The problem with boffins

26 July 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

Earlier this week, BBC Four broadcast a programme featuring a few people I know telling jokes. It's part of a series called Some People Telling Jokes, with each episode themed by a certain trait which all the people telling the jokes share. What the people I know all have in common is that they are scientists. The idea of the programme was to show that scientists are capable of being funny. Not being based in the UK, I haven't seen the show itself. However, I have been told the title: Some Boffins With Jokes.

I'm not one to judge a book by its cover (except sometimes), so I'll not comment on the quality or otherwise of the jokes. Instead, my focus here will be on the word "boffin". For those of you who aren't familiar with this particular nugget of British English, it is used to designate an expert. Of course, that would normally be totally fine. After all, scientists have a great deal of knowledge about their field. The problem is that it doesn't stop there. There are some quite negative connotations. These include being aloof, disconnected, and socially inept.

boffin: someone removed from reality who is slightly crazy and lacks connection to the real world - jamiebgall

While not all scientists are completely immune to these traits, neither are all [any other profession].

A Google Image search for "boffins"

A Google Image search for "boffins"

Here's an extract from an email discussion sent to one of the performers by someone working for the programme, before filming took place:

The concept is extremely simple. We take a group of people who have a similar interest, or profession, or vocation, or cultural identity, and ask them to tell us their favourite jokes. That's it. No bells, no whistles, no celebrities, no voting. Just people standing in front of a camera enjoying telling their favourite jokes for the enjoyment of people at home.[...]

we're looking to extend the series further because we began to realise what an interesting experiment this was turning out to be - how enjoying jokes is universal, of course, but also that showcasing different jokes told by different people is actually really interesting in itself. How and why are the jokes different? Which jokes (if any) overlap? How do joke-telling styles vary?
Looking for a new group, we thought it would be fascinating to search for biologists, chemists, quantum physicists, mathematicians - in short, ANY scientists - who might be interested in telling us their favourite jokes on camera. Are there classic science-based jokes out there that the general public may not have heard, just as there are classic copper jokes among the police or medical jokes among doctors and nurses?

That all seems fair enough. If I had been able to come to London on the date in question and thought of myself as a proper scientist, I might have applied to take part. (I and several others seem to remember an email on a list we all follow, but no-one seems to be able to find it now...) It's worth noticing, however, that the email contains not one mention of the word "boffin". It does repeatedly refer to people from Liverpool as "Scousers", although I don't know how bad that is really (would any Liverpudlians out there care to comment?). The working title throughout the filming, apparently, was Scientists Telling Jokes.

There were several tweets from people who took issue with the term.

Cheers for scientists on TV being normal humans, jeers for the awful name of the programme - @neilwithers

Well that was irritating. I didn't sign up to be labelled a 'boffin' and that's NOT EVEN MY NAME. How sad, BBC Four. - @funsizesuze

We'll return to the issue of the word "boffin" in a moment. First, I want to look at how my friends and acquaintances were treated in the making of the programme.

it was very much a case of getting what they wanted then not giving a damn - jamiebgall

To spell someone's name incorrectly on national, pre-recorded TV seems like a fairly shocking error to me. I don't work in TV, but it seems like a fairly straightforward thing to get right. They also mistakenly called Jamie Gallagher a biologist.

Maybe that's what the "B" stands for...

Furthermore, it seems that while some performers were paid expenses, others were not, which seems unfair. But again, that might just be how things are in TV-land. Anyway, these seem to be minor points which just "come with the territory", and beyond the scope of this post. Such behind-the-scenes problems, while not helpful to the relationships between scientists and the media, do not directly affect the TV-watching public's perception of scientists.

Indeed, the main issue with how the TV company in question behaved is that performers were not told in advance that they would be called "boffins". Several would not have taken part had they been told as much. Others even assumed such a spin might be on the cards, so they avoided the call entirely. Overall, the change in name probably isn't quite as bad on the scale of offensiveness as giving the programme Old Jews Telling Jokes an anti-semitic title would be. Let's not forget that no-one has a right not be offended, but the issues here are broader than that.

While some had less of an issue with the term boffin...

