On scientists, cheerleaders, and rockstars

There’s been a lot of talk on scienceblogs over the past few weeks about the usefulness of a pair of science outreach programs: namely, “science cheerleaders” and “rockstars of science”.  The original “science cheerleader is Darlene Cavalier, who was inspired to start the “science cheerleaders” to improve scientific literacy, promote citizen scientists and inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers.  To get a sense for their activities, here’s a video of their recent performance at the U.S.A. Science and Engineering Festival:

The “Rockstars of Science” campaign is also geared towards promoting science; for the past two years, it has paired famous musicians with revolutionary researchers, in an effort to portray the researchers as “celebrities” in their own way:

The “Rockstars of Science” images were printed in GQ magazine in mid-November, thus sparking the recent discussion.

Lots has been said about these two campaigns, pro and con.  I don’t necessarily have anything completely new to add to the discussion (most of my initial thoughts have appeared in in bits and pieces in a variety of blog posts) but I wanted to write about the two campaigns anyway to show my (qualified) support for them.

It doesn’t hurt to recap various views that have been expressed around the blogosphere, for those who want to catch up on the discussion*.  We have, roughly in chronological order,

So let’s start with a discussion of the Science Cheerleaders.  The bulk of the arguments against them revolves around the idea that the idea of cheerleading, in general, promotes a stereotype of women as sexualized creatures that exist only to serve men.  First, as ERV noted, this view of cheerleading is rather outdated; though cheerleaders still cheer on games, the activity evolved long ago into a sport with competitions and a serious degree of athleticism.

The bigger problem I have with these critics, however, is that they are harshly judging cheerleading because it doesn’t fit with their particular view of the role women should have in society.  Their views, however, are almost certainly minority ones in the U.S.; while it may be true that a majority of scientists feel at least partly uncomfortable with implicitly promoting cheerleading, the majority of Americans probably view the activity somewhat positively.  Certainly lots of younger girls find cheerleading a positive activity.  To try and do science outreach without actually appealing to those things that your target audience likes is like trying to climb a mountain with your hands tied behind your back.

This wouldn’t matter if the use of cheerleading actually did harm to the image of women, particularly in science.  Does it, though?  If the point was simply to have attractive women “cheer on science”, then perhaps it would.  Considering that all of the Science Cheerleaders are both cheerleaders and active STEM workers, it is hard to imagine that they would be interpreted in that way, except by people who are going to view women by their appearance regardless of what they do.

A number of people have reported having a very negative “visceral reaction” to the Science Cheerleader videos.  I have a negative reaction when I watch Barney the Dinosaur, myself, but that is in large part because the show isn’t targeted towards me!  As STEM researchers, we’re used to thinking about science on a level far, far beyond where normal folks, and certainly kids, think about it.  (This is the same problem that a lot of university profs have — we forget what it was like to be students.)

Overall, I like the Science Cheerleader efforts.  I suspect lots of kids in non-science families view science and popularity/beauty/athleticism as mutually exclusive goals, and the Science Cheerleaders play a part in showing that this view really isn’t the case.

So what about the Rockstars of Science?   I’m a bit more critical of this effort, though I think their hearts are in the right place.  To me, the images give the impression that scientists want to hang out with rockstars, to which most regular folks would say, “Get in line!”  The scientists are working in the rockstars’ element: carefully staged, stylish photo shoots.  This ends up promoting the rockstars more than the scientists!

In my humble opinion**, it would be far better to have a photo shoot that involved the rockstars working with the scientists — doing some work with them in the lab, or looking at research results, or generally having fun.  It’s hard to imagine someone looking at the current images and being inspired to do science.

That being said, I don’t think it’s a waste of time.  Getting celebrities to promote science is invariably going to be an important part of changing the public’s opinion of science — let’s face it, science appreciation looks to be at a low point unmatched since before the Renaissance.  Though I agree with Martin’s assessment that science can be way cooler than most rockstars, one does need a significant amount of background information in order to appreciate a lot of it.*** If you understand how big and dense the earth is, what neutrinos are and how hard they are to detect, then the image Martin provided is quite spectacular:

This image of the Sun, taken with neutrinos through the Earth, is simply amazing!  Folks not familiar with physics, however, will probably see this as just a poor-resolution image of the Earth.

