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Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for me…so, who does?

Richard Dawkins is at it again. This isn’t the first time he’s made inappropriate or offensive comments, and this infographic nicely illustrates the perpetual cycle of eye-rolling and submission as the people who call him out get fed up and ultimately disengage. What frustrates me so much about Dawkins is that he has this incredible platform– numerous popular books, frequent speaking engagements, nearly a million Twitter followers– and yet, to me, he’s doing more harm than good when it comes to outreach about science. Racist and sexist comments are not only offensive, they contribute to the lack of diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Dawkins’ comments also bother me for another reason, which is what I’m going to focus on in this post: Richard Dawkins is one of the handful of living scientists that Americans can name. This means that he’s something of a spokesperson for science, and for scientists. Whether I like it or not, he represents me, in his role as a public face of science. Science’s spokesperson problem doesn’t start and end with Dawkins, though. If you look for the most well-known living scientists in the US, we’ve got Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (the Science Guy) right at the top. I admire the work that Nye and Tyson have done to encourage interest in science, but I get frustrated when I see these two men called on over and over to be the public face of American science. I sometimes jokingly call this the Nye-Tyson Effect (or, if I’m feeling especially snarky, the Tye-Nyson Effect).

You know you've made it when you've been bobble-headed! Via

You know you’ve made it when you’ve been bobble-headed! Via

My problem largely stems from the fact that the media frequently calls on Nye and Tyson to speak well outside their fields. Nye is a mechanical engineer, and Tyson is an astronomer. I have no qualms with either commenting on public science issues broadly, but when it comes to most topics, there are great scientists and communicators out there who are much better suited to the task. For example, Tyson is not a climate scientist, though he often talks about climate change to reporters. Ny is not trained in evolution, and it’s not his strong point; regardless of whether we should be having debates with creationists, I don’t think he was the best person for the job. Similarly, Tyson often veers into the history of science and technology to frame his narratives about science and innovation, but he’s been criticized for making some pretty basic mistakeand embracing problematic narratives. Tyson’s also made some unfortunate comments about philosophy, too.

In her recent piece in Nature, Virginia Gewin talks about how paleoecologists Liz Hadly and Tony Barnosky were approached by the Governor of California, who was interested in using their climate change expertise to serve the people of his state. The governor asked, “Why aren’t you shouting this from the rooftops?” Their response? They thought they were. This, to me, so eloquently illustrates the challenges of bringing scientists and the public together. There are fantastic science communicators out there, from professional journalists to scientists who blog. Most scientists doing outreach do not have anything like the audience they deserve, which is one reason why I get so frustrated when the Watsons and Dawkinses dominate the narrative. It’s a perpetual challenge for us scientists to connect with the public — to share our work beyond our colleagues, university PR departments, and journalists who may be interested in our work. Meanwhile, Dawkins gets more media attention for racist, sexist comments than he does for his thoughts on evolution.

I want to be clear, here: I like and respect Nye and Tyson*, but I’d like to see more scientific spokespeople– ideally, we should have climate scientists talking about climate change, and biologists discussing evolution. I’d love to see more scientists stepping up and engaging, getting creative with media, seeking out outreach training, writing popular books, and running for office. But there’s a problem with this model, too: outreach is important, but scientists are already pretty tapped, and engaging can be a full-time job. Climatologist James Hansen retired from science a few years ago to focus full-time on advocacy about climate change. Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t do much (if any) research anymore.

I’m not satisfied with the spokespeople we have, but I’m not comfortable with simply replacing them, either. Maybe it’s time to discuss how to ditch the Sagan model, and how to replace it with a better one– one where we don’t rely on just a few people to represent a diverse discipline — diverse in scope, but also in terms of the people doing it (more women and people of color would be great!)**. I have a difficult time believing that the celebrity spokesperson model will ever really die, though. I worry it’s too engrained in our psyches, and too convenient for mass media.

In the meantime, can we get the media to stop paying attention to Richard Dawkins, or to stop asking Bill Nye to debate on climate change and evolution? Will thousands of academic bloggers and Tweeters take up the slack (or thousands of Tysons)? I don’t have the answers; the more I think about this, the more cans-of-worms need to get opened– cans labeled things like STEM Funding, and The State of Academia, and The Deficit Model.

What I do know is that Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for me as a scientist. I don’t know who will, but I do hope that it’s someone who respects and encourages diversity — of people, ideas, and disciplines.

*I dislike and do not respect Dawkins.
**I’d love to see someone study the impact of “science spokespeople” on public science literacy and/or science diversity, etc.

