We’ve started to make science and empirical evidence not nearly as important as punditry–people wusing p.r.-speak to push a corporate or political agenda. I think we need to turn scientists back into the rock stars they are.
I find this quote so refreshing (not just because it places us scientists up on a lofty pedestal), because it validates scientific authority figures as someone worth listening to.
Dan Rhoads picked up on this and, after putting in his two cents, turned this into a meme or sorts, or an alternative “Ask The Science Blogger” question, tagging three people to answer the same question: who might qualify as a scientist rock-star?
Hsien Lei was the first to respond. RPM will probably respond soon, and I will try to think of something under the fold….
As is usual in these simple questions, one first needs to clearly define the terms and uncover the underlying assumptions. What do words “qualify”, “scientist” and “rock star” really mean in this context? Someone with a PhD playing electrical guitar on a stage? I guess not. Someone with long hair, with groupies, snorting powder in hotel rooms and saying outrageous things? Probably not.
What I take it to mean is a scientist who did or discovered something really important and whose name is, thus, as well known as any movie star or rock star. A household name. Someone whose pronouncements on any and every topic would be as widely reported by the media and as widely repeated by the regular folks as pronouncements by Brittney Spears (“Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.”).
Am I asking too much?
The operative word in the above paragraph was “regular folks”. On science blogs, with college buddies, in a circle of well-educated people with interest in science, it is easy to forget that most people have never heard of Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Ian Wilmut, Paul Sereno, James Watson, Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould. Those names are familiar to a particular class of people, but not all people in America or the world.
If you ask a person on the street to tell you a name of a famous scientist, you will almost never hear a name of someone who is still alive. Einstein, most likely. In some other places in the world, a local scientific hero is the first name to come out of everyone’s mouth. Newton and Darwin may show up. Some inventors, like Wright brothers may be mentioned. Quacks will appear sometimes, like Rupert Sheldrake or Deepak Chopra. But nobody who is a widely-respected scientist and currently alive.
Is it generational, or is it geographical? When I asked my son, he said Einstein. When prodded for more, he came up with Wright brothers. Then Newton and Darwin and, of course, Tesla. When asked for someone still alive, he pointed his finger at me – I am the only living scientist he knows. When I trotted out a list of current scientific superheroes, he was unaware of any of them. Then he said that his buddies knew even less.
When I was a kid back in Yugoslavia, everyone, and I mean everyone, knew who Carl Sagan, Richard Attenborough and David Bellamy were because these were popularizers – we all watched their TV shows all the time. We knew the names of Magnus Pike and Miriam Stoppard (together with Bellamy) from the adorable 1970s show “Don’t Ask Me”. An average Yugoslav walking the streets of Belgrade and other big cities (but not neccessarily countryside) at the time has probably read at least something by Desmond Morris or Richard Dawkins if nothing better, and was selling his collection of Charles Pierce’s translated works on a makeshift stand on the street.
Older generations may know even more. Many physicists were active in speaking out against the use of nuclear weapons back in the late 1940s and 1950s, so they were in the media a lot.
Go even further into the past. Let’s say late 19th and early 20th century. No radio, no television, no Internet. Newspapers held in as low regard as today concerning untrustworthiness, bias, shallowness and love of scandal. Most people live in small communities and even the largest cities are not that large yet. What do people do in order to stay current, as well as in order to remain members of the community?
They all go with their friends to whatever is in town. If a theater comes in, they all go to see the play. Or a movie. Or a concert. Or a circus. Or a magician. Or a Presidential candidate giving his stump speech….Or a scientist.
Then, tomorrow, they all talk about it. If you did not go, you are weird and a pariah. You are effectively excommunicating yourself from your community.
So, a scientist travelling around the country was entertainment. Some scientists were really good at showbiz – everyone wanted to go see the lightbulb shining while held in Tesla’s hand (and not noticing where his other hand is) or watching him produce showers of lightnings on stage. Hopefully, apart from the entertainment, they also remembered some of the stuff he spoke about during his shows – the physics underlying his special effects.
So, do we really want to see scientists as entertainers again? Is that one possible – and legitimate – way to present science to the masses, to those people who are the least likely to do anything about learning science on their own? When Stephen Hawking shows up, you cannot get a ticket, but those in the audience are not local farmers.
In this day of mass communications, it is logical to use modern technology to further your aims, so popularization of science should do the same. Turning some scientists into radio personalities, talk-show hosts, TV stars, movie stars and Internet stars (MySpace and blogs, for instance) should be a part of a multi-prong strategy to spread the scientific reasoning and rationality, as well as excitement for knowledge about the natural world.
But the first step has to be made within the scientific community. Denigrating the “popularizers” and advising students that only getting pale-complexioned by pipetting for 13 hours straight every day is considered “serious” enough to count as being a scientist and all extra-curricular activities are bad for your CV and job prospects – those are the attitudes we have to get rid of really fast if we want scientific enterprise to survive in a friendly and supportive social environment.
We need scientific rock stars. But how do we choose them and how do we put them out there to do their job?