There is a bit of a dustup over a Guardian post, popular scientists, “wonder”, and stereotypes. Here we go…
In an opinion piece, Eliane Glaser isn’t happy with scientists on TV, specifically, the words and ideas they use.
She says: “Instructions to appreciate the wonder of science are everywhere.” And, “It’s ironic that the public engagement with the science crowd is so pro-wonder, because they’re so anti-religion.” Straw men again, these are her opinions. She equates scientists like Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins to some sort of new priesthood.
The crucial question, though, is who is doing the worshipping. Cox and co make much of their own humility in the face of natural marvels. They express wonder and we are meant to follow suit.But it’s too easy for the meekness we feel in the face of extraordinary facts to blur into deference towards popular scientists themselves, with their public profile and their privileged access to those facts. Like priests, they occupy an elevated position in relation to the phenomena they admire. While putting on a good show of being amazed, they function as powerful gatekeepers to a mystical beyond. Cox may not look like a boffin, but it’s telling that he’s always called professor.
The rhetoric of wonder is all about encouraging participation. But this infantilising power dynamic is not conducive to confident involvement or critical inquiry. It creates an inaccessible aura around science which has little to do with the everyday practicalities of what goes on in labs. Science is essential to our world, but like looking after children, the nitty-gritty is often prosaic and incremental. In its evangelical, popular guise, science becomes a matter not of reality or scepticism but of anti-intellectual reverence. All we can say in response is, wow.
The first comment I saw called this piece “muddled up contradictory crap”. The next suggested the writer might be jealous of the role science has taken. It’s obvious that religion does not play well wtih science and that scientific thought has eclipsed religious ideas in natural explanations.
George Dvorsky at io9 called it a “really grumbly post”. But he agrees to a point with her:
I’ve seen friends and colleagues swoon over many of these public figures in way that can only be described as religious adulation. These figures are, to a certain extent, filling the void that has been created by the ongoing secularization of human culture. Science provides a good outlet for our ‘spiritual’ longings and sense of existential awareness.
Sure fine. Some people don’t feel the need for religion and some of those same people do go sort of fan-boy over famous scientists. I’ve seen it. I do admit I got a little tongue tied around the ultra-cool, bad ass, Neil deGrasse Tyson (but not Richard Dawkins).
Dvorsky makes a good point that pop culture scientists COULD do a better job with the critical inquiry part. Science is all fine as an end product but the process of it is damned difficult to do right. People should appreciate that aspect. I also liked that he pointed out that not everyone is going to be interested in the details of science. Not everyone WILL become a scientist. See this interview I did with a professor teaching a course in science APPRECIATION.
Today, there was a sort of rebuttal piece in the Guardian, at least to one issue in the Glaser piece: It’s a big, fat myth that all scientists are religion-hating atheists.
Sylvia McLane states that the religion-hating scientist stereotype isn’t fair. And “wonder” shouldn’t be offlimits to atheists and scientists.
The cartoon stereotype that all scientists are religion-hating atheists isn’t just annoying; it is harmful. It is divisive and does nothing to encourage people into scientific discovery. In fact, it reinforces the idea that only a certain type of person can do science. This is not true. Professional science has enough diversity problems as it is, with women and minorities still grossly under-represented, without throwing religious-typing in there too. Public scientists and critics alike need to take a bit more care in lumping all scientists into the same stereotypical category. The world is much more complex than that.
This reminds me of something. The “skeptic” straw man. Some overlap exists with this piece by me posted on Friday on Sounds Sciencey.