Those “wonder”ful popular scientists. Praise them?

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.

Prof Brian Cox: physicist or priest? | Eliane Glaser | Comment is free | The Guardian.

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.

  6 comments for “Those “wonder”ful popular scientists. Praise them?

  1. Chris Howard
    March 4, 2013 at 4:37 PM

    People that say things like “…the new religion of science…” don’t really have a valid point. I suppose if they used the word “scientism” they might have an argument?

    They only succeed in illustrating their own scientific illiteracy, and confusion over what constitutes science, and what constitutes a religion.

  2. spookyparadigm
    March 4, 2013 at 5:38 PM

    Looking over her academic bio, it looks like she’s trying to fight, for whatever reasons, the old and somewhat passe “hard sciences” vs. “romantic humanities” fight. Her article is idiocy. The idolatry of the few celebrity scientists is annoying (believe me, I see it on my fb feed), but it is just a larger part of celebrity culture.

    That said, I’m going to react to the title of this post, because too bad. I do think there is an issue with the language, but it isn’t the one Glaser is bothered by. Rather, the messages of insignificance are overblown. Just because you get 70ish years out of 15 billion, it doesn’t make the day you cried in joy or sadness less significant … relatively. We may occupy incredibly small bits of space and time, but we are incredibly complex. We can’t make laws about humans, and attempts to understand them inevitably simplify them to the point where you’re not really explaining the interesting stuff anyway.

    This message is lost so much of the time in science media, I suspect because (as a result of Cosmos, and ultimately going back to the popularity of Einstein as a figure), physicists/astronomers, and biologists have been the primary voices of science in the pop media. That’s fine, but it has its biases, just other fields might bring. My favorite of the science docs, btw, was James Burke’s Connections, and you can see it’s influence in my work.

    A more diverse set of voices, discipline-speaking, would probably help this.

  3. RDW
    March 4, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    Although I admire Science and the hard working and hard thinking people who have done so much good in the world, I , personally, don’t consider it a “Religion Thing”. It’s a little sad that people feel a need to assign religiosity to sensible people. It’s as if they assume that there is a need for people to get all misty eyed and worshipful to SOMEONE, and if it isn’t Jesus etc., then it has to be Mr. Tyson or Mr. Dawkins or Mr. Shermer or Ms. Hill. I view Science and Scientists as tools, more or less, to help humanity progress down a road towards enlightenment . Maybe, to some ears, that might sound like Religion, but it isn’t. At most it is just a response to Religion. Heck, someday, we might even be able to discover some indication that our Universe and the Life and Intelligence contained therein, WAS brought about by some sort of sentient being. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it or anything, but I do know that we’ll not ever get to a point where we can look God in the eye, if people insist on replacing Science with some new brand of Dogma, whether in their own minds or in the real world.

  4. Hannah
    March 4, 2013 at 5:54 PM

    “…their privileged access to those facts. Like priests, they occupy an elevated position in relation to the phenomena they admire..”

    Privileged access? As if. The person who taught me the most about science is my husband, a high school drop-out who taught himself everything he knows. Scientists have no special access to special facts, they are just people who care about those fact professionally. Some of them love these facts so much they share them with us. They are not Magi with knowledge above and beyond the common man, THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT!

  5. March 4, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    I can never think of science as religious awe without thinking of Carl Sagan. He epitomises it, and fully accepted that to him the marvel of the universe was a numinous experience. Sagan seems to have done a great deal with Ann Druyan on Cosmos to influence later American science broadcasting, and perhaps some British – from the little I have seen of Brian Cox he owes rather more to Cosmos then to say The Sky at Night or Tomorrow’s World or even older Attenborough stuff – so yeah, there may be a sense of a secular religiosity in this stuff – in the sense of awe and as I say what Otto called the numinous. That just means certain emotional and spiritual states are invoked, you can’t go from that to the hackneyed Cos as “secular priest” (or more sensibly Cox as Arch-Nobber of Nu-Atheism) nonsense. I rather appreciate Sagan’s sense of wonder, and actually find his writing on religion remarkably sensible and far removed from what is often imparted to him in atheist communities. (Worth reading the volume of interviews Conversations with Carl Sagan ( University of Mississippi Press 2006 2006) to get real sense of his actual agnosticism and appreciation for mysticism and religion)

    I think Hannah above speaks good sense, and Spookyparadigm invokes the fact that the cosmic nihilism and despair in the face of our supposed meaninglessness is really quite inconsequential in terms of human stuff. Yep, a while ago I was chatting with Reece Shearsmith and he raised this issue – why human religion was so parochial, and I pointed out human religion is human scaled, not scaled to the cosmos. The Sacred Books of the religious traditions worry about human ambitions, human frailties, human joys and accomplishments, in the same way our newpapers tell us who is on TV tonight, who was caught sleeping with who and who won the Miss Joyful Prize for Rafia Work rather than discussing the collisions of far away galaxies. Human stuff is consequential to us, and paradigm is completely correct to my way of thinking. The only “popular science” type I can think of to deal with supposed Cosmic meaninglessness since HP Lovecraft (Volume 5 of his collected essays, Philosophy has a lot on this and it underlies the whole Cthulhu Mythos) is Douglas Adams, with is Total Perspective Vortex. I’d hope all us humans are sane enough to do a Zaphod when faced with that. :)

    Yep, the commentators above on here make a much better case then the article does. :D And I really must shut up and stop commenting on everything!

    cj x

  6. Flucksy
    March 9, 2013 at 1:39 AM

    “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”

    This makes so little sense to me that I can’t even come up with a metaphor to mock it. How can encouraging involvement cause negative accessibility of something?
    My autocorrect is telling me that “infantilising” isn’t a word, but I doubt that the software includes all of the English language.

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