Categories: Commentary Communication

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Jacquelyn Gill

85 replies

  1. You may have missed my main point, you are a lntelligent,balanced,logical,passionate voice for science.some one opened-minded. Keep it up you are truly refreshing.and much needed.all you need is a bigger platform.


  2. PS. Such a moron I showing how mentally challenged my typing skills are,or not I ment to I type Dr. Dawkins who is simply a science fundamentalist as annoying as a bible thumping fundamentalist


  3. Wow how totally refreshing you are, surprise you are the spokespersom( you notice non gender term respecting the feminist move ment) for science. Scientific evangelisim is a very new area. Until resently the field has never thought it to be up to them to explain any thing to they have ,a good thing,you do not have to be a professional scientist to appreciate good science. I am no a scientist, but am a moron according to Dr. Downing . However it sounds like you and I have much more in common than opinion is refreshing to a poor moronic rational Christian try to bridge the unnesssaray gap between faith and reason.


    1. Hi Roy, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right that we scientists have kept to ourselves for too long, and we have a duty to reach out more. Lots of people are doing this now, fortunately! Hopefully as more and more of us reach out, we will make a difference. I’m always happy to meet readers interested in science, and the intersection between science and society. 🙂


  4. Basic logic requires that an appeal to authority, involve authority on the subject of debate. But on Bill Maher’s HBO show, a guest stated that scientists haven’t confirmed Global Warming, to which Maher pointed to Neil Tyson and responded “well, we’ve got a scientist right here!”
    Of course this would be like asking a dentist to comment about cancer, as a “doctor,” but Maher has never let a little thing like common sense stop him…. or showed signs of having any.


  5. I am so glad to see this out there. I am an agnostic myself, but I think these spokesmen of science also do more harm than good when they criticize people’s beliefs. I think they have good intentions, but the results is more polarization. I am convinced that this approach does not work. I think Katherine Hayhoe is doing a much better job than any of them in communicating climate change without having offend anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this blog. (I didn’t read the comments.) I think that you hit some major points about inadequate of representation of the scientific body and scientific work. Further, I am also ashamed of people like Dawkins and Nye being the faces of evolutionary biology and am relieve to read that others are bothered by it.

    I think that it’d be interesting if NSF had some sort of rotating “communication expert(s)” of some sort that could be the faces of the scientific community for important scientific topics as determined by them, rather than individuals who reach out the most to the public by writing the most popular science books, articles, and social media posts. (Note that if there is one, the fact that I don’t know about it suggests that it’s not effective.)


  7. Wow Jacqueline, I admire the way you’ve handled the aggressive comments. I agree with your article and spokespersons for any field do great damage when racist and nasty comments are included in their public speaking. I do agree with some who have suggested that those who have a flair for performance are going to be relied on for speaking engagements. The media is focused on numbers and money. Until that changes what will be will be. Keep up the great work. I enjoy your blog immensely.


  8. Just because somebody has a large audience does not mean that he/she speaks for you. Jacquelin, you definitely have much larger platform of followers than I have, yet you are not my spokesperson, not a tiny bit. The people that speak for us are the people that we designate to do so — e.g. by voting for them and making them our representatives. And ultimately, the only person that truly speaks for you is you yourself. So here comes the answer to your “who does?” — I gues that the main reason that you have this blog is to be able to speak for yourself.

    If Dawkins makes sexist or racist remarks, he makes an ass primarily of himself, and that is a good think, especially because it gives him (and us) much broader freedom of speech, and hence we can more easily spot who is the ass.

    The only real way you can do harm to science is to do bad science, I think.


    1. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I think that very high-profile folks like Dawkins, Nye, and Tyson (etc.) do have an impact on the public face of science, and therefore on how the public perceives science. We know that the diversity of visible scientists influences young people in terms of their interest in science and their thoughts about whether they can be scientists themselves. And I think that making science less diverse harms science in much more insidious ways than doing bad science (which at least, in theory, at least has the opportunity to be fixed by the peer review process and the recursive process of research).


      1. I still don’t get how “diversity of visible scientists” is related to (or reduced by) offensive opinions of some of the scientists. Isn’t it rather, by its very definition, political correctness that reduces the diversity of opinions (and characters) into a single quazi-pretty public face?

        Anyhow, I’ve got your point about the peer review and the self-correcting recursive process of research — fair enough.


  9. This is a great post. I very recently read The God Delusion and found myself a much less staunch atheist afterwards. His attitude can be incredibly dismissive and many people have accused him of setting up ‘straw man’ arguments, rather than taking on the serious questions. I do find that his criticisms of fundamentalist religion and unquestioned dogma are valid and justified but he seems paints all religious people with the same brush. However, this is a science blog so I’ll get back on topic!

