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Revenge of the boffinophiles

I was going to call this post ‘lovin’ a good boffin’, but it felt too much like a double entendre. 

The term 'boffin' is an outdated British term for a scientist, which now only crops up in tabloid newspapers. It's an affectionate term, but with an element of mad scientist about it. For some time now, the Institute of Physics has been running a campaign to 'bin the boffin'.

In a Physics World article, Rachel Youngman puts the case for binning the boffin: 'We believe that boffin is a lousy way to talk about scientists. The term has negative impacts – it is poorly understood, strongly associated with the male gender and is confusing. When we surveyed our members last year, they told us that the term was unhelpful and inaccurate, with younger members stating it actively puts them off science.' You might wonder, if they were put off science what they're doing being members of the Institute of Physics, but that's a different story.

I love the Institute of Physics (and their magazine/website Physics World) dearly - but there is a real danger of coming across as humourless, perhaps even po-faced, in this campaign. You don't stop people using a nickname for you that you don't like by moaning about it - that just makes people double down. And there's even an argument that it's not a bad name for a certain kind of scientific announcement.

Part of the IoP's campaign involves publicising the week's 'best worst example of boffin in the media'. One week in October the headline they picked up on was ' Boffins use science to calculate the scariest scenes in horror movie history'. To be honest, when someone (usually a PR company who get the assistance of a gullible scientist) comes up with this kind of pseudoscientific guff, they deserve to be labelled boffins (or something far worse).

The IoP's PR effort is made for the best reasons - and Youngman describes it as a 'good-humoured call', noting that they aren't seeking to ban the word: 'If a pub quiz team, say, wants to be called “Brilliant boffins” that’s fine and if scientists don’t mind the word, then we would consider that a matter of personal taste.' If it is indeed true that 'boffin' conjures up an image of only one kind of scientist (white, male, lab coat...), then it's not ideal for general use. But to be fair, it isn't in general use and hasn't been since the 1950s. The word didn't originally mean a scientist at all - it was a term for an elderly naval officer in the early years of the Second World War, that expanded to mean someone in backroom science and technology, who was away from the military front line, particularly those developing radar. It was already dated by the 1970s.

For me, the campaign distracts from the message of science. When my Twitter/X list about science is full not of science stories but stories about whether people are using the right words, I don't think that science does itself justice.

Image from Unsplash/National Cancer Institute - n.b. boffin images should always be black and white

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