Cool scientists

It was 75 degrees yesterday.

It got down to 24 today.

And pretty much everyone else in the country is under a layer of ice/snow.

But Im not gonna write about cold scientists. Im talkin about cool scientists.

Chris Mooney, the expert on facades, appearances, and stabbing people in the back with a smile (you see, if youre smiling, its civil! we are all about civility, here!) is worried, for some reason, that scientists arent cool.

This is not necessarily scientists fault, per se, as very few professions are actually cool. Being a teacher isnt ‘cool’. Being a nurse isnt ‘cool’. Working at Walgreens isnt ‘cool’. And I guess Chris doesnt think being a scientist is cool (probably why hes not one, and has no problem bossing those ‘dysfunctional nerds’ around).

But you know who is ‘cool’? Rock stars!

So Mooney thinks its an AWESOME idea to awkwardly mash some old white guys (weird how the Colgate Twins/Titty Sisters are so concerned about the demographics of others lists, which were at least based on some kind of merit as a metric, while their completely arbitrary list is immune to such considerations) in front of musicians. The math is simple.

SCIENTIST + ROCK STAR = COOL! YAY!!!

Martin Robbins got it 100% right. READ IT.

You all have got to read Mooneys response to Martins request for evidence:

Martin– Handbags aside, can you actually point to a single piece of concrete evidence that GQ readers have been engaged by this campaign and that this has had a positive effect on the perception of science in the US?

You leap on this glossy stuff as though it’s some sort of amazing thing, and scientists and science communicators who might not appreciate it so much are told they’re just ‘out of touch’. The thing is, you do this on the basis of virtually zero evidence of the impacts of it. I’m a 29 year old man in the audience profile of GQ, and I see a bunch of old guys posing in the background of shots of rock stars and looking frankly a bit weird. I don’t see anything here that would inspire me or my age group about science.

If you can show me evidence from focus groups or reader surveys that will back up your claims then I’ll eat my hat and go stand behind some rapper myself. But if you can’t, then you’re guilty of jumping on a bandwagon without being particularly scientific about it.

And my wider gripe with the attitude is this – if you can’t make science itself interesting – to an educated middle-class audience! – then frankly you’re just not a very talented science communicator (I don’t lay any great claim to be myself incidentally, I’m well aware of the limitations of my own greenhouse). If you’re going to fill four pages of GQ with something to grab people’s attention, I suspect you could do a much better job without resorting to shoving rock stars in the foreground.

EPIC DOUCHEBAG MOONEY– Martin, as a scientist…you must be aware of the problem with demanding data on the spot that isn’t easily obtained, especially when this campaign has just launched. Of course there will be attempts at follow up and impact assessments. But you can imagine how complicated that is to perform, and how many aspects of the influence will be very difficult to detect or measure.

So you are setting a burden of proof extremely high and assuming that it falls on Rock Stars. Most people I talk to would assume the opposite…that it falls on you, given all the data I do have on science and the U.S. public.

It is *six* pages of GQ. 8 rock stars, 17 top scientists. A massive undertaking to coordinate, as maybe you can imagine. And all to raise awareness about the importance of science to the economy and the future and to change perceptions that scientists are dysfunctional nerds.

But no good deed goes unpunished.

Oh my fucking god. There is no diuretic/stool softener on the planet strong enough to get Mooneys head out his own asshole. The cholera plaguing Haiti right now couldnt flush his head out. Oh my fucking god.

I recently stumbled upon a bit of completely independent evidence of societies opinion on scientists vs rock stars. I grew up watching Conan O’Brien. I love me some Coco. And now every morning while Im getting ready for work, I catch up on last nights show. A couple nights ago, Conan mentioned Justin Bieber (also featured in GQ *blink*), and before he could get the joke out, the audience pummeled him with ‘BOOOOOOOOOOO!!! BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!’

Despite Biebers success, to a large fraction of the population, he is not cool. If Justin Bieber showed up at your front door, unless you are a child, you would call all your friends. To laugh.

A short while later, Conan mentions Bill Nye The Science Guy. Before he can get the joke out, the audience pummels him with ‘YAAAAAAAAY!!! WHOOOOOOOO!!! *CLAPCLAPCLAPCLAP!!!*”

The audience fucking loved Bill Nye. Everyone fucking loves Bill Nye. Not only is he currently cool, he is a major nostalgia win for a large fraction of the US population. If Bill Nye showed up at your front door, you would call all your friends to show off and get cool-by-proximity. Especially if youre around my age.

But cool-by-proximity doesnt really work in the long-term, though. Otherwise everyone who ever took a photo with Mick Jagger or David Bowie would be ‘cool’ not only for the rest of their current life, but into at least the next dozen or so reincarnations.