    I am very far from an expert in science, and hope you could answer a couple of questions as you seem very informed!

    Firstly, is Dawkins generally respected as an evolutionary biologist? His books on evolution are by far the most recommended and seem to be considered the most readable, but is he a pop-scientist or the real deal? How influential are his findings in this subject?

    Secondly, are there any other evolutionary scientists whose works are accessible to a science novice to give a good basic understanding of the subject? One thing I loved about The God Delusion was his basic passion for the theory of evolution, and I’d never really realised what an amazing thing it truly is. His knowledge of it seems pretty extensive in itself, but he kinda tries to use it to disprove god, which it doesn’t really do, rather than just using it to argue against crackpot creationists. I’d love to learn more about evolution but I’d find it more interesting as a theory in itself, rather than muddled up with an argument against religion.

    (P.S. I personally find that some of the things Dawkins himself says are not so much offensive in themselves, such as the comments on the ‘different scales of rape’, but are generally ill-advised, obvious or just un-necessary. However, he feeds these soundbites into a cycle of overblown media frenzy, which as you say ultimately damages the face of science)


    1. Thanks!

      He is a real deal, as far as his theories go, though he hasn’t done any actual research in many decades. I think his work was influential, but there are differing schools of thought.

      Have you read any Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin? I am a huge fan of Gould in particular, though Lewontin has written some good critiques of Dawkins’ work.


  10. Great article. Dawkins is not a scientist but a Moral Philosopher. He really does not understand science. If he did he would be open to a belief in God, rather than totally rule out any idea of God. This is because “science” by its nature is “Agnostic”. You leave the domain of science as soon as you make dogmatic statements as truth. Because science by its nature is always open to possibility.


    1. Dawkins is a true scientist. Science is not about entertaining random possibilities, it is about explaining observations. Dawkins is absolutely correct that ideas that have no supporting evidence are not true in any sense of the word; and not true = false. And when people are vociferously and relentlessly putting forward ideas as true that have no evidence, the proper, scientific thing to do is call them on it.

      I am sympathetic to people’s objections about his choice of words or phrases, but I am 100% in agreement with Dawkins’ intent. I long ago decided that quietly listening to religious blather under the guise of “tolerance” made no more sense than quietly letting someone state that vaccinations are a bad idea. Remaining quiet is tacit acceptance. There MUST be vocal, public disagreement by scientists when patently non-scientific claims are made as truth.

      But really, I think what is being discussed here are remarks he has made in a very limited medium. Anyone who has read his real work know him to be an incredibly thoughtful and articulate communicator, one who cares a great deal about humanity and our collective future. When I read his tweets I may want to slap my head for his poor choice of words, but I never suspect him of the evils many people assign to him, and understand the point he was trying to make.

      (I learned a long time ago, in the early USENET days, it is ridiculously easy to get all fired up by misunderstanding a short statement. I would advise everyone – and not just with Dawkins – to always step back, take a breath, and see if you can read some inflammatory comment in a different way.)


  11. Thank you for this thought-provoking essay. The ‘strident atheism’ of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens (Peace Be Upon Him), Sam Harris, P.Z. Meyers, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker and others never bothered me that much considering the pap and drivel and ignorance promulgated by the other side.


  12. I agree that it’s unfortunate that Dawkins is the spokesperson for all things science. I don’t know much about his sexist comments (I’ll be sure to research them) but I do know that he is much of the reason why science and atheism are viewed as one-in-the-same, when, in reality, they are very, very different things.


  13. My problem with Dawkins is that he seems so miserable. Religion is not just about belief, it’s about history, community, celebrations, families etc. Secularism makes sense, but they don’t throw parties.


  14. I was going to comment on how the article, who is a good piece about diversity, takes the usual eye-rolling inducing tack of telling Dawkins to “STFU!” on telling straight facts instead of accommodate The Little Person. And moreover paint his explicit non-racism as racism et cetera. Especially the trigger point to lump him with the racist, bigot Watson.

    But then Gill played the Nazi Card in the comments. :-/ To paraphrase, “I dislike and do not respect Gill” based on her performance. What a waste of a promising analysis!


    1. I never said Dawkins needed to STFU. I expressed my opinion that his comments are harmful. His racist and sexist comments are not “straight facts,” they are opinions, and Dawkins (IMO) should stick to science.

      I didn’t play the Nazi card. I made an analogy. I didn’t say that Dawkins was Hitler, or like Hitler. But apparently it’s okay for you to disregard my entire post based on that one (misrepresented) comment, and it’s not okay for me to dislike Dawkins based on many, actually harmful comments. A bit hypocritical, no?