I sometimes wonder if #scicommers sometimes take themselves too seriously. Stereotypes can be good. Love, Professor #Boffin.- @scienceviking66

'Backroom boffin' a positive association though possibly? Dambusters, moonshot etc - @mwstory

... it is nonetheless problematic in general. When it comes to labeling groups of people, I think the criterion for acceptability is that members of the supposed group should feel comfortable using it about themselves. Having grown up in France, I might call myself a bit French, by upbringing if not by passport. But I wouldn't want anyone to say I was a "cheese-eating surrender-monkey", especially if I was doing them a favour.

Similarly, the words "geek" and "nerd" have a lot of baggage. Personally, I try not to have too strong feelings on the matter, but it does seem to polarise the science advocacy community. (See also this study on the real distinction between geeks and nerds.)

venn diagram of geeks and nerds

Credit: xkcd

Some very serious issues around bullying crop up here. While I was never bullied in a violent way over getting good marks in school, I do remember being called un intello, the French shortening of "an intellectual". I used to vehemently deny being such, though I wasn't sure why. It seemed to me that working hard and learning as much as possible would be a good thing, for its own sake as well to please the grown-ups. I think it's sad that intellectualism should be derided in our society. The pursuit of knowledge is a noble one, and children (and grown-ups) should be made more aware of that.

[I was] Often called [a boffin] in my youth, also "boffjob" not because of academic ability but for going to a slightly above average school - @punk_science

As ever, there's also a Mitchell and Webb sketch that gets to the heart of the matter. The role of the boffin is to provide a short, snappy, definitive answer. there is no room for uncertainty or humanity in the debate.

You're not meant to relate to boffins. They aren't real people.

This whole affair reminds of a critique I recently read about the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. In essence, TBBT encourages viewers to laugh at the geeks/nerds/boffins, rather than with them. You wouldn't want to spend hours on a train with Sheldon - he would bore you with his endless facts and fascination for knowledge for its own sake. You wouldn't want that. (This is not to say that Penny's character promotes the out-of-work actress stereotype either...)

Don't get me wrong, the show is funny. But the humour does not turn me on to science or scientists. I feel bad laughing at it, because I know some people who really are a lot like Sheldon and who I very much like spending time with.

Meanwhile, the use of humour for proper science communication is not especially new. Particularly in the last few years, and especially in the UK, science and comedy have been combining with increasing popularity. There are professional comedians telling jokes about science, professional scientists trying their hand at stand-up, and an increasing number of people who are somewhere in between. It's a largely healthy environment. It's happening in writing, live and online. For example, this blog post gives a good analysis of how YouTubers are getting it right. But does traditional TV have some catching up to do?

The full article is worth reading as it gives many examples along the way, culminating in this gem:

The post's conclusion is

Humor, animation, and goofball hosts draw in online viewers. Their methods may not be perfect for science journalism, but we think there’s a lot to learn from people who can get 10 million viewers using nothing but a cat, a cardboard box, and a low-quality camera. To get beyond science “infotainment” may take adapting these “YouTube lessons” in new ways. That’s where journalistic creativity comes in.

Admittedly, the Some Boffins With Jokes show was never meant as "journalism" per se. But I think that overall we need to go from laughing at scientists to laughing with them, and the word "boffin" does not achieve this (unlike the general principle of having scientists telling jokes).

For now, boffins still have a hard time on TV. For example, Rob Wix has the inside story on how Terry "Professor Boffin" Harvey-Chadwick was effectively tricked into making something of a fool of himself for Britain's Got Talent last year, which I also wrote about at the time.

In this case, the TV company knew the story it wanted to tell. Either it would get a great demonstration that they had seen on the US version of the show and would thrill and surprise the UK audience, or they could present a stereotypical "boffin", trying in earnest but failing horribly to impress anyone with little tricks.

So overall, I think it's important that scientists be seen as real people. We tell jokes, we go to the pub, we dance, we support sports teams, we enjoy fashion, we watch films... we do everything that everyone else does. So would the media please stop labeling us as weird, unapproachable boffins, please?

Over to you:

  • What do you think of the word "boffin"? What about "geek" or "nerd"
  • Are there similar words in other languages?
  • Have you had any experience with TV production companies making a show about science?
  • Do you think science/knowledge enthusiasts should try to re-claim the word "boffin", like the gay movement did so successfully?
  • What is the role of humour in science communication?