In order to teach people science and get them to truly appreciate it, we have to get them in the door first.  I think that rockstars and cheerleaders can help get folks in that door without compromising our scientific principles.

(I’ll be updating with other links as I get them, and have time to post them.)

******************

* These recaps don’t necessarily capture the entirety of the arguments presented.  There are also probably other discussions of the subject that I’ve missed.

** This seems to have been the opinion of a number of other folks around the ‘tubes, as well, though I came to it independently!

*** This was, I believe, one of Chris Mooney’s points.

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24 Responses to On scientists, cheerleaders, and rockstars

  1. Zen Faulkes says:

    For the link list:

    Science cheerleaders, at NeuroDojo (Nov 5), in which dislike of cheeleading and like of science evangelism collides.

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    The bad thing about that particular “science cheerleaders” video is that it conveys less actual scientific information than does the “Hell no H2O!” chant in Coyote Ugly, leaving the impression that all they do is “rah! rah! science!” Their professional work in STEM fields doesn’t seem to translate over into the content of their cheers. I doubt that’s actually the case, but I can see how such an impression would feed into a general sense of discontent about the whole science-cheerleading activity. Maybe I should blame this “Randy Olson” fellow, whoever he is, who wrote and directed the video. (Also, the slide-whistle noise at the end makes me want to smack somebody with my cane.)

    • I certainly think that there is room for criticism of the campaign and the way it is handled. I neglected to mention in my post that I would personally like to see a clearer “mission statement” for the science cheerleaders, which seems to be missing on Darlene’s site. (Or maybe I just couldn’t find it.) One can also make reasonable arguments that the campaign gives an uncomfortable focus on the “women” part of “women scientists”; I thought Sci’s argument was very well put.

      I’m disheartened, though, by harsh condemnation of the very *idea* of a “science cheerleader” as some sort of misogynistic enabler; this seems very insulting to those women who actually have done both the science and the cheering, and are proud of both roles.

      I mean, for pity’s sake, I just saw a tweet from someone sarcastically arguing that we should start a “teen sex slaves for science!” program. Really? Someone working as a professional scientist and cheering for a football team is no better than being a sex slave?

    • Blake Stacey says:

      Well said; I agree.

      And also: sodium!

  3. Isis the Scientist says:

    I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I said I didn’t get the reason for many of the photos.

  4. Hey there! Thanks for the link. I just wanted to point out that my article “The Sexing Up of Science (I’m Coming Out! And So Can You!)” was published on Nov 20th, not the 27th. Not a huge deal, but I’m a stickler for accuracy. 🙂

    Also, I think if the only data point they use to judge the Science Cheerleader campaign is that promo video, they are likely getting a wrong impression of what they do on a whole. I encourage everyone to look at their “Brain Makeover” section on the website. They do, in fact, perform science-based cheers.

    http://www.sciencecheerleader.com/brain_makeover/

    A point that people seem to be missing as well, specific to the Science Cheerleaders, is this: These women love cheerleading, and they also love science. They found a way to do both in order to promote STEM. What’s so harmful about that? They are enjoying themselves, having fun, and making it fun for others, while providing a public service.

    Again, thanks for the mention, and for writing the post.

    Best,
    Andi

    • Thanks for the comment! I fixed the date; I must have misread it the first time around.

      These women love cheerleading, and they also love science. They found a way to do both in order to promote STEM. What’s so harmful about that?

      That is what I find baffling about the most hostile criticism. People are reading a lot of harm into cheerleading that I don’t think most of the public shares.

      Thanks for the link to “brain makeover”!

  5. IronMonkey says:

    Nowadays, the attention of kids is solicited each day by literally hundreds of various media/consumption products: be it Facebook, Twitter, PS3, Wii, XBox, computers, TV series like Jersey Shore, Gossip Girl, and the likes. In this sense the idea behind the “science cheerleaders” is absolutely great, even though it is really not conventional for scientists, because it understands that science really needs to be shown as an attractive subject for kids and teenagers. I’m not saying that we should see cheerleading shows at science conventions, but we must realize that “Science” must fight for the attention of potential future scientists.