  15. Dawkins really doesn’t speak for any collective group of science nor scientists, his field is is psychology and sociology, which in American high education are degrees in Arts and Letters as opposed to science bachelor degrees.

    The other tell tale giveaways in Dawkin’s work is when the language he uses clearly shows he doesn’t understand basic foundational principles in Evolution, so much so that I have often doubted his English higher education degrees were unspoken “honorary” degrees

    Dawkins was funded by a very successful ex-microsoft programmer who began funding political campaigns against mainstream religious institutions

    Dawkins is one of those people who fails to understand why real scientists do NOT attempt to employ science in order to prove God does or does not exist

    Dick Dawkins get paid to to convince people that science proves god is a myth, which is a really foolish and ultimately pointless exercise of a very unscientific little man’s inferiorty complex

    I completely agree with you on the subject and viewpoint of said subject in your post Jacquelyn. The reason the general public is general ignorant about science, is due mostly to the media. The media is NOT loyal to the trut, Dawkins is a journalists\


      1. Thank you Jacquelyn for calling that out. Whether you like him or not is an entirely different matter than the quality of his work on evolution. The Extended Phenotype was for me one of the most mind-expanding things I’ve come across since relativity. I actually find it very disheartening that so many of the comments here are dismissing his science based on how people feel about his personality.

        Something I heard once that I have since taken to heart, was to “fight the idea, not the person”.


  16. Very nice post though I rarely think of Dawkins anymore as a scientist and I don’t imagine most people who know of him do. I’m not fond, either, of his argument that a real understanding of science disproves the possibility of anything outside of nature. I see no necessity of a religion not any real good but I don’t think science can speak outside of nature.

    D Mitton, My Selfish Gene


    1. I don’t agree– I think the majority of the public at least does consider Dawkins a scientist, and that his aggressive stance on atheism and his racist and sexist comments hurt the public image of science (as well as contribute to a climate that’s hostile to minority scientists).


        1. I really don’t follow. What is it exactly that you’re asking for, and what does my “nature” have to do with anything?

          There are links in this post regarding Dawkins’ previous comments (letters in blue), including racism. None of them appear broken.


  17. Thanks Jacquelyn for this great post. This issue has bugged me for years. I agree with you completely: we need more science spokespeeps. We have them. But the media rarely goes to them. In marine conservation, 90% of the attention goes to a handful of people; nearly all well into their 60s and 70s, decades past doing research, and generally pretty obviously out of touch with contemporary science and outreach techniques. (note there is no gender bias here; many if not most of these scientists are females – I know that isn’t the case in many fields). One reality is that media generally want to talk w tenured or full profs at well-known research institutions. That rules out most of us. Including most of our best communicators and most knowledgable scientists. But still, for any topic, there must be dozens or more people – but to be fair to the media, it must be hard to know who to contact and interview a priori.


  18. One of the sad things is the ongoing opposition of science and faith. Dawkins indeed seems to have an axe to grind! I wonder if you are familiar with the growing number of scientists who do not see these in opposition? Francis Collins, who led the effort to sequence the human genome and is not anti-evolution is a prime example. His site,, is a wonderful place of thoughtful discourse exploring the harmony of science and faith. Katherine Hayhoe is an outstanding example of a climate scientist whose work was featured recently on NPR: Thanks for a wonderful post!


    1. You don’t reference statistics on “growing numbers” of accommodationists among scientists but one (!) anecdote, which is a red flag to everybody else. And then you promote an accommodationist site for no good reason. I call BS.

      Indeed, seeing how education makes agnostics of religious and atheists of agnostics according to statistics, with atheists and not agnostics being the 90+ majority of the AAS et cetera, it is doubtful accommodationism is on the rise, and much more likely atheism is world wide. (Which would correlate with that even the US populace sees increase atheist percentage, with the drop coming not from the fundamentalists but from the moderate religious/agnostics, see the Pew studies.)


  19. I don’t know how you can claim to be a scientist and not respect Dawkins, at least for his works, or maybe that was a communication failure on your part.


    1. This post isn’t about Dawkins’ work (though I actually disagree with Dawkins on a number of arguments, particularly related to the ‘selfish gene’ concept and sociobiology– I tend to follow Gould and Lewontin). I’m not claiming to be a scientist; I am a scientist. I have a PhD, twelve years of training, and am actively practicing science as a tenure-track research professor. Being a Dawkins fan isn’t a pre-requisite for becoming a scientist; for one, most scientists’ work isn’t even tangentially related to what Dawkins worked on. There are a number of other people who have done a lot more relevant work n evolutionary biology (Dawkins has done little to know research in decades; he’s just written successful popular books).