23 Responses to “The problem with boffins”

  1. Tania Browne Reply | Permalink

    Brilliant, I think you sum it up so well here Alex. While I don't feel enraged at the word boffin it does make me feel uncomfortable, and I think the reason has a lot to do with public perception. Boffins are "other", they live in their own world and live only for their work. They are not sons, daughters, partners, spouses, they don't go out for a beer after work and they have no sense of humanity. They find human emotion baffling. This is what most people would tell you if you asked them to describe one, I'm pretty sure.
    When I was a kid the intelligent people in my class were called boffin, boff or Tefal, because there were popular adverts on TV at the time for Tefal products using men in white coats with enormously large foreheads. The advertisers meant it as a sign of affection, I'm sure, but the kids intimidated by being called such names every day were hardly chuckling along.

    Now I'm going to give the programme the benefit of the doubt and suggest they we're using the word to challenge perceptions, but from what you've learned from some of the participants it seems a certain sense of shoddiness prevailed, a lack of sensitivity to the participants. What a shame.

    Having said all that I watched the programme and quite enjoyed it, and I definitely think humour has a place in sci comm as long as it makes a good educational point at the end of it all. I think the general idea of the show was good, it's just a shame about the last minute title change.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Tania. I'd not heard of "Tefal" as an insult before, nor indeed seen those adverts. The presentation of experts/scientists in TV advertising is another kettle of fish altogether, but not unrelated to the issues we rpesented here.

      I'm still really keen to see the programme itself - I didn't make it clear in the post but I would hope that the natural charm and humour of the performers would counter-act any negative effect from the title. At least people weren't presented as "biology boffin", "chemistry boffin" and so on...

  2. Diana Fleischman Reply | Permalink

    So, I got my trip paid for and I got free drinks on the night of (which helped a bit :)) so I can't really complain. Also, I never heard the word "boffin" until I was the show so it doesn't have any negative connotations to me. I think the show balanced funny and less funny with good delivery and bad delivery making scientists look like normal people. Before people get upset about what might or might not increase the attractiveness of engaging in science (e.g. calling people boffins) perhaps we should find out if it really makes any difference. My hunch is that a show like this probably improves perceptions of scientists, they made everyone look pretty charming.
    I don't think it's acceptable for TV to misrepresent or make a mistake as to someone's specialty. On "The Big Questions" they said at one point I was an evolutionary biologist and said "Portsmouth University" sounds better than the actual name of my Uni. That said, I don't expect media people to be as precise as scientists and experts and I know a lot of scientists who never speak to certain media outlets for this reason. Caveat Emptor and all that.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing your story Diana. It is entirely possible that no-one watching the show will have taken any notice of the title, and indeed one would hope that the personalities of the "boffins" would give the lie to the title. That being said it seems a struggle to see why the word was used at all, instead of just "scientists".

  3. Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

    See also this post by Dean Burnett presenting a summary of some people's thoughts on boffins:

    And this by Donald Sinclair on more general problems with the representation of science in the media (including the "boffin" issue and "he said, she said"-style reporting)

  4. Natalie Ford Reply | Permalink

    To be honest, although I do think of it as a term it is both patronising and mildly insulting,it mostly just annoys me as it is so incredibly lazy. Pretty much every time we had local press coverage of our science centre, they used the words boffin in the title.

  5. Lizzie Ellis Reply | Permalink

    'Boffin' I think for me has always had a slightly comedic tone, reserved more for sketches (like the Mitchell and Webb one you mention above). I've never been called a boffin and never really heard anyone say it in real life, so for me it's always seemed like something the media constructed because it has that slightly comedic tone (which I guess is meant to be more approachable to the audience) but appears to put someone in the role of an expert as well.

    Saying that Wikipedia has some interesting entries on where the origins seem to have come from:

    I'd be curious to know if boffin is reserved only for scientists or if it's ever been heard in the context of other subjects like history or literature for example?

  6. elkement Reply | Permalink

    I need to admit that I had not been aware of the word 'boffin' before I encountered a physics puzzle website, maintained by a (British) physicist calling himself 'quantum boffin'.

