Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Cerebral celebrities: do superstar scientists harm science?

One of my earliest blog posts concerned the media circus surrounding two of the most famous scientists alive today: British physicist Stephen Hawking and his compatriot the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In addition to their scientific output, they are known in public circles thanks to a combination of their general readership books, television documentaries and charismatic personalities. The question has to be asked though, how much of their reputation is due to their being easily-caricatured and therefore media-friendly characters rather than what they have contributed to human knowledge?

Social media has done much to democratise the publication of material from a far wider range of authors than previously possible, but the current generation of scientific superstars who have arisen in the intervening eight years appear party to a feedback loop that places personality as the primary reason for their media success. As a result, are science heroes such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox merely adding the epithet 'cool' to STEM disciplines as they sit alongside the latest crop of media and sports stars? With their ability to fill arenas usually reserved for pop concerts or sports events, these scientists are seemingly known far and wide for who they are as much as for what they have achieved. It might seem counterintuitive to think that famous scientists and mathematicians could be damaging STEM, but I'd like to put forward five ways by which this could be occurring:

1: Hype and gossip

If fans of famous scientists spend their time reading, liking and commenting at similarly trivial levels, they may miss important material from other, less famous sources. A recent example that caught my eye was a tweet by British astrophysicist and presenter Brian Cox, containing a photograph of two swans he labelled ‘Donald' and ‘Boris'. I assume this was a reference to the current US president and British foreign secretary, but with over a thousand 'likes' by the time I saw it I wonder what other, more serious, STEM-related stories might have been missed in the rapid ebb and flow of social media.

As you would expect with popular culture fandom the science celebrities' material aimed at a general audience receives the lion's share of attention, leaving the vast majority of STEM popularisations under-recognised. Although social media has exacerbated this, the phenomenon does pre-date it. For example, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was first published in 1988, the same year as Timothy Ferris's Coming of Age in the Milky Way, a rather more detailed approach to similar material that was left overshadowed by its far more famous competitor. There is also the danger that celebrities with a non-science background might try to cash in on the current appeal of science and write poor-quality popularisations. If you consider this unlikely, you should bear in mind that there are already numerous examples of extremely dubious health, diet and nutrition books written by pop artists and movie stars. If scientists can be famous, perhaps the famous will play at being science writers.

Another result of this media hubbub is that in order to be heard, some scientists may be guilty of the very hype usually blamed on the journalists who publicise their discoveries. Whether to guarantee attention or self-promoting in order to gain further funding, an Australian research team recently came under fire for discussing a medical breakthrough as if a treatment was imminent, despite having so are only experimented on mice! This sort of hyperbole both damages the integrity of science in the public eye and can lead to such dangerous outcomes as the MMR scandal, resulting in large numbers of children not being immunised.

2: Hero worship

The worship of movie stars and pop music artists is nothing new and the adulation accorded them reminds me of the not dissimilar veneration shown to earlier generations of secular and religious leaders. The danger here then is for impressionable fans to accept the words of celebrity scientists as if they were gospel and so refrain from any form of critical analysis. When I attended an evening with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson last month I was astonished to hear some fundamental misunderstandings of science from members of the public. It seemed as if Dr Tyson had gained a personality cult who hung on each utterance but frequently failed to understand the wider context or key issues regarding the practice of science. By transferring hero worship from one form of human activity to another, the very basis - and differentiation - that delineates the scientific enterprise may be undermined.

3: Amplifying errors

Let's face it, scientists are human and make mistakes. The problem is that if the majority of a celebrity scientist's fan base are prepared to lap up every statement, then the lack of critical analysis can generate further issues. There are some appalling gaffes in the television documentaries and popular books of such luminaries as Sir David Attenborough (as previously discussed) and even superstar Brian Cox is not immune: his 2014 book Human Universe described lunar temperatures dropping below -2000 degrees Celsius! Such basic errors imply that the material is ghost-written or edited by authors with little scientific knowledge and no time for fact checking. Of course this may embarrass the science celebrity in front of their potentially jealous colleagues, but more importantly can serve as ammunition for politicians, industrialists and pseudo-scientists in their battles to persuade the public of the validity of their own pet theories - post-truth will out, and all that nonsense.

4: Star attitude

With celebrity status comes the trappings of success, most usually defined as a luxury lifestyle. A recent online discussion here in New Zealand concerned the high cost of tickets for events featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and later this year, Brian Cox. Those for Auckland-based events were more expensive than tickets to see Kiwi pop star Lorde and similar in price for rugby matches between the All Blacks and British Lions. By making the tickets this expensive there is little of chance of attracting new fans; it seems to be more a case of preaching to the converted.

Surely it doesn't have to be this way: the evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, gave an excellent free illustrated talk at Auckland Museum a year ago. It seems odd that the evening with Dr Tyson, for example, consisting of just himself, interviewer Michelle Dickinson (A.K.A. Nanogirl) and a large screen, cost approximately double that of the Walking with Dinosaurs Arena event at the same venue two years earlier, which utilised US$20 million worth of animatronic and puppet life-sized dinosaurs.

Dr Tyson claims that by having celebrity interviewees on his Star Talk series he can reach a wider audience, but clearly this approach is not feasible when his tour prices are so high. At least Dr Goodall's profits went into her conservation charity, but if you consider that Dr Tyson had an audience of probably over 8000 in Auckland alone, paying between NZ$95-$349 (except for the NZ$55 student tickets) you have to wonder where all this money goes: is he collecting ‘billions and billions' of fancy waistcoats? It doesn't look as if this trend will soon stop either, as Bill Nye (The Science Guy) has just announced that he will be touring Australia later this year and his tickets start at around NZ$77.

5: Skewing the statistics

The high profiles of sci-comm royalty and their usually cheery demeanour implies that all is well in the field of scientific research, with adequate funding for important projects. However, even a quick perusal of less well-known STEM professionals on social media prove that this is not the case. An example that came to my attention back in May was that of the University of Auckland microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who had to resort to crowdfunding for her research into fungi-based antibiotics after five consecutive funding submissions were rejected. Meanwhile, Brian Cox's connection to the Large Hadron Collider gives the impression that even such blue-sky research as the LHC can be guaranteed enormous budgets.

As much as I'd like to thank these science superstars for promoting science, technology and mathematics, I can't quite shake the feeling that their cult status is too centred on them rather than the scientific enterprise as a whole.  Now more than ever science needs a sympathetic ear from the public, but this should be brought about by a massive programme to educate the public (they are the taxpayers, after all) as to the benefits of such costly schemes as designing nuclear fusion reactors and the research on climate change. Simply treating celebrity scientists in the same way as movie stars and pop idols won't help an area of humanity under siege from so many influential political and industrial leaders with their own private agendas. We simply mustn't allow such people to misuse the discipline that has raised us from apemen to spacemen.