        1. Hitler was a brilliant strategist but I am under no obligation to respect him. I get that Dawkins is your hero; as such, maybe you should consider holding him accountable for his sexist and racist comments. They’re detracting from his legacy.


          1. Really? Pulling the Hitler card over one of our own? That is certainly NOT helping the dialogue about science – feeding directly into critics who can now trot out that other scientists are comparing Dawkins to Hitler – good job! And while you may find his analogies distasteful, they are meaningful analogies and I’m sure the analogy subjects were intentionally chosen to be impactful. Yes, he’s a COB (Crusty Old B*stard) but they have a place in the dialogue too.

            The parts of your blog about the need for more science spokespeople is great – one that could stand on its own without grinding your own Dakwins axe.


          2. I didn’t compare Dawkins to Hitler. I made an analogy that just because someone is good at one thing doesn’t mean I have to respect them. How exactly can you defend Dawkins’ analogies and decry mine?

            Why am I not allowed to criticize Dawkins? I’m a woman in science. Comments like the ones Dawkins has made directly contribute to a culture where we have fewer women in science. We need to hold one another accountable– and that includes our idols– for the problematic things they say and do. I am a stakeholder, both as a scientist who works in an often-hostile climate, and as a scientist who is represented by Dawkins as a public spokesperson. Dawkins’ comments have a direct impact on whether people trust scientists, whether they respect scientists, and whether they feel that science is relevant to them. I care about all of those things. Your comment that I have an axe to grind is dismissive and belittling.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. First, you are glossing over my positive comment. Second, you should realize you are using the same device you are criticizing Dawkins for using: making an analogy using an extreme case for impact. I’ve known people with number tattoos on their arms that find the constant tossing around of Hitler in casual conversation as unsettling and grossly inappropriate.

            And you are missing my point that it doesn’t matter at all whether you are drawing a direct comparison or not, but that’s how your comment can be used. So if you are suggesting Dawkins, for the good of science, should be more sensitive about the analogies he’s using, then you should also.


          4. I think there’s a qualitative difference between what I did and what Dawkins did. First, I didn’t trivialize rape by making a subjective, arbitrary ranking. I stated that just because someone is good at something doesn’t mean they deserve my respect.

            By choosing Hitler, I didn’t didn’t do what’s commonly objected to — I didn’t say Dawkins was like Hitler, or call his followers Nazis. With Dawkins, it goes way beyond being sensitive about analogies. His comments about rape contribute to rape culture. What I said was not equivalent to that whatsoever — I was stating something commonly agreed upon by military historians and stating that I DO NOT respect Hitler despite that. My statement didn’t contribute to anti-Semitism or even make light of anti-Semitism, as Dawkins’ comment did. I now regret using that analogy not because I think it was wrong, but because it clearly became a derail. That’s my last word on this subject for this reason. I’d like us to stay on topic, please (or at least maybe spend as much effort calling out people who have been explicitly rude in this comment thread, for example).


          5. “I now regret using that analogy not because I think it was wrong, but because it clearly became a derail.”

            Indeed! Have you never heard of Godwin’s Law? 😀

            As an aside, the analogy is broken in that ‘that German guy’ wasn’t a great strategist at all. His officers tried to assassinate him, because his foolishness was losing (and did lose) the war. Invading Russia was sheer stupidity.

            Back on point, totally agree, and I’ve disliked Dawkins for a long time. I was surprised, in fact, when I read his postscript in Lawrence Krauss’ “Nothing” book and didn’t find anything that turned my stomach.


  20. Thank you very much for this well-thought-out post that very nicely encapsulates most of my criticisms of this man. As a Christian, any time I say negative things about him I’m obviously close-minded and unintellectual, so I love hearing other people say it, too. Of course, where he to read this, I’m sure he’d roll his eyes and dismiss you as a limited thinker held back by an antiquated value system known as “something that disagrees with what he said.”


  21. Good post. If anyone didn’t know Dawkins’ background, one would immediately think that he was a militant atheist (he is) and that was his profession.
    Now that you mentioned this topic, I’m unable to list a group of scientists in my country that do speak out publicly (not only in journals). The people who debate and discuss issues like climate change in my country, tend to be old politicians who don’t have science backgrounds.


  22. I dislike and disrespect Dawkins because he has a very unscientific approach to religion. It makes no sense to him, so he dismisses it as nonsense and actively steers people away from it. But when I was in school I did the same with calculus, so I guess we’re even.