  7. Josh McFayden Reply | Permalink

    To me it doesn't really any offence or particularly carry negative connotations. In general science seems to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence in popular culture these days. With people like Prof Cox and Dara O'Briain regularly on primetime TV in the UK, things are looking pretty good. If this were not the case I'd be more concerned.

    For the record, an example use of the word boffin in a more positive context is at, an IT news website, where they use it regularly in an ironic and almost affectionate manner.

  8. Sam Gregson Reply | Permalink

    I largely agree with Josh, science is becoming sexier and that's great! I'd ask a subtle Brian Cox popular because he's attractive and knows some science or simply because of the science? I think it's the first, but I also think this is a necessary first step to getting esoteric subjects like particle physics into the mainstream media. Wouldn't want McFayden's mug up there ...only playing ;)

  9. Sam Gregson Reply | Permalink got paid!!!??? I didn't...grumble grumble. Although I probably got paid handsomely given our onslaught on the bar...ahem...

  10. Jo Brodie Reply | Permalink

    Looks like 'boffin' was part of the programme name back in November, although it may not have been made clear to the participants that that was the name they were going with.

    Ctrl+F for 'boffins' to find the sentence "Some Vicars, Some Scousers And Some Boffins With Jokes share their favourite jokes" here

    Couldn't find it on psci-com archives or my own Gmail either. I have to say it's not been a familiar request to me so possibly on a list other than ABSW, BIG-chat or psci-com.


    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for digging that up Jo. I'm reliably informed that filming for this was in October last year, so the change seems to have been made between filming and that release.

  11. Michael Story Reply | Permalink

    Despite my tweet above about moon landings and dambusters (thanks for quoting!) my feeling is that 'boffin' is a bit like 'honky' or 'cracker' thrown at whitey. Yes it's rude, but it is a reaction to a power structure which benefits the target of this insult so it's churlish to get too upset about it. The relative returns to education have never been higher; educated and intelligent people are on average happier, richer, thinner, healthier, more powerful and live longer than the rest of the population. If you were on the other side of this widening divide, maybe you'd feel like chucking an insult or two the other direction.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I see your point - "boffins" can't complain about being called that because of all the advantages it brings. While I can see how that applies to those who may fit some aspects of the stereotype, I'm not sure it's fair for children to use it against each other. "Don't worry, they bully you now but one day you'll be their doctor." somehow doesn't quite cut it for me.

      Also, when the point of the TV show was to display these so-called boffins as real humans, was the label helpful at all? It didn't seem to be meant as insulting or provocative, just a bit careless on the part of the producers...

      • Michael Story Reply | Permalink

        I went to a hyper-selective school where all the bullying ran downhill so maybe I'm experiencing delayed guilt over the way the dull children were picked on by the brainier ones (which certainly now seems less fair than the other way around).
        As for the TV show, it doesn't seem too bad. Part of the reason that people with high intelligence or expertise are normally 'othered' on tv is for exactly the same reason that they get picked on at school. Execs know that high achievers make audiences feel inadequate so they need to be presented as either lacking in some other way (normally social skills) or be seen as so culturally distinct that there could be no uncomfortable comparison between contributor and viewer. A tv show which doesn't do this is pretty precious, if the title is insensitive then it might be best just to lump it.

  12. Rhys Reply | Permalink

    I think it's a harmless word - like geek and nerd, some scientists are boffins. But I don't agree with branding all scientists as such. I consider myself to be a geek. But not just for my science activities - as an avid fan of the Archers who hasn't missed a single episode since I started listening at the age of 14, I consider myself to be an "Archers geek" too. But I wouldn't assume that all other scientists (or other Archers fans!) were geeks!

  13. Jonathan Reply | Permalink

    Boffin is not harmless. Its quietly patronising and dismissive in the same sort of way that feminists rightly worry about phrases like "lovely little lady". To me boffin carries connotations of "very smart, but not really living in the real world so not someone we need to pay attention to". The fact that its commonplace in the UK should worry us, because it speaks to the low standing of the scientific profession. Journalists might get called hacks, but I'm not sure I know a similar specific term for lawyers or bankers.