    • Well put! I kinda feel that a lot of people are looking at Science Cheerleading through the prism of “mainstream” science presentation, though it isn’t targeted towards professional scientists.

  6. Janet Szabo says:

    I am not sure what to think. Take your nieces as an example. Their mother has a degree in biology, we watch all sorts of geeky TV shows (fiction and non-fiction), and both of them excel in math–but neither of them has the slightest interest in a career in science. Last might’s chemistry homework was a cross to be endured. (Ellen said to me that chemistry would be a lot more fun if they actually got to DO something, and I said, “Like what?–blow things up?” and she said that would help.) I don’t think a media campaign of any kind is going to change their minds and make them into budding scientists. They’ve been exposed to it and they just haven’t been enticed by what they saw.

    I think you hit it right on the head, though, with this: “To try and do science outreach without actually appealing to those things that your target audience likes is like trying to climb a mountain with your hands tied behind your back.” When I substitute teach as a music teacher, classes with the older kids go much better when I talk about how the members of Metallica are all classically-trained musicians. We listen to what they have on their iPods and talk about how it relates to musical trends from the past. You’re absolutely right that you have to make it relevant to your target audience or it will fall on deaf ears.

  7. becca says:

    I am very tired of the ways in which our society commodifies attractiveness and sexuality. So yeah, I’m not a big fan of the idea of cheerleaders used to attract attention, no mater how mainstream the idea may be.

    The bit on the teen sex slave trade was indeed sarcasm, but I don’t think you understand where it was coming from.
    Where do we draw the line as to what constitutes a good representation of science to the public? If cheerleaders are ok, why not Belle de Jour? I mean the whole line of reasoning “They are enjoying themselves, having fun, and making it fun for others, while providing a public service. ” could also apply to scientist escorts, right?
    This isn’t a “slippery slope” argument- cheerleaders *are* mainstream, in a way escorts are not. I’m not worried we’re going to see the science escorts.

    But if you can understand how I, as a woman in science, might look at a scientist escort- as someone who is doing something that works for them, and enjoying life in this wonky world as best they can, but *not* as someone who I particularly feel represents me… maybe you can also see how I feel about the science cheerleaders.

    • First, thanks for commenting.

      Where do we draw the line as to what constitutes a good representation of science to the public?

      My impression is that this is really the point of contention, and not just in science communication — where do we draw the line between what is an acceptable representation of women, and what is unacceptable? I feel quite strongly that demonizing cheerleaders and putting them in the “forbidden” category is the wrong way to go, for many reasons. Watching the Science Cheerleaders video, I didn’t get any vibe of “sexiness” from it — the Cheerleaders aren’t trying to appeal to people using sex, unless one automatically associates cheerleading and short clothes with sex. (My choice of Barney the Dinosaur to compare to the SciCheer video wasn’t random — I personally find the video on the whole innocent and harmless.) Doubtless there are men out there who will immediately draw that conclusion — I’m sure there are douchebag frat boys who can get off on pareidolia of the Virgin Mary on burnt toast — but is it really a great strategy for women to define themselves based on what the worst of society will think?

      Furthermore, is it really that bad a message to say that one can be smart without sacrificing attractive? I too would prefer to live in a society where attractiveness isn’t as worshipped as it is, but I also don’t feel that we should have a society where attractiveness is somehow considered anathema to a person’s intelligence and career. My big issue with society is really the worship of beauty over all other qualities, and also the perpetuation of utterly unrealistic and unhealthy body images. I don’t see either of those things in the SciCheerleaders.

      But if you can understand how I, as a woman in science, might look at a scientist escort- as someone who is doing something that works for them, and enjoying life in this wonky world as best they can, but *not* as someone who I particularly feel represents me… maybe you can also see how I feel about the science cheerleaders.

