Celebrities and Attention Police

While I'm running unrelated articles head-on into each other, two other things that caught my eye recently were Sabine Hossenfelder's thoughts on scientific celebrities (taking off from Lawrence Krauss's defense of same) and Megan Garber's piece on "attention policing", spinning off that silliness about a badly exposed photo of a dress that took the Internet by storm.

Like Sabine, I'm generally in favor of the idea of science celebrities, though as someone whose books are found on shelves between Lawrence Krauss's and Neil deGrasse Tyson's, there's no small amount of self-interest in that. But I think it's generally good to direct more public attention to science-y things, by whatever means necessary. Which is why I spent an afternoon a month or so back with a cameraman filming me putting footballs in a freezer.

I do share the concern, though, about the attention-steering effects of celebrity. Sabine describes this within the context of science as a hypothetical involving Neil deGrasse Tyson publicly mentioning one of her papers. I think that hypothetical is already a reality outside of science, though, with the vagaries of celebrity meaning that the public image of science is largely drawn from a handful of photogenic fields with charismatic proponents at the expense of a much larger range of science with more direct impact on daily life.

The APS March Meeting takes place this week, and will be the largest physics meeting of the year. It probably won't generate publicity in proportion to its attendance, though, because it's largely focused on condensed matter physics, and that's just not as sexy as astrophysics or particle physics. And that can be pretty frustrating for people in March Meeting research fields.

(This is not entirely the fault of the celebrities themselves-- Cosmos did make an effort to include some stuff from other fields of science, and Brian Cox has expanded his tv-presenter empire to include biological topics. the problem, though, is that celebrity isn't transferrable, and so doing this necessarily means having people who attained fame via work in one field out in the media talking about fields that can be pretty far removed from their areas of expertise. Which can be even more frustrating, particularly when the new topics aren't handled well.)

At the same time, though, "you're insufficiently interested in the stuff I consider important" is the battle cry of the humorless scold, as described in Garber's piece at the Atlantic (same link as above, to save you scrolling back up). Which is why I spend a lot of time on Twitter scrolling past stuff that I think is pointless, biting back snide replies. There's no accounting for taste, and all that, and you're not going to get people to stop caring about whatever weird shit they've decided to care about by telling them that it's unimportant trash. All you're going to do is piss them off.

So, as irritating as it can be to see celebrity-driven attention going disproportionately to a handful of fields, it's also important not to get too worked up about that and start yelling at people, because that doesn't really do any good. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony of saying this in a post where I just finished complaining that people are insufficiently interested in things I consider important. You're very clever, now shut up.)

All you can really do is work with the system as much as you can to promote what you like, and when something catches on, run with it as far as you can. Which is why, while I have no interest in reading any of the umpteen pieces on the science of color perception that were rushed out in the wake of the silly dress business, I applaud the scientists who produced them. Ride that horse until it collapses under you, because you might not get another chance.

So, you know, as with so many other things, there's a needle to thread here. Celebrity is probably a net positive, but you need to be cautious about its attention-directing effects. At the same time, though, getting too caught up in the misdirection of attention by celebrity communicators is a short fast road to frustration and the writing of crankily contrarian books.

More like this

Well, everything nano and graphene goes all over the news, functional materials, new super glues, and self-cleaning this and that all count as condensed matter in my book. Things I basically never read about in the pop sci media: statistical mechanics, mathematical physics, all things lattice. No, I'm not really complaining, just my impression.

I agree that it's kinda futile to blame people for being interested in what they're interested in, but it doesn't hurt to ask for diversity every now and then. Maybe it's just me, but I sometimes think that if you look into the details of pretty much any topic, it starts becoming interesting (with the possible exception of bingo).

I have only one caveat. No problem with celebrity being used to generate awareness, interest, even funding support. Problem I have is with "holier than thou" so-called-scientists claiming to scientifically rational when arguing with (or putting down) those they accuse of non-rational by their standards. Hypocrisy.

By Ian Glendinning (not verified) on 02 Mar 2015 #permalink

"... telling them that it’s unimportant trash. All you’re going to do is piss them off."

As we say in the South: It's like teaching baseball to a pig. It frustrates you and annoys the hell out of the pig.

By JohnGalt47 (not verified) on 02 Mar 2015 #permalink

Just what is important? Perhaps we need politicians to tell us and not scientists eh? Scientists are certainly good at telling us what is interesting. Carl Sagan loved that. They are very good at inventing things that end up giving us endless trouble, like the internal combustion engine, and then telling us how to overco.e. the

By magnocrat (not verified) on 02 Mar 2015 #permalink

I don't think that a physicist presenting a show about biology is a bad idea. Indeed, scientists often do a poor job of popularizing their own fields because they are too close to the subject matter and struggle to make it interesting or relevant to a general audience. A physicist presenting biology (or a biologist presenting physics) on the other hand comes armed with a general understanding of how science works -- which means they should know when to seek expertise -- as well as a prior knowledge that is more similar to their audience.

By Hamish Johnston (not verified) on 02 Mar 2015 #permalink

Hi Dr. Orzel, I am an astrophysicist who has spent 10 years in the US doing PhD and post-doc. I am a frequent reader of your blog but never commented before. This topic happens to be close to my heart and I have discussed this with colleagues and friends in the past.
I have an impression that particle and astro physicists have taken significantly more initiative to "popularize" their respective fields than their March meeting colleagues. This may be driven by the fact that they have much less "industry funding" and have to depend on tax payers' money.
I agree that the inherent appeal of astro and particle physics is more to the "public" but the above may be an important factor. I have noticed that condensed matter popular level talks are, on average, less well-executed than those given by the April meeting people.

By Ritaban Chatterjee (not verified) on 03 Mar 2015 #permalink

Oh come on Chad. Quantum weirdness, the origin of the universe, black holes and what the universe is fundamentally made of just *are* more interesting topics than condensed matter physics. The public has it right and it is rather the physics community that is unreasonably biased towards less interesting fields. Note that I am saying this surrounded by condensed matter physicists at the March meeting, one of them might hit me if they see what I am writing, and I may be biased by the number of 10min talks I have sat through in the last two days.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 03 Mar 2015 #permalink

Yeah, well, it serves you right for going to 10-minute talks. Why would you inflict that on yourself?

One good thing about condensed matter (and other unsexy fields) is that it is of absolutely no interest to crackpots...so you can have a rational online discussion about it!

By Hamish Johnston (not verified) on 03 Mar 2015 #permalink

Speaking as a science journalist, I think the problem with a lot of condensed matter physics is that it's awfully hard to explain in relatively simple terms that get across why it is important. I know some people count nanotech as condensed matter. But in other areas the issue is that it just takes a lot of background to get it right. That makes it harder to write up a sexy pitch for an editor.

I always ask scientists what's interesting about their work to other people in the field and more than once I have found that the answer differs from what I (or other non - experts) see as interesting.

Some of this is an inevitable result of learning more. That is, the Higgs was an easy pitch; "it's the particle that gives everything mass" is a simple concept. But when I try to tell a non-scientist why finding the exact mass of a neutrino is important then it gets harder to do even though that is a very active area of research.