And then there is no accounting for taste– some people love Justin Bieber. Some people love Roger Waters. Some people love B.o.B. And some people fucking hate Bieber/Waters/B.o.B., for stylistic or even philosophical reasons. You cant just mash a scientist next to a rock star and declare ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Unlike Mooneytits, however, I am not going to demand GQ stop doing their ‘Rock Stars of Science’ spreads because they are ‘hurting the cause’ and ‘doing damage’ or whatever other stupid shit regularly escapes Tits pearly white teeth. I think the campaign is silly, but I also think every little bit helps. If one kid (who reads GQ?) is inspired by these images, then its worth it.

Also unlike Mooney, instead of just screaming “Youre not helping!!!” while he is literally not helping, Im actually going to provide constructive advice. Practical experiences of ‘being cool’ in my own life, that might inspire others in similar positions.

1– Make your research cool.
First of all, my research is cool. It is *painfully* cool. Hopefully soon I will have a few papers out so I can blog about it– but people I know irl know what I do. And even though they might not be scientists, I can communicate it in such a way that peoples response is almost universally “COOOOOOL!!!!” They didnt do that in the GQ spread, as Martin rightly points out.

2– Be cool.
Secondly, I am not cool. Overall, Im a very normal, average, not cool individual. BUT. There are aspects of my non-science-life that are cool. For instance, I beat the crap out of people for fun six days a week, and MMA is currently ‘cool’. We often talk about how girls/minorities/etc are told they arent good at math/science and shouldnt pursue advanced coursework or careers in those fields. Know who also gets this harmful ‘advice’? Jocks. There are adorable children that go to my boxing gym. Kind, sweet kids, that *struggle* in math/science, because they dont think they can be good at ‘school’. So you know what? I fucking offer to help them with their homework after class. Cool chick with awesome shoulders and abs is also pretty dang good at math and science. Maybe they dont ‘have’ to join the Army when they graduate high school…

And then we have the other side of the coin– kids who are nerdy/geeky/’not athletic’ like I was when I was little. They see a grown-up who not only does kick-ass science (GLOWING VIRUSES! MUTANT SWARMS DOING HER BIDDING! AAAHHH!) but also can literally kick-ass. That is fucking cool.

Every scientist I know has 1, cool research and 2, a ‘cool’ aspect of their lives. If you genuinely want scientists, as a profession, to become ‘cool’ like rock stars, you need to start with getting scientists to connect their research to their ‘cool’ selves. As in, going out and being a part of their communities. Most people dont know a scientist, so get out there and mingle.

Or you know what? Maybe just accept people how they are, cool or not. Appreciate their science and their contributions to society and humanity, just like I appreciate the girl helping me find the toothpaste on sale at CVS, or the guy changing the oil in my car (I DO NOT UNDERSTAND CARS), or the cops trying to find my stalker.

Not everyone has to fucking be ‘cool’.

‘Cool’ is superficial crap that means nothing when contrasted with the ability to help people, in any capacity.

While Mooney has made it perfectly clear that superficial crap is his area of expertise, if you want to be cool, I really wouldnt take advice from him.

Comments

  1. #1 Nate
    November 25, 2010

    Why can’t the scientists just be rock stars? Who needs hired guns? Check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsjXOj7s8rU

  2. #2 Lotharloo
    November 25, 2010

    You made my day! Mooney is beyond help but at least I had a good laugh at him reading your article and Robbins’s piece.

  3. #3 buggypig
    November 25, 2010

    If anybody needs proof that SCIENTIST + ROCK STAR = COOL is false then I give you this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKIiNx8pCq8

    The horrendous D:REAM featuring Professor Brian Cox on keyboards. Nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in the known universe cooler than Brian Cox, but just look at him here in a previous life. OMG.
    Get a haircut hippy!

  4. #4 Joshua Zelinsky
    November 25, 2010

    Did anyone else also note how they didn’t bother to spellcheck? “What do rock stars and scienctists have in common” is on every single page.

  5. #5 Phodopus
    November 25, 2010

    Hah, who needs D:REAM when you have Queen’s Brian May. That at least counts as progressive rock, so rock in the broader sense, and definitely cool. Ok he’s not an active scientist any more, but hey he finished his PHD on interplanetary dust just recently! I find Brian Cox very cool indeed, but not because of musical career ;)

  6. #6 buggypig
    November 25, 2010

    I think Brian May’s astrophysics is very cool, his awful music not quite so much (although it’s still way above the level of D:REAM).
    How about this guy though:
    http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/nstv/2010/11/robot-musician-jams-with-humans.html

  7. #7 daedalus2u
    November 25, 2010

    Excellent post. You completely nailed it. “Cool” is the superficial crap that superficial people use to generate their superficial hierarchy of who is “cool”.

