Do cheerleaders and rock stars promote science education?

November 25, 2010 • 10:34 am

Over at ERV, Abbeh analyzes the new campaign that tries to make scientists “cool” by juxtaposing them with rock stars in GQ magazine.  Her conclusion (couched in language unprintable on a family website):  well, maybe such expensive brouhaha helps science education a bit, but there’s not a scintilla of evidence to back up those stentorian and ubiquitous claims.  So far it’s all just speculation and wishful thinking—a bunch of sizzle but no sign of beef.

Abbeh offers some alternative advice:

Every scientist I know has 1, cool research and 2, a ‘cool’ aspect of their lives. If you genuinely want scientists, as a profession, to become ‘cool’ like rock stars, you need to start with getting scientists to connect their research to their ‘cool’ selves. [n.b. Abbeh’s is kick boxing].  As in, going out and being a part of their communities. Most people dont know a scientist, so get out there and mingle.

Or you know what? Maybe just accept people how they are, cool or not. Appreciate their science and their contributions to society and humanity, just like I appreciate the girl helping me find the toothpaste on sale at CVS, or the guy changing the oil in my car (I DO NOT UNDERSTAND CARS), or the cops trying to find my stalker.

Not everyone has to fucking be ‘cool’.

‘Cool’ is superficial crap that means nothing when contrasted with the ability to help people, in any capacity.

I’m on board with ERV here.  In the absence of any evidence that these campaigns do a lot for science, it’s annoying to hear the Great Communicators tell us, “This is how it must be done.”  Rather than stand next to Justin Bieber and become cool via osmosis (gag), I prefer to write popular books and lecture to lay audiences.

As I wrote in my review for Science of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America, which also promoted a “cool science” approach (Mooney is a major force behind the GQ scientist/rock star fusion):

More than at any time in my life, I see Americans awash in popular science. Bookstores teem with volumes by Stephen Gould, Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, Edward O. Wilson, and Jared Diamond; natural history museums have become user friendly; and entire television channels are devoted to science and nature. Science education is readily available to anyone who is curious. And yes, we scientists need—and want—to share our love of science with the public. Still, we must compete with the infinite variety of claims on people’s time and interests, including sports, movies, and reality shows. No matter how much atheists stifle themselves, no matter how many scientists reach out to the public via new media, we may not find the appetite for science infinitely elastic. This does not mean, of course, that we should refrain from feeding it. But figuring out where and how to intervene will take a lot more work than the shallow and unreflective analysis of Unscientific America.


UPDATE: Butterflies and Wheels discusses the same issue.  And don’t forget to check out Sigmund’s “rock stars of accommodationism,” as he mentions in the comments below.

33 thoughts on “Do cheerleaders and rock stars promote science education?

  1. It would indeed be very nice if everyone would throw the idea of “cool” right straight out the window. I don’t think science needs to be cool, or flashy. It’s damned interesting no matter what the label. But, when we are talking to some self conscience teenagers, it can sometimes help a little. People like Dr. Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, who walks the tightrope, can bring a little more acceptance to what some think of as nerdiness.
    Nonetheless, it would be nice to see people just fall in love with science for what it is. It has brought me a lot of comfort.

  2. The problem with “cool” is that it’s very subjective. I think The Selfish Gene is one of the coolest things I’ve ever read because of how simply and understandably it describes evolution, and I think my friends are cool because they’re all intelligent people. This isn’t exactly a normal standard for “cool” by any means.

  3. Dang, I wish I had more people like Abby around me. Intelligent and interesting people are pretty rare – even though there are a lot of them on the planet.

    Different folks are interested in different things; kids need to be given the opportunity to learn stuff and to work at what interests them. By the time they’re halfway through high school you can usually tell whether they have an interest in the sciences or not. At that stage no amount of rock stars can convert them nor adequately prepare them for college. Even if a kid does have interests while younger, if they’re not in an environment conducive to learning, odds are they won’t make it. Imagine a whole bunch of kids who wanted to be scientists because of a rock star and who couldn’t make it. It would be a bit like CSI and all the people who were interested in forensics because of the silly things they saw on TV – then they learn that CSI is nothing like the real world. Besides, many (most) folks just don’t want to be scientists. They should be encouraged to learn what they wish to and to be good at it. Personally I believe there are already far too many mediocre scientists on the planet.

    So – rock stars? I don’t think so. Programs like Sagan’s oft touted Cosmos? I think that’s genuinely helpful; I don’t know if it would convert any significant number of people into scientists but it helps people understand a bit more about their world and what scientists are doing to understand it. I say we need more TV shows where people learn to discover things. Cosmos was much more of “A did B and came up with the result C” but it did have its moments where the story was told well and the audience could get a better idea of what went on. What the audience doesn’t get an idea of is how long it takes to make any progress.

  4. Meh. I am a mediocre mathematician (modest publication record) but I am a unrepentant nerd.

    People are who they are.

    Someone who needs some superficial reason to consider science isn’t going to have success; learning science (and mathematics) is hard work and you aren’t going to do it if you don’t have that love of it.

    1. I wouldn’t say modest publication record = mediocre. I haven’t published much because I’ve spent my time working on commercial contracts; companies aren’t crazy about people publishing their secrets. I’ve even known a few scientists who do a lot of work for their own amusement – they don’t publish much because they have no need to. When I complain that they should publish so other people can see what’s been done they just shrug and say they don’t care – they’ve done the bit that interests them.

  5. If teens are good at anything, they’re good at sniffing out something inauthentic masquerading as cool (e.g., leather jackets and Brett Michaels).

