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,
- Science Cheerleaders, at NeuroDojo (Nov 5). Zen Faulkes explores what happens when his “dislike of cheerleading and like of science evangelism collides”.
- Rock Stars of Science, part deux: coming to a GQ near you, at Aetiology (Nov 18). Tara Smith thinks that the actual promotion of the scientists falls far short.
- Rock Stars Vs Cheerleaders, at Neurotic Physiology (Nov 20). Scicurious is not sure that either campaign is really doing any good, and is a bit uncomfortable with the message the cheerleaders are actually giving.
- The Sexing Up Of Science (I’m Coming Out! And So Can You!), at The Rogue Neuron (Nov 20). Andrea Kuszewski supports the Science Cheerleaders, “comes out” herself as a former cheerleader, and argues that sexiness is not the enemy of women scientists.
- ‘Rockstars of Science’ should be ‘Scientists of Rock’, at The Lay Scientist (Nov 22). Martin Robbins argues that the ‘Rockstars” campaign has it backwards, and fails to show that science is “cool”.
- Valium or Sex: How do you like your science promotion, at LabSpaces (Nov 23). Brian Krueger thinks that “Rockstars” is more about promoting the rockstars than the scientists, and that the science cheerleaders are just fine.
- From the Editor’s Desk: Quantifying Outreach to the Cult of Science, at Deep Sea News (Nov 23). Kevin Zelnio argues that the Cheerleaders and Rockstars have value as a part of a pluralist approach to scientific outreach.
- Martin Robbins: “Science Is Cool, You Idiot! Wait, Wait, Don’t Walk Away…”, at The Intersection (Nov 24). Responding to Martin, Chris Mooney says that Martin’s somewhat elitist attitude towards the campaign fails to understand how little Americans really care about science.
- Gender Bias, Sexism, and the Science Cheerleaders, at Good Math, Bad Math (Nov 25). MarkCC thinks that the Science Cheerleaders play right into negative gender stereotypes and do more harm than good.
- But What If The Science Cheerleaders Save Just One Girl? at Thus Spake Zuska (Nov 25). Zuska thinks that the Science Cheerleaders are “an outreach program for already-privileged girls who are already interested in science/engineering but who are afraid it will make them look like fat lesbians.”
- Cool scientists, at ERV (Nov 25). ERV thinks that the “Rockstars” campaign is silly, agreeing 100% with Martin, but also thinks every bit helps (and thinks that Chris’ criticism is nonsense).
- Cool scientists, #2 at ERV (Nov 26). ERV also gives a spirited defense of the Science Cheerleaders, at the same time giving a… spirited… critique of Zuska.
- An Open Letter to the So-Called Feminists: Twats-O-Da-Week, at Drunken Science (Nov 27). In a full-blown rant, GingerSpicedRum argues that the folks arguing against the Science Cheerleaders from a feminist perspective are really acting out on their own issues.
- The Rock Stars of Science and Why Bret Michaels is Brilliant at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess (Nov 28). Dr. Isis feels that the “Rockstars” campaign is growing on her, though she still doesn’t quite get the reason for many of the photos.
- Yet another post about cheering for science rock stars, at Daring Nucleic Adventures (Nov 29). Genegeek thinks the campaigns might work, but that they need to be clearer about their goals.
- Free to Be! Rah! Rah! at WhizBANG! (Nov 29). Pascale Lane says that “We need science cheerleaders AND geeky scientists. We need role models for every girl and boy out there.”
- Three Cheers for the Patriarchy, at Candid Engineer (Nov 30). Candid Engineer views the Science Cheerleaders as pushing patriarchal views even further into the scientific community.
- The Science Cheerleaders are Totally Radical, at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess (Dec 1). Dr. Isis supports the SciCheer program and describes it as a “bad ass Trojan Horse of science outreach”.
- Science Cheerleader and the Brouhaha, at It’s Not a Lecture (Dec 1). David, who is a contributor to Science Cheerleader, argues that the program is effective outreach and that few of the harshest critics really understand how such outreach works. (He links here, as well, so I risk opening a hole in the space-time continuum by linking to him.)
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.