A well-known theoretical physicist and science populariser Lawrence Krauss wrote an article for the January/February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he argues that even though public acclaim usually has little to do with scientific accomplishment, highly visible and trustworthy scientists can do much good both for science and for society at large.
“Those scientists who have a public audience have an opportunity, and also in some sense a responsibility, to help combat scientific nonsense, motivate young people to study science, and also to help steer public policy discussions toward decision making based on empirical evidence and sound theory. Happily, many of the most recognizable names have a good track record of doing just that.”
Krauss goes on to discuss the achievements and rise to fame of five eminent scientists: Albert Enstein, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
According to Krauss, Enstein was the first modern A-list science celebrity, who created a precedent and opened the doors for scientists to reach out to the public.
Luckily, many did exactly that. Seizing upon their charisma and scientific literacy, they went on to produce popular television shows, write influential articles in the newspapers and publicly speak on various science-related issues.
Krauss stresses that, ultimately, scientists should be answerable to the public. “The scientific community has a responsibility to communicate to the public both the results of the knowledge it generates and also the possible public impact of that knowledge, not only because the public funds us, but also because an informed public is an essential part of a healthy democracy.”
While this certainly does not mean that all scientists should endeavour to relay their findings and enthusiasm to lay people, many have a social conscience that drives them to act in ways conducive to affecting public policy in a positive way.
The reason why physicists have been, perhaps, the most successful at achieving public recognition is “because physics is somehow the most mysterious, and at times the most esoteric, of the sciences, and therefore the most capable of generating public awe”.
Krauss also notes that the majority of well-known science figures are male, which he hopes will soon change along with people’s growing realization that “outstanding science is not just done by old white men”.
The article concludes by stating that while “reality may not always be correlated to public perception”, we live in a culture of celebrity, which necessitates a concerted effort on behalf of the scientific community to gain a public voice.
“Whatever their background and experience, they [science celebrities] are a priori no less worthy than those other figures from sports, politics, or entertainment who help steer public opinion. At the very best, they can provide fresh and much-needed voices to counter much of the heat that is generated in public debate without much associated light.”
Original opinion article: Lawrence M. Krauss, Scientists as celebrities: Bad for science or good for society? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2015, vol. 71 no. 1, 26-32. DOI: 10.1177/0096340214563676.