    “Cool” is a conserved quantity. The only kind of “cool” you can get from superficial crap cool people is the same kind of superficial crap cool that they have. The only valuable thing about science is that it isn’t superficial. You can’t make science “cool” by attaching superficial crap bells and whistles to it, all you do is turn potentially cool science into superficial crap science.

    The problem with real science cool is that you have to understand the science to know if it is cool or not. The only kind of cool you can ascribe to science you don’t understand is superficial crap cool.

    The coolest science is science out on the cutting edge, where very few people understand it or can do it. By the time the mainstream understands it and can do it, it is passé and no longer cool. That is why pictures of people walking on the moon are still cool, and why a picture of the Sun taken at night through the Earth is cool. When we can all fly to the moon on our personal jet packs and take a walk, it will no longer be cool to do so. When you can turn the camera in your cell phone to ‘neutrinos’ and take pictures of the Sun through the Earth, it won’t be cool to do so.

  8. #8 MadScientist
    November 25, 2010

    Here’s how to translate Mooney’s claims:

    Mooney #1: “But you can imagine how complicated that is to perform, and how many aspects of the influence will be very difficult to detect or measure. ”

    translation: “You’re asking for evidence which is difficult if not impossible to obtain!”

    In which case, how can Mooney make a positive claim? The evidence is difficult if not impossible and therefore his claim must be true because he has some “Other Way of Knowing”? Suuuure.

    Mooney #2: “So you are setting a burden of proof extremely high and assuming that it falls on Rock Stars.”

    translation: “I can’t say anything intelligent so I’ll bitch and whine about how mean you are.”

    The last I checked, Mooney was no rock star. Martin is asking *Mooney* for evidence and Mooney’s whining that Martin is being so mean and expecting so much of the poor rock stars! Seriously, WTF?

    Mooney #3: “It is *six* pages of GQ. 8 rock stars, 17 top scientists. A massive undertaking to coordinate, as maybe you can imagine.”

    translation: “It was a fool’s errand, and a tough one, so I *must* be right!”

    Such non-sequiturs in response to such a simple question from Martin – and from someone who wrote a book titled “Unscientific America”. Goddamn, time to buy another irony meter.

  9. #9 Jolo5309
    November 25, 2010

    ERV, you are incorrect, you are studying something cool, you take martial arts (cooler), and you don’t care about being cool (coolest). I think this is all a trap for the rest of us to acknowledge your coolness…

    John

    PS
    You also think Chris Mooney is a douchebag, I disagree, as douchebags can be useful to the right people.

  10. #10 gf1
    November 25, 2010

    I’m not sure I want scientists to be cool. There’s too much valuable and dangerous stuff lying around labs. Better to have them nice, safe, nerdy and conscientious imo.

    I wish schools spent more time teaching interesting science that touches upon the sort of philosophical issues teenagers often find themselves drawn to (between the cool drugs and self-destructive behaviour), but I’m not sure how important it is for the general public to be interested and excited by science. Lots of things are interesting and exciting, but there’s only so much we can spend our time on. There’s lots of interesting science I’m utterly ignorant of because I’d rather learn about other things. There are loads of amazing novels I’ll never read.

    It seems that the problem with many American’s attitude towards science is not primarily disinterest, but an active rejection of the need for evidence to support ones beliefs. If people find topics other than science to be more interesting, that’s not a big problem; but when they start rejecting an evidence based understanding of reality in favour of barmy bat-shit, that causes trouble.

    Starting to ramble OT here. The campaign looks embarrassing and pointless. I also thought the Robbins piece was a bit poor though.

  11. #11 Ophelia Benson
    November 25, 2010

    So 2 is not so much Be Cool as Use whatever cool you have but also don’t waste a single second worrying about not being cool. At least that’s what I will take from it. I’m defiantly uncool but at the same time, I have my cool aspects. (Just don’t ask me what they are.)

  12. #12 Shirakawasuna
    November 25, 2010

    I’m a big fan of contrasting the petty, inconsequential incivility (Mooneytits) of someone who is personally and truly uncivil (Mooney). Kudos to you!

  13. #13 'Tis Himself
    November 25, 2010

    Coolness is in the eye of the beholder. Personally I think Mervyn King* and William Dudley** are cool. I do not find Justin Bieber cool. Perhaps as a 62 year old economist I’m not in Mooney’s target audience.

