The Intersection

posted by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

i-3f4c557ea4558d1cf101d7326e267182-posl04_onthecover0707.jpgWe all know music is powerful. It moves and motivates us. Makes us feel something. The latest issue of Vanity Fair features Bono as guest editor and draws attention to AIDS, genocide, and poverty in Africa. Folks at the magazine seem to be getting accustomed to framing important social and environmental issues by way of celebrity icons in order to reach out to a broad demographic. They’ve also figured out that a social conscience is more fashionable and profitable these days than even the latest from Manolo. Just weeks ago we saw Leo and Knut the polar bear cub on the front of the Green Issue.

Well Vanity Fair isn’t alone. June’s Rolling Stone – printed on paper produced through a process that they claim creates zero CO2 emissions – is on Climate Change. Recently, the NRDC and Green Day joined forces in a collaborative Move America Beyond Oil Campain. Just one click on Global Cool and you’ll see these are not isolated examples. The world is changing.

Same hold true in politics. Hillary’s choice of campaign theme song made prime time news last night. And while countless brilliant scientists passed through the Hart Senate office building last year, it’s the clamor of the night Wyclef Jean played a private show for staffers to spread awareness of Yele Haiti that stands out in my mind. Every time I hear his music, I remember the cause.

While I don’t discount the credentials of scientists who actually do the critical research, I assure you Science and Nature are not what staffers are circulating around Congressional offices. The worlds of pop and science are not mutually exclusive and in terms of influencing policy, the right combination of each makes for the perfect policy cocktail.


  1. #1 Jonathan Dursi
    June 20, 2007

    It certainly seems unfair that some complain that the Mooney/Nisbet framing types for advocating style over substance, crowd-pleasing over meaningful; especially when you have articles like this one pointing out pragmatic, every day things that scientists can do to better get their points across, like have celebrities on magazine covers *sing* the points the scientists want to make. I’m convinced.

  2. #2 Chris Mooney
    June 20, 2007

    What an incredible disconnect there is. Sarcastic snips like this (or worse) have all too often been prevalent in the online responses to ideas about framing. And yet at the Center for American Progress yesterday, we had well over 100 people in the room, including many scientists and science policy thinkers, who sat through a long talk (complete with repeated technical interruptions), then asked very serious questions, then stayed around for nearly another hour to ask more questions. Hmmm….

  3. #3 Jonathan Dursi
    June 20, 2007

    If you’re an expert on communicating to a reluctant audience, you’re going to have to accept that getting a lot of negative reaction is not necessarily a sign of a failing of the readers.

    Yesterday you’re talking about science journalists not being the problem, today we’re being told that it’s the entertainment journalists which are all-important, and you see negative reactions to this as being the scientists’s fault?

  4. #4 Linda
    June 20, 2007

    So true, so true…
    Pop grabs science, and therefore, the mass audience, in a special way that permeates the psyche. And lives on in a stronger, remembered way.

  5. #5 Wes Rolley
    June 20, 2007

    I have a political friend who is fond of saying that “The world is run by those that show up!” Too often, the general public does not show up, never thinks about things in an Al Gore reasoned way and frankly needs something to hit them over the head to say “this is important and you had better pay attention.”

    When people have children to raise, a job to maintain, their health to worry about, do we give them a reason to stop and reason? It is so easy for spin meisters to complain about “scare tactics” and have everyone believe them. When journalists do a point / counterpoint presentation of an issue without some presentation of the objective truth then they do no one any good.

    If a serious celeb like Bono can make people pay attention, then I salute him.

  6. #6 Sheril Kirshenbaum
    June 20, 2007


    You have misrepresented my statement. Note I did not write ‘entertainment journalists are all-important.’ The principle point is that culture and science are not mutually exclusive in terms of how they influence political will. It’s in finding the right balance of each – always incorporating the best research – that we have hope of synergistically accomplishing a greater unified goal of social change.

  7. #7 llewelly
    June 20, 2007


    What an incredible disconnect there is. Sarcastic snips like this (or worse) have all too often been prevalent in the online responses to ideas about framing.

    It’s easily explained by your previous statement:

    If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins

    To most atheism advocates, this statement is about offensive as comparing atheism advocacy to child molestation. It’s quite surprising, actually, that any of these folks are willing to read anything else you have to say.

  8. #8 Chris Mooney
    June 20, 2007

    I think that’s a bit overboard.

