More pageantry

Science Cheerleader Darlene Cavalier reports What you don’t know about Ms. Virginia:

Next week, Laura Eilers, AKA Ms. Virginia , will compete for the title of Ms. United States. The Science Cheerleaders–current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and engineering careers–are very fortunate to have Laura as our extremely talented choreographer and creative director.

In school, her favorite science projects included “creating an amoeba structure out of cookie cake and icing, researching anthropologist Dian Fossey and her work with gorillas, as well as engineering a balsa wood structure that could withstand heavy weights. My team and I tested the structure repeatedly and competed with other schools for the strongest balsa structure.”

And, yes, she “most definitely believes evolution should be taught to our children.”

I’m glad to see professional cheerleaders and pageant contestants stepping up and talking about science. It has to have been nerve-wracking for the Miss USA contestants to be asked about the question without time to prep, and I think the awkwardness and “ums” and “likes” and “you knows” in the transcript mostly just reflect how people actually talk, especially when we’re nervous. The substance of the Miss USA pageant answers wasn’t at all impressive, but the fact that the pageant thought Miss USA should be able to speak about science education is impressive.

Ms. Virginia, or “huge science geek” Miss California (now Miss USA), can go into rooms and connect with audiences that just don’t care to listen to anything said by me, or PZ Myers, or Richard Dawkins, or Eugenie Scott. So can a professional cheerleader. And if the goal is to make a more science literate society, it behooves us to make sure that women waving pom poms or wearing a sash with a state name on it are just as ready to talk about the joys of science as a doctor in a white coat or a geologist in dusty jeans.

And at the end of the day, I smile every time I see Cavalier play this video. Because why shouldn’t a little girl at a massive science festival want to be a doctor and a teacher and a cheerleader? How better to encourage all of her dreams than to chat with a former professional cheerleader who is now a doctor and cheers for science? Someone else might see that you can call yourself a science geek and a history geek and still be chosen Miss USA, and decide to take her schooling more seriously. And that’s for the best.

I’ve had some fun with the Miss USA video, but I think it’s worth looking at through a more serious lens, too. Miss New Mexico is a kindergarten teacher, and gave a great answer on evolution. Miss New York (a native of Texas) gave an awful answer, and is training to be a elementary special ed teacher. It’s important that she have at least an elementary understanding of evolution.

But it’s not just a matter of reaching the teachers. All of us are teachers – in the classroom, on blogs and in comment threads, and in our daily conversations. Those pageant contestants are like so many of the people we’re trying to reach. I’d be surprised if pageant contestants don’t read Scienceblogs, or Pandas Thumb, and I’m certain that young women who dream of competing in such pageants do read our blogs. Some sciencebloggers are former cheerleaders, and we’ve surely got some sciencebloggers out there who competed in a pageant at some point. I’m sure such readers see the inherent humor in the word salad produced by some of the Miss USA contestants, but I worry about the possibility that righteous mockery could shade into an attitude that women who care about pageants shouldn’t be expected to know science. They should. And their failure in that instance is our failure, another reminder of how much we have to do across the board to improve science education.

I’m working on a piece for the Scientific American guest blog taking a deeper look at what the Miss USA answers tell us, and I’m working with some researchers on an academic paper or two about it as well.


  1. #1 antifia
    July 14, 2011

    I don’t know if I follow your point well Joshua. Those girls were not asked what they know about evolution, they were asked if it should be taught at school. They were, in fact, being asked to evaluate the merits of it. This is not something to be expected from teenagers (pageant contestants or not) – they haven’t yet acquired the expertise to do that . In fact one of the most recurring elements in their answers is the idea that all the positions should be taught at school so that kids can choose which is best. Here one can clearly see that they still (and perfectly normally) do not understand how things classify as science or not – it reminds me a bit of the first time I was tasked with writing a paper. I told my professor that the objective of my research was to prove that the main cause of the persistently high inflation in Brazil was its innertial nature. He retorted that if I already knew it to be so, there would be no point in researching it. Just like me at that time, kids at this age tend to think that doing science is going around cherry picking “evidence” and arguments that help you support the answer that you have already chosen in advance anyway.

  2. #2 Darlene
    July 14, 2011

    You nailed it, Josh. Every sentence.

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