  23. 2+ minute video of Tyson calling out Dawkins on his “articulately barbed” speaking style:

    While I greatly appreciate Tyson, I find his condemnation of Dawkin’s lack of “sensitivity” and “persuasion” hysterical and ironic considering how many times Tyson has used his own stentorian baritone to shout down fellow science panelists, speakers, and audience members like a drunken Superbowl fan in order to get his conversational way.

    That’s not “educating,” either, Neil, that’s bullying. Truth isn’t a contest of decibels. (See: Bill O’Reilly) Now is not the time to make up for the childhood wounds of nerd warfare; leave the dick-waving to the politicians and religious nuts. They have more practice because their appendages are used to seeing the world. Yeah, I said it.

    If Dawkins takes a spoonful of sugar, Tyson keeps his ass in his chair and uses his Inside Voice, and Nye trims those caterpillars, I think there’d be a lot more kids at science fairs.


    1. PS: Not to be a typical writer/artist or anything (but here goes), but did you notice the lowercase “u” and often lowercase “b” and “d” in the font on this page sags a few pixels below the line? They look like they have loaded diapers. Go ahead, zoom in and chuckle.


  24. Thank you for this piece – it expresses something that’s bothered me for a while! In my experience it’s largely a myth that practising scientists are bad at communicating their work – I have worked alongside and been taught by a great many people who were very effective communicators of their research areas to a non-scientific audience; there’s definitely a great skills base there.

    I actually think that the ‘spokesperson’ issue you discuss here may be gradually breaking down of its own accord. Something I have noticed, as a new PhD student, is that there’s a general willingness to engage, and also a growing number of opportunities to do so. I’ve rarely encountered any hostility to the idea of presenting science approachably, and I suspect that the old snobbery of accessible science not being ‘serious enough’ is becoming a thing of the past.

    Here in Edinburgh we have a lot of well-attended public engagement events, and opportunities to train to get the skills we need. For example, we have Bright Club comedy nights (academics get training to do a stand up comedy set broadly themed around their work in a local comedy club) and public debates connected to the Fringe festival and science festivals, as well as year-round events aimed at training grad students to communicate their research to a non-scientific audience. All these are accessible, promoted professionally and run by working researchers who are not well-known celebrity scientists. Often, they set out to blur the lines between ‘educational’ and ‘entertainment’ events, and I think that’s all to the good.

    I don’t know if this is a broader trend, or if I’m just lucky to be in a place where scientists have a lot of public clout – but I’m fairly optimistic that our science communicators will gradually become more diverse, and more expert, as this trend takes hold.


  25. Please consider that the art and science of communication may be even more difficult for us science types to grasp and practice than venturing into a related science field beyond our own. Just because we all can talk and write doesn’t mean we can do so effectively for non-specialists. I do speak out about climate and climate science in the context of paleoecology — but I know that I am effective in only certain audiences, and by golly I limit myself to those audiences.

    I have enormous respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson, in particular (BTW: he is not an astronomer; he is an astrophysicist). Somehow he manages time and again to be a superbly effective and fearless communicator, who also knows and holds to his limits of effectiveness. I regularly show to audiences I speak to his picture and his best climate quote from the “Cosmos” series that made rounds in the blogs. Of course he will make an occasional mistake in judgment, especially if speaking extemporaneously. Who among us would not?

    So here is my cautionary advice. Please, take some time to educate yourselves about the art and science of communicating the sciences, especially in the hot-button area of climate science. Susan Joy Hassol works behind the scenes in precisely this way — and I am in awe of her expertise in advising scientists how to communicate. Marshall Shepherd speaks directly to fellow meteorologists on do’s and don’ts of climate communication. I am also in awe of Jennifer Francis at Rutgers, who is an amazing public speaker — both in her powerpoints but also off-the-cuff in tv and newspapers interviews, and she is not ruffled by dissent. (I also shortened and re-mixed a video of a presentation she gave in 2013 to television weather presenters; I edited it in order to make her presentation accessible online to wider audiences; and she was happy I did that.)

    Where to learn more about these 3 communication mentors and others? I put considerable effort in 2013 into constructing an annotated, illustrated page of linked “Best Science-Rich Videos on Climate Change.” Go to my big website, thegreatstory dot org, then click on “Climate Science.” At the climate page, scroll down to find Jennifer Francis; watch her in action. Then scroll down farther to Shepherd and Hassol in the section titled “Do’s and Don’ts of Climate Communication.”