    In retrospect, though, I would agree that the criticism of Dawkins should have been conveyed in a different way (though it sounds much worse without the sentences that follow it). And I’ll take responsibility for that.

  9. #9 Harry
    June 20, 2007

    While celebrity “endorsements” are one tool in helping frame science for the general public, they are far from ideal.

    First, using popular or “hip” culture to promote a cause makes that cause subject to the whimsical nature of pop culture. When people tie Third World debt relief (or worse, world poverty in general) to Bono, then people’s concern over the subject will be swayed on some level by their feelings for Bono. While this helps in some cases, it makes some people (many times those in power) dismiss a cause as liberal Hollywood piffle. Similarly, as youth culture moves on to the latest cool celebrity, then their attention will wane from yesterday’s cause.

    Second, a celebrity cheerleader will often get interviewed in lieu of an expert, which often requires the celebrity to speak extemporaneously about a scientific matter. And when pressed long enough or hard enough, a nonscientist (and admitttedly, some scientists even) will misspeak, overstate, confound opinion for fact, or simply say something wrong. This mishap has two major consequences: 1. The general public will be misinformed, and 2. Opponents will use the mistake to discredit the speaker and thus the cause. Unfair and illogical, yes, but that’s the way the modern political arena unfortunately works.

    It’s still a good thing for a celebrity to bring attention to a cause. Those few articles or TV spots will spark something in someone somewhere who may otherwise have remained ignorant. Further, even if it doesn’t necessarily produce a more scientifically literate society, it can temporarily affect human behavior. And if you’re talking about environmental or energy issues, sometimes you don’t care WHY they’re acting better just as long as they ARE acting better. But be careful: today’s hippies often become tomorrow’s yuppies.

    Scientists, environmentalists, and science writers must always be aware of the limitations of the tools at their disposal and use them accordingly.

  10. #10 bad juju
    June 21, 2007

    We all know music is powerful. It moves and motivates us. Makes us feel something. […]Every time I hear his music, I remember the cause.

    The impact of modern pop philosophers and their influence on us is tremendous. In the course of my life I may read Kant, Hume or Locke a few times, but I will listen to “The Rebel Jesus” or “Casino Nation” or “The Pretender” literally hundreds of times, and those words reinforce a particular POV almost passively (I can feel my chemistry changing when the 6-minute homilies play). Same for Dylan. Same for Springsteen. And so on.

    It is very smart to associate the musical conscience with issue awareness — discerning listeners can distinguish between genuine concern and marketing hype. I give credence to the artists that write the message they perform and live — it elevates them to thought leadership.

  11. #11 MCD
    June 22, 2007

    I too agree that pop music can have significant impact and presence in the political world. Music has the wonderful ability to bring people together while cementing melodic melodies in your brain and seeding hopes of a brighter future. It’s a power vehicle that is extremely under used in our current culture. However, you present this idea like its new. The mixing and inter-tangling of pop icons and big time issues was perhaps most effective 40 or 50 years ago. What I would like to know is, were have all the modern day Segars, Guthries,Biaz, and Zimmerman’s disappeared too? If you are lurking in the shadows of a down town bar honing your skills, please, please step forward, a generation desperately needs you.

    The difference between current pop culture and that of Dylan’s era is its lack of sincerity and the glitz and glam that a modern day pop “artist” tends to create. For some reason Dylan didn’t need oversized obnoxious sunglasses or a pseudo badass attitude to show his passion for civil rights, but only his thoughts and his guitar…and occasionally a harmonica. Its great, amazing even, that Bono and Greenday (although they are cliché choices) are having significant impact by dipping their toes into the realm of social and political issues. This awareness is specifically highlighted in Greenday’s latest cover of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, a nod of the hat to democratic socialism. However at times I am left wanting something with a similar message but perhaps more organic and more grass roots.

    As we grow into this new century it’s important to realize that everything is interconnected and very little actually exists in true isolation. The days of stiff borders between political ideals, governing, and popular culture are gone. Perhaps these borders crumbled with greater access to art and music through advanced technology, but I am certain their is no turning back. The free exchange of emotion and idea is the greatest tool a citizenry has. Too really move forward with greater consciousness we must first except our failures and combat them with due diligence and optimism. If that means having Bono on the cover of Vanity Fair then so be it. It is time to simply focus on making right choices that present a greater good for a global community.

    Great job Sheril.

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