  6. I’d say that paragraph from JC’s UA review is important to remember. Science is more accessible and media-touted than ever. (Sometimes I even wonder if it’s possible to overdo things–one PBS animal documentary begins to sound just like all the rest after a while…)

    I’d also been thinking along the same lines as gilt above–there’s nothing less cool than trying to be cool. And it’s often the happy eccentrics who couldn’t care less about attention who end up the most lionized.

  7. In the Sept/Oct 2009 Humanist, Neil deGrasse Tyson gets in a dig at K-12 science teachers because 3/4 of them do not watch thirty to forty hours of television per week, the amount watched by the average American.

    Tyson claims that “that disconnect is pedagogically fatal,” and says that “it’s your job to get them (students) interested enough to want to listen (and get interested in science). “Otherwise, do not count yourself amongst the rest of the educators; take up another field of work.”

    He also goes on to say that he doesn’t “mean the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about “Dancing with the Stars.” I’m talking about the reality shows that most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. He says elsewhere that “you have to know what Paris Hilton is up to; yes, you have to have seen some sporting events,” to engage the public with what interests them “as a stepping stone or as metaphor or as a means of fleshing out a conversation in ways that have the emotional, intellectual and cultural relevance to that audience.” Otherwise, one is not communicating.

    Does that public audience have no similar obligation in return to give an ear to science? Science’s appeal should be based on its own merits. No one had to get up and do cartwheels and double backward somersaults to get me interested in science. Scientists and science educators do not require the public/students to get engaged in the formers’ own cultural interests (though, in an effort to “engage” certain students [get them to stop talking and to pay attention], I have gotten up in front of students and done the “chicken noodle soup”/”Let it rain, clear it out” ‘song,’ if a song it actually be).

    I think that “cool” should be consigned to oblivion, and that “groovy” should rise from the ashes.

    And I’m with the “Bizarro” cartoonist when he has a husband say to his wife watching television, “When it becomes ‘Stars Dancing Off a Cliff,’ I’ll watch.”

      1. Most of the time I find Tyson very sensible, though I wouldn’t agree that teachers should watch more TV and in particular the pop shows. If you need to find some tenuous connection between Sponge Bob and Mendelian inheritance (or just about any pairing of nonsense with what the students need to learn), that’s not communicating. There’s a lot of stuff not on TV that you can direct your audience’s attention to – and I prefer that since it takes people away from TV. I’d rather have a kid bringing some roadkill inside to dissect or running outside with a squirtgun in the winter and spraying the window with water.

        1. If the teachers I know are anything to go by, they’re not watching forty hours of TV a week because they’re too busy marking homework, drawing up lesson plans, organising class excursions and running extracurricular activities for students.

          But no, they should be watching “Dancing with the Stars” instead.

  8. Great, it is not bad enough that smart, intelligent, introspective, curious and shy people have to cope with the bullying and stigma that comes with being a nerd, now nerds have to be cool as well?

    I don’t know if the Mooneys of the world have noticed, but most people that are attracted to being scientists are not cool, and are very happy to be good at something that does not require coolness. I suspect this is more of a case of the Mooneys of the world wanting to be considered cool, but took an unfortunate roll of the genetic dice and turned out the be nerds. Maybe this is a case of self-hating nerds syndrome?

  9. I share the skepticism about marketing scientists as having a particular persona, whether that’s “cool” or anything else. The gender sterotyping associated with the whole “rock star/cheerleader” image is pretty troubling, too. I notice the title of this entry also mentions cheerleaders; people might be interested in discussions about a move for women to be “Science Cheerleaders” over on Thus Spake Zuska:

    There is a more recent entry that follows up on the topic.

    1. I think its cute in that one she 1) completely degrades the brains of the women on the Science Cheerleading team because theyre cheerleaders, 2) degrades women who act feminine, 3) has no clue what cheerleaders do (its more than cheering sports teams on).

      Bitter, hateful woman.

      ‘Science Rock Stars’ is *not* about showing off scientists who are also musicians (see my point #2 in my post). ‘Science Cheerleaders’ *is* about showing off scientists who are also cheerleaders (again, see my point #2). My *boss*, a man, paid for his undergraduate degree with a cheerleading scholarship.

      I dont have any more problem with ‘Science Cheerleaders’ than I have for my own strategy of ‘Science MMA’.

      1. 3) has no clue what cheerleaders do

        I see this response a lot. While I am familiar with the rigor & athleticism of today’s competitive cheer squads, I think you’re ignoring the far more common pop-culture picture of cheerleading, one that comports more with the NFL idea of them than with competitive cheer.

    2. Oh my god, her last entry is repulsive. Lordy lordy, everybody knows poor colorerd girls caint cheer, they cant relate to any of the numerous women of color on the ‘Science Cheerleading’ squad.


      Im going to puke up last nights Thanksgiving dinner now, Marlene, LOL!!!


  10. Cool is useless. The building-blocks of cool (as popularly understood) are superficial inanities, to be charitable. And often, cool is projected by assuming an attitude of not caring about things. Detestable. And it really can’t be achieved via osmosis. Even Idiot America will see thru that ruse. It’s so demoralizing that so many people don’t find the pursuit of knowledge engaging, or “cool” if we must, to say nothing of recognizing it’s necessity.

  11. I could not, by sight, recognize any of the celebrities. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m an uncool science major or because the campaign is an epic fail.

  12. Drs Brian May and Brian Cox are at least arguably cool (either would look good in shades and a beret); and both used to be rock stars. Maybe there’s just something about a Brian . . .

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