What’s the deal with science celebrities?? Declan Fahy explains @US_Conversation

Science celebrities are our de facto science laureates

Declan Fahy, American University

A bill to create a US science laureate is pending in Congress. Climate skeptics reportedly derailed a previous proposal in 2013, fearing President Obama would appoint a scientist who shared his policy goal to curb greenhouse gases.

Akin to the poet laureate position, the honorary one-year laureate appointment would give a respected scientist an official national platform to enhance the public understanding of science and attract students to STEM fields.

When the bill was first introduced in 2013, Wired suggested astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, theoretical physicist Brian Greene and marine biologist Sylvia Earle among other candidates to fill this science ambassador role.

But if the bipartisan 2014 bill succumbs to another fight over the politicization of science, it’s worth considering that perhaps we don’t need a science laureate. We already have de facto spokespeople for science – celebrity scientists.

Celebrity scientists/science ambassadors

I profiled Tyson and Greene at length in my book, The New Celebrity Scientists, which examines how our media-driven celebrity culture produces popular scientific stars. Both have esteemed records in doing exactly the things the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2014 hopes to achieve. Tyson and Greene are exemplars of what the Act calls for: someone who can “embody, demonstrate, and articulate the importance and excitement of scientific research and education.”

For example, in the past few weeks, Tyson stressed his passion and commitment to communication, telling The Washington Post’s Style section, “I’m a servant of the public’s appetite for science, for the universe, for science literacy.”

Tyson’s written several popular science titles, hosted a radio show and podcast StarTalk, as well as a reboot of the path-breaking 1980 TV show Cosmos. Next month he’ll host his own late-night talk show about science on National Geographic Channel. Tyson was named by Discover in 2008 as one of the magazine’s ten most influential people in science. Next month he will be awarded the 2015 Public Welfare Medal by the National Academy of Sciences, for his promotion of science for the public good.

What more public communication could Tyson do even with the honorable distinction as science laureate?

The same is true of Greene. His breakout 1999 popular book The Elegant Universe brought to wide audiences the ideas of his specialist area of string theory. Scholars consider Greene’s book a watershed moment in the popularization and public understanding of this esoteric subject.

He embodied his work. Discover called him “the public face of string theory.” The New York Times once called him “the cutest thing to happen to cosmology since the neutrino.”

After The Elegant Universe, Greene went on to write other well received popular science books. He also hosted two multi-part specials on PBS’s long-running science show, NOVA. With his wife, award-winning television journalist Tracy Day, he founded the World Science Festival, which aims to weave science throughout the rest of our culture. He is also a prime mover behind World science U, an online learning platform for science education.

Could he do more for the public understanding of science as a science laureate?

Deeper engagement via cultural celebs

The fame of Tyson and Greene, I argue in my book, resulted in part from the confluence of two historical trends related to the public understanding of science.


There has, first, been a trend towards scientists becoming cultural celebrities, a movement that had as a pivotal moment the 1980s broadcast of Cosmos presented by Carl Sagan. As the science historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette wrote in her book Science on American Television, “Sagan already had modest fame outside academe. Cosmos now propelled him to international stardom.”

Since then, today’s celebrity culture refracts abstract issues through the prism of personality. As cultural historian Leo Braudy wrote in his The Frenzy of Renown, “human faces are plastered on every idea and event.”

The second historical trend has been towards a deeper engagement with citizens on the part of scientists. Crucially, this involves scientists not speaking from on high as voices of truth or reason. Instead, as science communication researchers Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele noted, it involves inviting citizens to participate in trust-based, two-way conversations about science and its role in society.

For examples of such conversations, listen to Tyson on his StarTalk podcast discussing science and politics with actress and activist Janeane Garofalo. Or discussing science, race and science fiction with Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols.

With his 2011 book The Hidden Reality, Greene sparked valuable conversations about the nature of science. The book explained the multiverse, the idea that our universe might be just one of billions that exist, each with its own particular characteristics. A Nature review criticized the book for presenting not reality but “unproven theoretical possibilities.” On this point, Greene emphasized the value for citizens to understand how scientific knowledge develops, “not just to learn about science that’s all settled, confirmed and in textbooks, but also to capture a picture of vital science in the making.”

Is a celebrity superior to science laureate?

Greene and Tyson are just two examples of prominent scientists doing exactly what a science laureate might do. Others include theoretical physicist Lisa Randall and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. These figures are the public faces of science, who each communicate complex scientific ideas, illuminate the nature of science, and place science at the core of culture.

Their popular stardom sets them apart in another crucial way from a science laureate. The 2014 bill states that the laureate would be appointed by the elite National Academy of Sciences. The post therefore risks being a modern manifestation of a decades-old style of science communication: a talented, establishment scientist accurately transmitting facts to educate the public. But, for citizens, knowledge of science does not lead automatically to appreciation of science.

