The Intersection

…are either dead, not scientists, or not American. They are:

Albert Einstein, 6 percent

Bill Gates, 6 percent

Al Gore, 6 percent

Stephen Hawking, 2 percent

Bill Nye the Science Guy, 2 percent

Ben Franklin, 1 percent

Thomas Edison, 1 percent

Of course, most Americans can’t even identify a living scientist. And note that Bill Nye is actually an engineer.

Details on all this here.

Gee, does anybody else think American science has a massive PR problem?


  1. #1 Steven
    March 22, 2008

    That is bad.

  2. #2 alias Ernest Major
    March 22, 2008

    There is a difference between naming a scientist, and naming a scientific role model – I am of the opinion that you should aspire to be the best you that you can be, not to be like someone else, and consequently don’t find the idea of having a role model congenial, or viscerally comprehensible.

    It can also be argued that in science it is the ideas that count, not the personalities.

    So, the results of this survey may not be quite as bad as painted.

    That said, while I can with a little thought (or reference to my address book and library) come up with the names of living American scientists, since the departure of Feynmann and Gould, none comes to mind as being prominent on the east side of the Atlantic, contrasting with Hawking, Penrose and Dawkins.

  3. #3 Alexandra
    March 22, 2008

    since the departure of Feynmann and Gould, none comes to mind as being prominent on the east side of the Atlantic

    They were not, after all, asked to name American role models, just role models. Why should nationality matter at all?

  4. #4 Brian
    March 22, 2008

    I’m not really shocked by this. We scientists don’t typically seek publicity, and when we do receive it, it often isn’t for the best of reasons. There is no doubt in my mind that this leads to not having many scientists as role models.

  5. #5 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    March 22, 2008

    I am surprised Jane Goodall did not make the list.

  6. #6 Bob Calder
    March 22, 2008

    I have problems with the article and what it takes from the survey. There is an assumption in the article that the man on the street should be able to recall the name of a contemporary scientist. Many scientists’ names are not easy to remember or spell and may not be mentioned in the news in any case. What troubles me is that the release states clearly Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton ARE considered role models! How rational is that?

    The survey asked for science role models. It didn’t ask for living scientists. It didn’t ask for American scientists. The appearance of Bill Gates tends to indicate that people see the computer software business as an extension of computer science. Not a surprise.

    Frankly, I think that if you were to ask the majority of parents at the AAAS meeting, they would be happy for their kids to grow up to be like Dean Kamen or Robert Jarvik.

    Maybe what would work best of all is a commitment by the news industry to give identities to the nameless scientists when their discoveries are part of a story.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    March 22, 2008

    Well, being dead is not so bad for a role model. I looked up Bill Nye to see if he was really not (ever, in his past) a scientist. Interesting career. But no, not a scientist.

    He’s not really an engineer, though. He’s an entertainer. Even when in engineering his claim to fame was making training films. He has a BA in engineering and his advanced degrees are honorary. Even as an engineer, he was an entertainer. From the wikipedia piece:

    “After winning a Steve Martin look-alike contest, Nye began a dual career as an engineer by day and stand-up comic by night.[4] This eventually transitioned into an exclusive entertainment career. “

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 22, 2008

    The American press prefers that at any given time there is one singular Scientist alive to serve as Role Model and someone to interview on anything scientific.

    The historical sequence of Default American Scientists or Science Proxy Figureheads is something like this:

    Benjamin Franklin [6 or 17 January 1706 – 17 April 1790]

    Michael Faraday [22 September 1791 – 25 August 1867]

    Charles Robert Darwin [12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882]

    Jules Gabriel Verne [8 February 1828 – 24 March 1905]

    Simon Newcomb [12 March 1835 – 11 July 1909]

    Thomas Alva Edison [11 February 1847 – 18 October 1931]

    Herbert George Wells [21 September 1866 – 13 August 1946]

    Robert Andrews Millikan [22 March 1868 – 19 December 1953]

    Albert Einstein [14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955]

    Margaret Mead [16 December 1901 – 15 November 1978]

    Rachel Louise Carson [27 May 1907 – 14 April 1964]

    Carl Edward Sagan [9 November 1934 – 20 December 1996]

    Stephen William Hawking [8 January 1942 – ]

    The nature of this list is such that the reigning Science person need not be American, nor a scientist. There are some who should be on the list but are not, or not for long enough, such as Richard Phillips Feynman 11 May 1918 – 15 February 1988], or (currently) Edward Witten [26 August 1951 – ]. But Feynman died too soon to be completely accepted by the Press, or was in Hawking’s shadow TV-wise, and nobody has figured out how to explain Witten to the masses.

    The nature of the feedback loops between what the Press tells the Public and vice versa is hard to quantify. The extent to which schools and textbooks are part of the Press is likewise difficult to say.

    How the Web changes this is not yet clear, but “Bill Gates” being named by Americans as the top Scientist seems indicative of something.

  9. #9 Adam
    March 24, 2008

    It’s nice to see that some adbot picked up the words ‘role models’ and decided that your viewers would want to see a porno called ‘Role Models 2’ starring Hannah Harper.

    If it’s not there when others read this, under ‘Related Ads’ in the right sidebar, a porno was being advertised.

    Who said scientists was good at PR? 🙂

  10. #10 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    March 24, 2008


    Seed’s recently taken up with a new advertiser, Proximic, that attempts to put relevant ads into the sidebar. Unfortunately, we have no control over content.

  11. #11 Chad
    March 24, 2008

    Dude, asking that question is like asking me to name my favorite economist. Give me a break, it doesn’t mean jack.

  12. #12 Kjerstin
    March 26, 2008

    There was an international research project that has recently been wrapped up, aiming at identifying the factors that contribute to young people choosing an education in S&T (more here). It concluded, among other things, that what with young people in developed countries today feeling they have the world at their feet and all options open, good and diverse role models are more important than ever when it comes to making S&T careers attractive – because they compete with “careers” like being famous, being creative, saving the world etc. And meanwhile, the traditional scientific values of objectivity, disinterestedness, let-the-facts-speak-for-themselves, I’m-not-important-my-results-are etc, make scientists exceptionally uninteresting role models. It’s certainly a tricky question, and not at all unimportant.

  13. #13 Markus
    March 27, 2008

    Bill Nye does rock though! I wish they still ran his stuff on, say, Sunday mornings.

  14. #14 the real cmf
    March 31, 2008

    Imagine if PZ Myers et al ( all of those faux-leftist scientists at sciblogs) could actually package themselves as smoothly as Nye? Greg laden seems to be working that angle though–when he can break away from the cult of atheismo-ality that is the 90’s ID politic driven sciborg machine….
    But in defense of Mechanical Engineers everywhere, Nye IS a scientist, as defined by most academies, etc:

    –he’s just not a tone deaf, “preechin’ t’ the quire” often egregiously loudmouthed bioscientist, nor is he an intellectually assaultive atheist–and he does seem to understand the importance of packaging a message into a nice little frame that invokes curiousity, rather than negativity…

    ” So, do you believe in God?” I asked. “You really can’t know,” answered Bill Nye the Controversial Guy…[source: McCalls online]

New comments have been disabled.