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Science, Celebrities, and the Perils of Promotion
Update (Dec. 23, 2014): After considering some comments and thoughtful disagreements to the article below, I changed my opinion about the relative good-versus-bad merit of using Bialik as a role model for science. My overall thoughts are the same—celebrities endorsing science is a good thing in general, but we must have a care about them. I wrote a followup article explaining all this, so please read that before commenting here.
Promoting science can be tricky. In general it’s fun and rewarding. I have a passion for science, and I wear it happily for all to see.
But there are minefields afoot. Of course there are people who deny science, and they will let the vitriol flow if you happen to stick a toe into their territory. There’s also the issue of diversity, including topics like women in science as well as people of different backgrounds, color, beliefs, and so on. I’m all for promoting more inclusion in science: the more the merrier! Reality is, and should be, for everyone.
But how to do this, how to actually promote these ideas, can get interesting.
The picture is titled “Actresses with a passion for science” and shows five such women: Hedy Lamarr, Lisa Kudrow, Mayim Bialik, Natalie Portman, and Danica McKellar. I know how important it is to have good role models for kids and how girls need more support in getting into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Like it or not, actors and other famous people bear weight, so showing famous actresses who love STEM in my opinion is a pretty good thing.
So I retweeted the picture, adding “Love this” to it.
Then things got interesting.
Within minutes I started seeing responses about Dr. Bialik. Yes, “doctor”; she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. The thing is, she also holds a number of beliefs with which I and many others disagree, some of them very strongly. For example, she’s a spokeswoman for a group called Holistic Moms—they support homeopathy, a provably worthless and arguably dangerous bit of “alternative medicine.” They are also strongly anti-vaccination, and Bialik herself supports anti-vaxxers (she has stated she has not vaccinated her own children, a position I am strongly opposed to).
I knew all this when I retweeted the picture. I’ll admit, I hesitated before doing so, specifically because of this. Is promoting this picture also promoting anti-science beliefs? Looking at the responses on Twitter, a lot of people think so. I see their point, but I also don’t think this is quite so black-and-white.
I do strongly disagree with many of Bialik’s beliefs. But I also know that she is a high-profile actress, starring in The Big Bang Theory where she plays a scientist. Her character, Amy Farrah Fowler, is a biologist and is commonly seen doing work in the lab and talking about her research with her friends. I’m quite fond of her character; she’s a passionate scientist, a decent person, a dork, emotional, analytical, and has trouble being objective when assessing her relationship with her significant other. I know a lot of people like that. I am people like that.
Clearly, she can be a positive role model for science. However, we must have a care. The same people who might be inspired by her pro-science message might look into her more and find that she holds some less-supported beliefs, some that are anti-science.
So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.
But of course we should also be careful not to put celebrities on too high a pedestal. Yes, Bialik has beliefs unsupported by science. But so does everyone. I imagine if we dig into the histories of the other four women shown in the picture we’ll find all sorts of things that go against the foundations of science, just as you would if you examined anybody’s thoughts. I have met my fair share of scientists who believe in one thing or another without evidence, or despite it. Heck, you can find Nobel scientists who fall into that category, ones who have supported clear crackpottery.
I’ll note I’ve dealt with this before when I was at an event with a Miss Utah; though she and I would disagree strongly on a number of topics, she was also an outspoken promoter of STEM, which is why she was there. And I was glad she was there, doing what she did. Think of it this way: If you knew of someone who did a great job taking down psychics, but also thought global warming was a hoax, would you then stop praising them for their work against psychics? It’s not an either-or thing; I would hope you would continue to praise them where appropriate but also take them to task where needed, too.
While you might dismiss those ideas and think less of the person holding them, that doesn’t necessarily subtract from their contributions to science. In this case, Bialik has done a lot to raise awareness of science and women’s contributions to it. Celebrating her (and the other four actresses) for that is great, and that was the sole purpose of the picture, and it’s appropriate to praise her there.
That doesn’t mean I am forgiving of Bialik’s beliefs at all. And in fact her presence in the picture has brought attention to them, which I think is also a good thing. A lot of folks agree with her when it comes to health issues, and that’s a big problem in this country; I’ve been clear about that for years.
That’s what I meant about this not being black-and-white. We’re all shades of gray, and if you really only want to praise people who are absolutely the perfect icons of science in every way, well, good luck finding them. You’ll be looking a long time.
As for me, I will continue to support science the best I can, and also support women in science. That’s the bigger picture here, and one we should all bear in mind.
Note: The friend I mentioned above, Christina Ochoa, is part of a group of actresses (also friends of mine) who love science. They call themselves Scirens and you should follow them on Twitter. They're good people, and I’m pleased to help support their efforts.
Tip o’ the calculator to Joel Parker for the link to the video.