The Decay of Scientists into Celebrities (with surprisingly short half-life)


We should have seen it coming.  It started with the artists, and now it’s happening to the scientists…like it or not, one of the greatest human endeavours ever conceived is becoming irreversibly cheapened.  I watched an advert this week for a new TV program promising answers to some interesting questions to sport science.  The initial concept I have no qualms with – in fact, on first glance I would probably be quite interested.  The second glance was less inspiring: the first episode invited an in-depth discussion of why men feel such pain at being struck in their reproductive region.  While a bit less high-brow, I still thought the program might still approach the subject with as much intelligence as is possible for such a scatological topic.

What completely turned me off to this program was the voiceover, which patronisingly mentioned that the questions would be answered “by scientists”.  Innocuous enough in print, but the passive-aggressive, derogatory tone placed on the word “scientists” was enough to infuriate me.  The real role of the scientists in the program was revealed – to provide credibility to the program’s statements without providing any proof; to give soundbites watermarked with a “PhD”.

Those who know me will know that I’ve given my share of soundbites, but I’ve given them with the best intentions to what I felt were credible news outlets.  I know full well the dangers of editing – a twenty five minute discussion in earnest about rigorous scientific orthodoxy can easily become a ten second sentence taken out of context interspersed with footage of a guy doing a Star Wars bit (you know who you are, interviewer.  I haven’t forgotten).  That’s not my main point.

My main point is the decay of Science’s reputation in the media.  Scientists are becoming like celebrities in the sense that scientists are asked to appear on TV and in print without any reference to their actual talents.  Stephen Hawking’s latest comments on aliens, etc were indeed relevant and interesting, but why did the media listen? Did they listen because he is an eminent astronomer and cosmologist, whose work in topics such as black holes has been absolutely seminal?  Did they listen because he wrote A Brief History of Time, which sold millions of copies and inspired many young people (including me) to study physics and astronomy?

Maybe some people did listen for those reasons, but I fear that many listened because he was “the smartest guy in the world”, a title achieved for apparently nebulous reasons, and enforced by the romantic concept that his intelligence is somehow “balanced” by his illness in some bitter dramatic irony.  Writing that last sentence left an awful taste in my mouth, but I feel for many people that was the truth, and it is shameful.

Worse than that, it is now the case that people who call themselves “scientists” are allowed to take the stage without even the slightest attempt to check their credibility.  Gillian McKeith is an ideal example.  With what can only be described as a flimsy PhD, she made a series of unsubstantiated statements about nutrition and health, which I won’t bother destroying (Ben Goldacre is better qualified to do so, and does an excellent job in his book Bad Science, which should be on everyone’s reading list).

We should be more concerned with the deeper facts of people.  It’s very easy to consider the cover rather than the book, and satisfy ourselves with a shallow view.  But it’s the facts within the pages that are usually the most interesting.  I would rather Hawking was remembered for Hawking radiation, and McKeith ridiculed for her faecophilia and her bizarre statements regarding colour in foods.  Most of all, I would rather be remembered for my contributions to Science than for my TV appearances – especially the ones alongside the cantina band.

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