  14. Oliver Marsh Reply | Permalink

    Nice article. R.e. our Twitter conversation, the radio programme I did with Andy Holding on public perception of scientists is and a post I wrote based on my own experience of sci-comm-humour is at

    I was particularly interested in your comment about 'geek' or 'nerd' becoming reclaimed terms like 'gay'. From various recent writings (The Geek Manifesto being the most prominent example) I'd agree there's definitely some stirrings of that, though I haven't really seen 'boffin' being included as part of that. Interestingly another term that comes up quite a lot in relation to all this 'Skeptic', which is a whole other can of worms.

    Anyway. The problem here is that any self-defining by a group is going to be contentious (you've pointed out, the geek-nerd thing gets quite fighty at times. And, from brief research, it seems that usage of 'gay' also has contentions Here, that contention has been taken out of the hands of those to whom it actually matters. It doesn't help that it isn't really clear exactly why the media folks made that decision (the whole programme reeks a bit of confusion - why Vicars and Scientists with Scousers??). It's obviously not nearly as bad as racism and similar, but there's still a comparable idea of 'that's our word, not your word, leave our word alone'.

  15. Rosie Campbell Reply | Permalink

    I don't think I was ever specifically called a 'boffin' at school, but I was definitely ridiculed for academic achievement. At my school, appearing big headed or conceited was the worst social crime so despite not understanding why I should be ashamed of doing well, I learnt to downplay it and brush it off with self-deprecation.

    Now I work in R&D, and our 'inventions' are often reported in the media as something 'those boffins in BBC R&D have been working on' which still makes me uncomfortable for similar reasons. As I said in a tweet, it comes across like a patronising backhanded compliment; "yeah you're clever but we wouldn't really want to be like you".

    Additionally, I think it ends up alienating people as it makes it sound like only a special kind of person can go into science. People think they have to be geniuses, whereas really anyone with a bit of curiosity and a passion for learning should consider it. I worry it reinforces those stereotypes of the socially awkward man in a lab with crazy hair, which to many people is not an aspirational lifestyle - which is sad because science is so much more than that!

  16. Ivette Negrete Reply | Permalink

    I grew up in Mexico, moved to UK about 5 years ago. I've only heard the word boffin as a fun adjective. I have now learned otherwise thanks to this post! One curious thing, in Mexico the word "tefal" would be used for people who have really bad memory (as nothing sticks to it!) Completely different from how you use "tefal" here!

  17. Terry Harvey-Chadwick Reply | Permalink

    I'm afraid I can't get too upset by names like boffin, geek, nerd, etc. As you can tell from the video of me above as Professor Boffin, I have tried in the past to use such stereotypical terms to my advantage. By the way, I didn't consider myself made a fool of. That's just the way I am, and I thought it was funny and quite enjoyed the filming with Steven Mulhern. When something has gone wrong, as the demonstrations did in the filming with him, I always go for the laugh. This is something I developed in seven years teaching science to teenagers in challenging secondary schools around the country. It worked, and they learned. For me, stereotypes aren't necessarily bad and can often be used to an advantage. The Professor Boffin act on BGT has got me many bookings where I could do more serious stuff, and has provoked the interest of children all over the country. I'm still getting recognised by kids almost two years later, and has meant I can start conversations about science with them and correct any misconceptions they have had. And this is random children in the street, so I think my brief appearance on TV has been very useful. I just hope the same thing happens for Boffins Telling Jokes.

    In short, if you don't like the word then fair enough. But I think we should be working to use these stereotypes to our advantage and taking control of them. I'm in the process of writing a new science show in which stereotypes are at the heart of the performance. It's designed to make people laugh at me. I'm fully expecting to be ostracised by the science communication community once the show is seen, considering the prevailing attitudes, but the way I see, it is that for stereotypes to be changed they must first be brought out into the open, which is what this show will do.

    Stamping your foot and having a hissy fit because someone on the telly used the word boffin isn't going to get things changed. If you want to lose the negative connotations then you need to get out there and change them. I'll get the ball rolling by having people openly laugh at a mad boffin scientist. To (perhaps not quite appropriately) quote the wonderful Tim Minchin:

    "But there are answers out there
    And they won't be found
    By people sitting around
    Looking serious
    And saying isn't life mysterious?
    Let's sit here and hope"

    So don't just sit there and hope. If you don't like it get off your bums and do something about it :)

    Professor Boffin.

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