      And it’s fine that they don’t represent everyone in science! As a middle-aged white male of mediocre appearance, SciCheerleaders don’t really represent me, either, at least in terms of background. That is huge part of the point, though — scientists are not a monolithic block of drones! People of all sorts of different backgrounds and interests can be scientists, both professionally and on the “citizen scientist” level. As a skydiving/figure skating/yo-yoing physicist, I think it’s really important to show that people can be scientists and individuals at the same time. Not every girl who sees the SciCheerleaders will necessarily say, in the long run, “Hey, I want to be a science cheerleader!”, but hopefully they’ll take away that a scientist doesn’t have to be an old white man in a lab coat.

      To be charitable, I think it’s quite reasonable to question the effectiveness of the SciCheer campaign and the image it presents. I can’t judge right now what sort of impact it will have. What really ticks me off, however, are the very shrill cries basically claiming that women who are attractive and wear athletic outfits are no better than sex workers. That is an aberrant opinion, at odds with what most normal people would say, and such complaints just make scientists look as alien and unlikeable as their stereotypes. These women are highly successful, intelligent STEM workers who want to inspire others to follow their example!!! Making them out to be some sort of “hookers for science” reflects more poorly on the attackers than it does on the target, from where I sit.

  8. the Wife says:

    @ becca – Why are you so against being associated with cheerleaders? Did I miss the memo that stated that cheerleaders are inferior women and therefore as a serious woman you should not want to be associated with them? Just because you are attractive, have a nice body and perform dance routines and lead cheers for a sports team does not make you any less smart. Maybe you need to take a close look at your own insecurities around being associated with “these women”.

    @Janet – DD#2 learns like her Aunt Beth. We need real life examples to understand things. But your argument about cheerleaders not being effective for your DD’s doesn’t necessarily apply to ALL young girls. There are some out there who may be interested in cheerleading and think that they need to focus on less “masculine” subjects so that the boys won’t be intimidated by them. If there are role models out there who show that you can be smart and pretty then maybe they’ll be less likely to avoid those subjects.

  9. Janet Szabo says:

    Well, that’s why I said I don’t know what to think. I know that my kids have pretty well made up their minds. It’s possible, though, that there are some girls who might be attracted by a cheerleading/science campaign, so I am not condemning it (although I might have gone about it a bit differently). Sure, not wanting to intimidate the boys by appearing smarter than them keeps some girls out of science and math. I see that all the time at our elementary school. (DD#2 is engaged in an ongoing battle with one of her male classmates to see who can get the highest scores, so I know that isn’t HER motivation, thankfully.) There is also the component of “how will this help me in real life?” Your brother-in-law maintains that if someone had told him in geometry class that he would need to calculate rafter runs and cubic yardages of concrete when he grew up, he would have paid more attention. A lot of people think that science just isn’t relevant to them.

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  11. It’s kind of crass to assume that girls would be interested primarily in cheerleading, but anything’s worth a try so long as it’s privately funded.

  12. This is a great post, and wonderful link summary as well. I really wish I had found it before I wrote my Storify about the Science Cheerleaders and the Rockstars of Science. I took a slightly different approach, and defended the cheerleaders by drawing from a paper about new approaches to defining adolescent female sexuality, by Sharon Lamb. In this paper, she discusses the fact that if we promote a specific kind of “active” sexuality, where women are not allowed to enjoy the passive appreciation of being admired for their beauty, we are simply creating a false dichotomy of active/passive (passive representing sexual objectification). I believe we need to let young women appreciate the full spectrum of their sexuality and for this reason, demeaning the science cheerleaders because they might appear to occupy one end of this spectrum means you’re just asserting another authoritarian judgement on femininity.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      “I believe we need to let young women appreciate the full spectrum of their sexuality and for this reason, demeaning the science cheerleaders because they might appear to occupy one end of this spectrum means you’re just asserting another authoritarian judgement on femininity.”

      I completely agree, and that was the big problem I had with a lot of the criticism of science cheerleaders. The scicheers are clearly successful STEM workers who have balanced their careers with cheering, so one can’t make a straightforward argument that somehow cheering hurts one’s career. What remains is exactly what you said: the impression that most people are objecting on the basis of what *they* think feminism should be.

      I enjoyed your post!

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