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).
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 mistakes and 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.