A scientific celebrity, by contrast, is more inclusive, more populist, and perhaps more democratic. Lasting fame cannot be solely manufactured. As cultural critic Louis Menand explained, a celebrity’s personality must connect deeply with public and social concerns, as Sagan did at the height of the Cold War.

Our popular culture – crucially – granted Tyson and Greene the legitimacy to speak in a sustained way on behalf of science. They cut through political partisanship to connect with the public. Citizens voted them stars.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Of Science and Celebrities…

Featured in Slate, a blog post on female celebrities… and their passion for science.  An interesting perspective, and a warning to be a bit more critical of celebs who advocate for science:

Science, Celebrities, and the Perils of Promotion

Promoting science can be tricky. In general it’s fun and rewarding. I have a passion for science, and I wear it happily for all to see.

But there are minefields afoot. Of course there are people who deny science, and they will let the vitriol flow if you happen to stick a toe into their territory. There’s also the issue of diversity, including topics like women in science as well as people of different backgrounds, color, beliefs, and so on. I’m all for promoting more inclusion in science: the more the merrier! Reality is, and should be, for everyone.

But how to do this, how to actually promote these ideas, can get interesting.

A while back I was skimming my Twitter stream, and saw that my friend Christina Ochoa had retweeted a fun graphic created by Elise Andrew of I F’ing Love Science:


Graphic by Elise Andrew

The picture is titled “Actresses with a passion for science” and shows five such women: Hedy Lamarr, Lisa Kudrow, Mayim Bialik, Natalie Portman, and Danica McKellar. I know how important it is to have good role models for kids and how girls need more support in getting into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Like it or not, actors and other famous people bear weight, so showing famous actresses who love STEM in my opinion is a pretty good thing.

So I retweeted the picture, adding “Love this” to it.

Then things got interesting.

Within minutes I started seeing responses about Dr. Bialik. Yes, “doctor”; she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. The thing is, she also holds a number of beliefs with which I and many others disagree, some of them very strongly. For example, she’s a spokeswoman for a group called Holistic Moms—they support homeopathy, aprovably worthless and arguably dangerous bit of “alternative medicine.” They are also strongly anti-vaccination, and Bialik herself supports anti-vaxxers (she has stated she has not vaccinated her own children, a position I am strongly opposed to).

I knew all this when I retweeted the picture. I’ll admit, I hesitated before doing so, specifically because of this. Is promoting this picture also promoting anti-science beliefs? Looking at the responses on Twitter, a lot of people think so. I see their point, but I also don’t think this is quite so black-and-white.

I do strongly disagree with many of Bialik’s beliefs. But I also know that she is a high-profile actress, starring in The Big Bang Theory where she plays a scientist. Her character, Amy Farrah Fowler, is a biologist and is commonly seen doing work in the lab and talking about her research with her friends. I’m quite fond of her character; she’s a passionate scientist, a decent person, a dork, emotional, analytical, and has trouble being objective when assessing her relationship with her significant other. I know a lot of people like that. I am people like that.

On top of that, Bialik has promoted science herself. For example, I urge you to take a few minutes and watch this delightful video where she does a great job talking up science:

Clearly, she can be a positive role model for science. However, we must have a care. The same people who might be inspired by her pro-science message might look into her more and find that she holds some less-supported beliefs, some that are anti-science.

So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.

But of course we should also be careful not to put celebrities on too high a pedestal. Yes, Bialik has beliefs unsupported by science. But so does everyone. I imagine if we dig into the histories of the other four women shown in the picture we’ll find all sorts of things that go against the foundations of science, just as you would if you examined anybody’s thoughts. I have met my fair share of scientists who believe in one thing or another without evidence, or despite it. Heck, you can find Nobel scientists who fall into that category, ones who have supported clear crackpottery.

I’ll note I’ve dealt with this before when I was at an event with a Miss Utah; though she and I would disagree strongly on a number of topics, she was also an outspoken promoter of STEM, which is why she was there. And I wasglad she was there, doing what she did. Think of it this way: If you knew of someone who did a great job taking down psychics, but also thought global warming was a hoax, would you then stop praising them for their work against psychics? It’s not an either-or thing; I would hope you would continue to praise them where appropriate but also take them to task where needed, too.

While you might dismiss those ideas and think less of the person holding them, that doesn’t necessarily subtract from their contributions to science. In this case, Bialik has done a lot to raise awareness of science and women’s contributions to it. Celebrating her (and the other four actresses) for that is great, and that was the sole purpose of the picture, and it’s appropriate to praise her there.

That doesn’t mean I am forgiving of Bialik’s beliefs at all. And in fact her presence in the picture has brought attention to them, which I think is also a good thing. A lot of folks agree with her when it comes to health issues, and that’s a big problem in this country; I’ve been clear about that for years.

That’s what I meant about this not being black-and-white. We’re all shades of gray, and if you really only want to praise people who are absolutely the perfect icons of science in every way, well, good luck finding them. You’ll be looking a long time.

As for me, I will continue to support science the best I can, and also support women in science. That’s the bigger picture here, and one we should all bear in mind.