    And if you are courageous enough to be further humbled by how non-innate the skills of verbal and facially expressive communication are, then watch on Nova science shorts the series of 30-second videos by Katharine Hayhoe (google nova hay hoe) and see how she adds in another dimension: expressly speaking to the climate denialists who are fellow evangelical Christians. What a skill!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Connie! I agree that these skills definitely take training, and practice, and that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I like to credit my science communication strengths to my undergraduate work in the humanities and a theater background.

      I don’t mean to say that this work is easy, or to chastise people for not doing it. And, like you, I have tremendous respect for NdGT and Nye. But, as Brian McGill points out, we have room for lots of “celebrities” in many fields, from music to politics to sports to movies. We should be able to accommodate a handful more in science, too!


  26. “When we consider the founders of our nation: Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others; we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility. They were fluent in the English language. They wrote their own speeches. They were realistic and practical, and at the same time motivated by high principles. They were not checking the pollsters on what to think this week. They knew what to think. They were comfortable with long-term thinking, planning even further ahead than the next election. They were self-sufficient, not requiring careers as politicians or lobbyists to make a living. They were able to bring out the best in us. They were interested in and, at least two of them, fluent in science. They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future — not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed. The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory. At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jefferson’s today.

    Where are they?”

    Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Ch. 25 : Real Patriots Ask Questions

    The reason that Tyson, Nye, etc. are the usual go-to people is because they have been active and engaging and are mass media’s choice for attracting audiences. There are many more out there who could easily be the new Tyson’s, etc. but they are going to have to work at getting their work into the public eye.

    I work part-time at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum in the Education Department. When it comes to communicating science to school kids (and, sometimes, the adults accompanying them) in the many programs we have (physical science, biological, historical, etc.) it has to be nowhere near a PhD-level of understanding, and it must contain a level of excitement as the kids we typically speak to are still figuring out what they want to be, and the adults (you never know) might be thinking about going back to school for a new career. I’ve found that the way we present the information is part Isaac Newton (fill in your own favorite science/mathematician here) and very much P.T. Barnum. In no way is the information dumbed down, but the information must be made available to the public in a very accessible way, on their level.

    As a professional meteorologist, the one thing that has been paramount in my experience in explaining weather phenomena (or other things as station scientist) has been to never speak down to your audience. Ever. Boil information down as much as possible, include all that is necessary to include for clarity’s sake, but never make them feel that you are treating them as a three year old and that they have no hope for understanding.

    In many of the experts of their respective fields that I have interviewed over the years, the terrible ones are those who quote chapter and verse from a textbook or treatise (usually their own) and expect the data parroted on through the camera/microphone to speak for itself. (Akin to Professor I.M. Boring on Beakman’s World.) That is all well and good for the professor, but if the public does not see why it is of benefit, a threat, something to be improved, etc., if it cannot be explained into their everyday non-scientific lives, they are going to quit listening. When they stop listening, they stop tuning in and news directors of newsrooms across the country don’t like that. Persuading the Powers-That-Be of newsrooms around the world to cover something scientific-related – as opposed to the latest celebrity exploits – is difficult for that exact reason: if people can’t be motivated/made excited about it, if they can’t understand, they don’t listen.

    This is one of the great abilities of the internet (and, the media, should they choose to embrace it): to stockpile/catalog contact information of those in their respective fields who can communicate complex ideas across varying subjects. It’s what Sagan, Feynman, Nye and Tyson did for me over my life and career. There are more waiting out there to be discovered and speak science to a world that sorely needs it, and the inspiration it brings.

    #ScienceRules #KeepLookingUp

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, Austen, and after you listed my favorites, I now have the earworm, “Feynman, Sagan, Tyson and Nye” sung to the tune of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” playing in my head. Thanks a lot.

      This has always been the way with any science that requires people to sit still and listen in order to understand it–first you have to get them to sit still, then you have to get them to listen. It’s not really their fault. We’re designed to be distracted by the shiny.

      So, emphasize the shiny in science. It’s not like it isn’t chock full of it. Draw ’em in with video of explosions and then explain to them that it’s an extreme close up of their digestive processes breaking down a pork rib sandwich. (Never hurts to be gross, especially with the younger crowd. Think Jackass.)

      It’s not lowering yourself to show ’em the highlights first in order to get their attention. What did you put on your resume? What did you wear on that first date? People decide in four seconds whether or not they’re going to listen to someone, much less believe them. Might as well make it someone shiny.


  27. Oh my goodness this is a great article/posting/statement. I’m so grateful to the person who posted the link on Facebook. My opinion of Dawkins can’t be posted it us so bad, and he does not speak for any sane, logical, or thinking person. Someday maybe he will be publicly exposed for what he really is.


