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In January, Lawrence Krauss wrote a very nice feature article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, titled “Scientists as celebrities: Bad for science or good for society?” In his essay, he reflects on the rise to popularity of Einstein, Sagan, Feynman, Hawking, and deGrasse Tyson.Krauss, not so surprisingly, concludes that scientific achievement is neither necessary nor sufficient for popularity, and that society benefits from scientists’ voices in public debate. He does not however address the other part of the question that his essay’s title raises: Is scientific celebrity bad for science?
I have to admit that people who idolize public figures just weird me out. It isn’t only that I am generally suspicious of groups of any kinds and avoid crowds like the plague, but that there is something creepy about fans trying to outfan each other by insisting their stars are infallible. It’s one thing to follow the lives of popular figures, be happy for them and worry about them. It’s another thing to elevate their quotes to unearthly wisdom and preach their opinion like supernatural law.
Years ago, I unknowingly found myself in a group of Feynman fans who were just comparing notes about the subject of their adoration. In my attempt to join the discussion I happily informed them that I didn’t like Feynman’s books, didn’t like, in fact, his whole writing style. The resulting outrage over my blasphemy literally had me back out of the room.
Sorry, have I insulted your hero?
An even more illustrative case is that of Michael Hale making a rather innocent joke about a photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson on twitter, and in reply getting shot down with insults. You can find some (very explicit) examples in the writeup of his story “How I Became Thousands of Nerds' Worst Enemy by Tweeting a Photo.” After blowing up on twitter, his photo ended up on the facebook page “I Fucking Love Science.” The best thing about the ensuing facebook thread is the frustration of several people who apparently weren’t able to turn off notifications of new comments. The post has been shared more than 50,000 times, and Michael Hale now roasts in nerd hell somewhere between Darth Vader and Sauron.
Does this seem like scientist’s celebrity is beneficial to balanced argumentation? Is fandom ever supportive to rational discourse?
I partly suspect that Krauss, like many people his age and social status, doesn’t fully realize the side-effects that social media attention brings, the trolls in the blogosphere’s endless comment sections and the anonymous insults in the dark corners of forum threads. I agree with Krauss that it’s good that scientists voice their opinions in public. I’m not sure that celebrity is a good way to encourage people to think on their own. Neither, for that matter, are facebook pages with expletives in the title.
Be that as it may, pop star scientists serve, as Steve Fuller put it bluntly, as “marketing”
“The upshot is that science needs to devote an increased amount of its own resources to what might be called pro-marketing.”Agreed. And for that reason, I am in favor of scientific celebrity, even though I doubt that idolization can ever bring insight. But let us turn now to the question what ill effects celebrity can have on science.
Many of those who become scientists report getting their inspiration from popular science books, shows, or movies. Celebrities clearly play a big role in this pull. One may worry that the resulting interest in science is then very focused on a few areas that are the popular topics of the day. However, I don’t see this worry having much to do with reality. What seems to happen instead is that young people, once their interest is sparked, explore the details by themselves and find a niche that they fit in. So I think that science benefits from popular science and its voices by inspiring young people to go into science.
The remaining worry that I can see is that scientific pop stars affect the interests of those already active in science. My colleagues always outright dismiss the possibility that their scientific opinion is affected by anything or anybody. It’s a nice demonstration of what psychologists call the “bias blind spot”. It is well documented that humans pay more attention to information that they receive repeatedly and in particular if it comes from trusted sources. This was once a good way to extract relevant information in a group of 300 fighting for survival. But in the age of instant connectivity and information overflow, it means that our interests are easy to play.
If you don’t know what I mean, imagine that deGrasse Tyson had just explained he read my recent paper and thinks it’s totally awesome. What would happen? Well, first of all, all my colleagues would instantly hate me and proclaim that my paper is nonsense without even having read it. Then however, a substantial amount of them would go and actually read it. Some of them would attempt to find flaws in it, and some would go and write follow-up papers. Why? Because the papal utterance would get repeated all over the place, they’d take it to lunch, they’d discuss it with their colleagues, they’d ask others for opinion. And the more they discuss it, the more it becomes interesting. That’s how the human brain works. In the end, I’d have what the vast majority of papers never gets: attention.
That’s a worry you can have about scientific celebrity, but to be honest it’s a very constructed worry. That’s because pop star scientists rarely if ever comment on research that isn’t already very well established. So the bottomline is that while it could be bad for science, I don’t think scientific celebrity is actually bad for science, or at least I can’t see how.
The above mentioned problem of skewing scientific opinions by selectively drawing attention to some works though is a real problem with the popular science media, which doesn’t shy away from commenting on research which is still far from being established. The better outlets, in the attempt of proving their credibility, stick preferably to papers of those already well-known and decorate their articles with quotes from more well-known people. The result is a rich-get-richer trend. On the very opposite side, there’s a lot of trash media that seem to randomly hype nonsense papers in the hope of catching readers with fat headlines. This preferably benefits scientists who shamelessly oversell their results. The vast majority of serious high quality research, in pretty much any area, goes largely unnoticed by the public. That, in my eyes, is a real problem which is bad for science.
My best advice if you want to know what physicists really talk about is to follow the physics societies or their blogs or journals respectively. I find they are reliable and trustworthy information sources, and usually very balanced because they’re financed by membership fees, not click rates. Your first reaction will almost certainly be that their news are boring and that progress seems incremental. I hate to spell it out, but that’s how science really is.