Pharyngula

We are not Geoffrey Beene’s Kids!

Jerry Lewis, the comedian, hosts a yearly telethon to raise money for children with muscular dystrophy. I find it entirely unwatchable, because it comes across as patronizing and condescending, and seeing Jerry Lewis mug for the camera and present himself as the loving, maudlin hero trying to save these pathetic, pitiful wretches makes me want to kick him in the balls. I think he means well and he does want to raise money for a worthy charity, but by turning the ill into their disease he diminishes them. And by talking down to them and referring to people with muscular dystrophy as “Jerry’s Kids”, he doesn’t make them look better — he holds himself above them and trivializes the human victims of the disease. It also backfires; the term “Jerry’s Kids” has become an insult. Just ask the Urban Dictionary.

Jerrys Kids is a derogatory reference to the the socialy retarded, mentaly challenged, inbred looking, trailer park hilbillys that appear on the Jerry Springer or individuals of simular appearance show. taken from the Jerry Lewis chairitable telethon.

(Whatever incompetent wrote that, by the way, makes himself look like that which he describes. It isn’t even a good description of a muscular wasting disease.)

Dignity isn’t something that can be bestowed on another, it can only be taken away. And Jerry Lewis has been stripping away people’s dignity for a long, long time.

Marty Robbins has exposed a similar campaign on behalf of scientists that can similarly only harm. The Geoffrey Beene Foundation had the well-meaning but entirely awful idea of trying to help the image of scientists by having them pose with a collection of third-tier or has-been rock stars. Oh, look at these sad, uninteresting nobodies who never do anything exciting. How can we help them? I know! We’ll let them get their picture taken with Debbie Harry or Jay Sean…that’ll add a little glamor to their dull, drab lives.

It sends a message. Scientists aren’t interesting in their own right, so they can be lofted out of pitiful obscurity simply by snapping their photo with someone who is really accomplished, you know, a pop star who can look pretty while rhyming. I’m sure it was very sweet for Heart and Elizabeth Blackburn to pose together, but it is incredibly condescending to think that a frickin’ Nobel Prize winner needs a photo op like that to enhance her reputation. She doesn’t need celebrity endorsements.

Yes, I know: Americans are stupid, they don’t know a thing about telomeres, but they admire Dolly Parton’s bust, so you could argue that we need to bootstrap science into the public consciousness by first appealing to what they do know. I actually think that’s a reasonable idea. But running ads in GQ magazine is a bad way to do it. There is no connection made between interesting people doing exciting science, no attempt made to communicate science in a way that people could understand — instead, we get a throw-away gimmick of having smart people stand next to popular entertainers, as if glitz were infectious.

How does this work? Do the scientists win when one gets to appear in a Lady Gaga video, when Angeline Jolie adopts one, or when P. Diddy lets one into his entourage? Being associated with pop stars does not improve science education one whit unless what makes them cool is their science, not their association with a famous non-scientist.

I’m not alone in feeling that this is futile and patronizing. Other scientists are reacting the same way: ERV doesn’t like it, and Jerry Coyne is unimpressed. Ophelia Benson thinks it is superficial, and she’s right. The only people who think this is a winner of an idea are the rockstars of accommodationism, who’ve always been light on the substance anyway.

Try again, Geoffrey Beene. You’ll get praise for your work in popularizing science when you can let scientists shine by their own light, instead of merely reflecting the dim luster of a few remote stars.