  28. Well, for starters, here is a list of 100 women who are prepared to speak to the media on different areas of science and technology:
    How we encourage people to call them rather than Bill and Neil, I don’t know. Celebrity has a positive feedback mechanism — once people want you, everybody wants you. But how to reach that threshold of enough people wanting you, I have no idea!


  29. Jacqueline, Thanks for mentioning me in this article! I am trying in a variety of ways to do science outreach–art, teaching, writing, speaking, etc.–all to non-traditional audiences. You have always inspired me–since I first met you in Laramie! You already are a spokesperson for science and a good one at that. So keep it up. And keep an eye out for the book that Tony and I are writing. It will be out sometime next year. 🙂


  30. Wonderful post! I’ve been trying to express my thoughts about this for a little while but my attempts at blogging ( sadly reflect the 51% I got in high school for the state English exam. The current environment that poorly recognizes science communication doesn’t help. In New Zealand we have one major prize for science communication so basically who can grab most of the limelight is going to get it. It seems to me to be the case for the rest of the world. When were any of us at a science conference where a prize was given purely for communication?


  31. Many of us feel like we’re laboring in obscurity in science communication, as you point out. There are scads of us out here (lots of women scientist/science writers, too!) who can explain and tell stories of science and add that nice dimension showing the diversity of people who do and talk about science. But, as you point out, we’re obscured by the few guys who get called time and again.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.


  32. This is a really profound and important post Jacquelyn. I hadn’t worked it out in my head as well as you just have, so thanks! But I agree 100%. There’s room on the airwaves (and twitter, etc) for many politicians including minor ones, for athletes, for business leaders. How come there’s not room for leading scientists not just a few token celebrity scientists who aren’t practicing scientists anymore. And while I think many scientists have a lot of work to do, at the level you’re talking about, there are oodles of media-savvy capable scientists. But the only ones who get on are astronauts in space, ones who have an entertaining shtick (often apparently involving bow-ties) that has displaced the actual science, or a few angry ranters who are entertaining in their own right.

    And yeah, don’t get me started on Dawkins.

    The one great counter example (not a scientist himself but in the way he lends his celebrity to highlight real scientists doing real work) is the efforts of Alan Alda with his Nova program on PBS but also his training efforts. I really respect his work.


  33. You speak for you (added in after writing comment: I just saw your *** point as I was writing this comment); since you’re interested in science communication as much as your own research (based on the little I know about you it seems that way, anyhow) as you continue to build your career, you’ll probably end up as a prominent voice for paleo-ecology; it takes time to build that platform/audience- decades (or maybe just ecology generally?). And if you’re talking about some topic that is a bit out of your purview, maybe that’s the time to cite other people who’s wheel house that is who are also on Twitter/easy to find/also communicators of science. Science relies on multiple, independent sources to confirm findings, so the more scientists willing to engage (I’m not fully convinced that all of us are so interested in education/communication/outreach), the better.

    I listen to a lot of podcasts from various comedians; and I sort of like their model– they want to find specific audiences who enjoy their work and they acknowledge they can’t be for everyone. Same with science communicators and scientists. I appreciate that Neil Tyson on his Startalk radio podcast actually has other scientists on to talk about their work/field (while kind of annoyingly at times bringing it back to astronomy/astrophysics). Another thing I appreciate about Dr. Tyson is in some cases, at least, seems willing to listen to other points of view/acknowledge he’s wrong & correct himself, though still waiting on the philosopher bias he has.

    I agree there are too few Sci. comm voices with big platforms (I wrote about this here: ). Paying for science communication is a whole other can of worms, as is the deficit model (I still think getting the current state of knowledge out there matters if only because there really are people who aren’t aware). I am trying to take what the great science communicators we have now do well and learn what I can from it (and ignore those like Dawkins…I’ve always found him abrasive). Anyway, I’ll end this comment here; I need to get back to work. I really, really like this post!


  34. I think you can also add Michio Kaku in the mix here as another of the “go-to” guys (and to a lesser extent, Brian Greene). One main issue I have with Kaku is that he is a physicist and when he tries to talk about biological and evolutionary concepts, it is a big mess. There are plenty of charismatic folk who are just not given the platforms these others have. And I agree, as much as I enjoy Tyson and Nye, it is unfortunate that they get all the airtime and almost pathetically it seems Nye is grasping to remain in the public eye (DWTS, Ken Hamm debate) to remain relevant.


  35. oh he’s that b-o-r-i-n-g guy who’s always blabbing about why he doesn’t believe in god, rite? I got caught in a nasty youtube loop with all his posturings. What a dope! to say that about rape. You can see just by looking at him that he’s one angry dude! You go, girl!


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