    *Governor of the Bank of England

    **President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Vice Chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee.

  14. #14 Monado, FCD
    November 25, 2010

    You are so right about getting involved and reaching out to people. Even a book can do it. Scratch that. Even writing things on the Internet can do it. I got interested in science partly from reading Isaac Asimov’s science books (even though he was a philandering douche-bag, he was a good science writer). But now, kids can find you, ERV, at Science blogs, making science interesting. And triple congratulations for kicking ass and helping kids with their math/science concepts in real life!

    Oh, happy American Thanksgiving to you, too.

  15. #15 jose
    November 26, 2010

    The top-down approach never works when you’re trying to raise awareness. It feels like propaganda. Would it be too weird if I quote your president? Change happens from the bottom up.

    Scientists already have a reputation of ivory tower, unreachable individuals. Rock starts aren’t exactly next door people either. By putting them together, you’re reinforcing the idea of them being people we don’t relate with in any way, when in fact just the opposite is true. Scientists are next door people.

    I think that if anything, they should’ve put scientists among other workers instead of rock stars.

    “I can communicate it in such a way that peoples response is almost universally “COOOOOOL!!!!”

    lol so true, sometimes your posts feel like we’re living in the year 2099!

  16. #16 Optimus Primate
    November 26, 2010

    But cool-by-proximity doesnt really work in the long-term, though.

    It works when the one you’re in proximity to is Arnold Schwarzenegger, though. Just sayin’.

  17. #17 T. Bruce McNeely
    November 26, 2010

    Re Bieber vs. Science Guy:

    My 12 year old daughter has exactly the same reaction as you (and Conan’s audience) in this matter. She can’t understand all the screaming about Bieber, and says she knows only one person who likes him. She saw a video with Bill Nye at school and thinks he’s AWESOME.

    I may be her father, but I think she ROCKS.

  18. #18 John S. Wilkins
    November 26, 2010

    I spent ten years working in a medical research institute and I was continually struck by how cool the grad students were. Even some of the postdocs. Of course, by the time you get to be a lab head or PI, you are too old to be cool unless you are Mick Jagger’s twin brother.

    My vote for Best Representation of Actual Scientists (or Scienctists) on TV goes to Abby Sciutto on NCIS, because that’s how I remember the students in the labs; generally rocking out and working hard. Of course, I ignore the impossibly fast sequencing and chromatography.

  19. #19 Andrew L. Ayers
    November 27, 2010

    First off, I think its cool that you are helping kids do their homework; we need more of that at every level.

    However, should one of those kids ask “how does a car’s engine work?”, what are you going to reply?

    If you want science to be cool to kids (or adults), they need to be able to relate it to common, everyday experience. What better way to do that than to know how science (and applied science/technology) works in (and how it helped to create) the everyday objects of their lives?

    So – don’t throw up your hands and say “I DO NOT UNDERSTAND CARS”; instead, take an interest in understanding how your car really works (and please, take the time to learn how to change your oil and other basics of car maintenance – you’ll save money, and you’ll gain a new level of appreciation and understanding for your car). Maybe you can show a child or an adult this knowledge, and how science is behind it (let’s see – molecular makeup of the oil and why it changes over time in an engine due to operating conditions, etc?).

    I think you are missing an opportunity here. Then again, I’m not a scientist, so what do I know…?

  20. #20 Mobius
    November 27, 2010

    Mooney’s head is so far up his @$$ that he has to breath through his bellybutton.

    No, really. Martin asks for ANY evidence that Mooney’s contention is true. To Mooney, this is “setting a burden of proof extremely high”. This is sad.

  21. #21 Archereon
    November 28, 2010
  22. #22 CherryBomb
    November 28, 2010

    Going back to the GQ issue and away from cheerleaders, I think most of y’all are seeing this completely inverted: The music artists are not being used to make the scientists look more “hip.” The scientists are being used as props to make the pop stars looks like they actually have deep thoughts worth paying attention to. As if!

  23. #23 Kemanorel
    November 29, 2010

    I love this article, not only because it’s funny, but I think it’s important.

    Being “cool” is overrated. I’ve done quite a few things in my life so far, but the stuff I’m most proud of are the things that are “uncool:” academics, marching band, diving, etc…

    Screw being “cool.” If I have kids, I hope they’re science nerds like Abby.

  24. #24 Prometheus
    November 29, 2010

    The “cool” kids become the:

    addicted

    imprisoned

    fat

    dead

    Cool adults are the ones who don’t worry about stupid shit like being cool.

    Mooney—-> Not cool.

    What the hell dumb ass, if you aren’t cool by 33 you aren’t going to get there.