’t know something. I think this letter sums things up quite nicely: http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771

  5. jdc325 said,

    Thank you all for the comments.

    John R – that is a brilliant letter.

  6. BobP said,

    It’s the missing 70 per cent of cosmologists that baffles me.

  7. Beacon Schuler said,

    I can’t speak for the intention of those who generate the “baffled boffins” stories, but to my mind the baffled boffin is an exciting thing. I doubt anyone goes into science without the hope that they will be, at some point, baffled by something. That’s the first step towards new knowledge. Bafflement isn’t a cue to run for the hills, it is a cue to rub your hands with gleee, before rolling up your shirt sleeves and getting down to business.

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