“Science communication” is a cesspool of narcissism, misogyny, and colonialism
There is no better profession for a narcissist than that of “science communicator.”
Our politicians take advantage of the public’s ignorance of science. They don’t do nearly enough to address pressing issues ranging from climate change to antibiotic resistance. This makes work of science communicators terrifyingly urgent. But instead of providing factual accounts of real discoveries that actually matter, far too many science communicators build their brands by regurgitating their fellow narcissists’ talking points with flashy, superficial coverage that reinforces injustices in the scientific community. These science communicators use the urgency of the work that they ought to be doing as a shield from the criticism they so richly deserve.
Science communicators can be TV personalities like Bill Nye, journalists like Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post and Ed Yong of The Atlantic, or scientists like Kristofer Helgen who seek out publicity for their work. (If this list strikes you as lacking diversity, that’s because “science communication” as a whole lacks diveristy — as exemplified by this article on the lack of female “science celebrities,” which features photos of three white women and zero women of color, and this article on the struggles faced by female paleontologists, which also features photos of…three white women and zero women of color.)
People in the United States really like science. A recent blog post summarizes the findings of a national survey conducted by Pew:
84% of Americans agree that science is having a mostly positive effect on society, and that this belief holds strong across every major demographic category, including 88% of Republicans and 83% of Evangelicals.
When asked to evaluate various professions, roughly 70% of Americans answer that scientists “contribute a lot” to society compared to 38% for journalists, 23% for lawyers, 40% for clergy, and 21% for business executives.
The average American trusts scientists, but is spectacularly unqualified to judge scientists’ work and, for better or for worse, will never try to (unless they’re discussing a politically-charged topic like global warming or stem cells). So science communicators can say whatever they want.
Think of someone who has no academic background in politics, the humanities, or science . Imagine that, so far this year, this person has seen 10 Hollywood movies, 10 congressional hearings filmed by CSPAN, and 10 presentations from scientific conferences. Not only will this person have opinions about the movies and hearings, they’ll probably make some pretty good points about how the movies or hearings could have been better. However I very much doubt that this will be the case for the presentations from scientific conferences. Hell, if a theoretical physicist were to attend a biogeography conference or if a behavioral ecologist were to attend a geophysics conference, they wouldn’t be able to come up with constructive criticism of the presentations, either.
The same would be true for a dry cleaner attending a graphic design conference, but how many people watch documentaries about dry cleaning or graphic design? People watch documentaries about black holes and volcanoes and dinosaurs and sloths.
This is why science communication is such a safe space for narcissists. Unlike graphic designers and dry cleaners, science communicators have a broad, enthusiastic audience. And unlike politicians, movie stars, and political and entertainment reporters, science communicators speak to a public that lacks the necessary background knowledge to criticize them. Science communicators have an audience of many millions of people, very few of whom will ever hold them accountable in any way.
Bill Nye promotes his brand
Bill Nye engages in two forms of self-aggrandizement. In the first, he promotes his brand without pretending to teach anyone about science, e.g., appearing on Dancing with the Stars. In the second, he brings tremendous amount of attention to himself while engaging in activities that supposedly promote science but actually don’t. When Nye participated in a public debate on evolution vs. creationism, he generated a ton of free publicity for the Creation Museum. The whole thing was a tremendously bad idea, as discussed in various articles that Nye’s fans will never bother to read.
Another example of Nye’s fake science advocacy is his decision to attend the 2018 State of the Union address. Nye’s attendance got him a ton of publicity, but also some criticism from actual scientists — a phenomenally rare occurrence. 500 Women Scientists wrote:
Nye has…put his own personal brand over the interests of the scientific community at large….
And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science….
Bill Nye is acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but without our approval.
500 Women Scientists’ critique of Nye was beautiful. It was devastating. But Nye’s fans don’t care that he betrays the scientific community for which he claims to speak. They just want someone to pander to their nostalgia for 90’s TV shows.
The problem is not limited to Nye
Unfortunately for us all, the strain of lazy self-aggrandizement epitomized by Nye is hardly limited to “science communicators” who are famous enough to appear on Dancing with the Stars.
The public’s interest in, and ignorance of, science enables science communicators to enthrall the public with “disoveries” that are not discoveries at all. In 2009 a fossil called “Ida” was unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History, purported to be the “missing link” between monkeys (humans are descended from monkeys; technically we are monkeys) and other primates that are not monkeys. “Ida” was unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History to tremendous media fanfare, where she was called the “eighth wonder of the world.” The hype was quickly shown to be nonsense — this fossil has nothing to do with monkeys — but even now, nearly 10 years after the narrative was debunked, the second Google result for “Ida fossil” is this article credulously calling Ida a “‘missing link’ in human evolution.”
Hell, the bar for science communication is so low that you can publish a paper on something that other scientists have known about for decades, claim you made a “discovery,” and a hungry public will eat it up. When a few researchers declared that a long-known element of human anatomy, the interstitium, is an organ, Scientific American triumphantly declared that they “discover[ed] a new body part.” The interstitium is not new and is not an organ, so this is all nonsense. But articles criticizing the interstitium hype are few and far between, and there appears to be no market at all whatsoever for analysis of why certain journalists and media outlets fell for it.
Fake discoveries, real injustices
Given the many structural barriers that reinforce racism and economic inequality in the sciences, it’s no surprise that colonialism creeps into the fake “discoveries” that science communicators hype.
When the Smithsonian triumphantly claimed that its scientists had “discovered” a new species of mammal, the special pleading was immediately obvious: the first sentence of this article admits that the newly “discovered” species, the olinguito, had been represented in museums and zoos for over 100 years. So the supposed “discovery” is that the olinguito comprises its own species and doesn’t belong to the same species as its closest relatives, which are slightly larger. Except that this slight reclassification isn’t a new “discovery” either, because tags on museum specimens indicate that, about 100 years ago, another mammalogist “discovered” that the olinguito belongs to its own species; the other mammalogist simply didn’t get around to publishing a new scientific name for the olinguito, presumably because they had more important findings to write up.
The Smithsonian researchers were not the first scientists to lay eyes on an olinguito, and they weren’t even the first scientists to say that the olinguito belongs to a separate species from its closest relatives. But the “discovery” headlines piled up anyway, not only from the Smithsonian’s propaganda bureau but also from prestigious news outlets such as the Washington Post. The Post’s top science reporter, Joel Achenbach, proclaimed, “The Smithsonian announced this week that scientists had discovered this new species of mammal.”
Two years after the “discovery” of the olinguito was announced, when you’d think that the we-gave-a-new-name-to-an-animal-that’s-been-in-zoos-for-decades hype would have died down, Ed Yong of The Atlantic wrote a love letter to Kristofer Helgen, the lead olinguito “discoverer,” in which Yong waxed poetic about the olinguito and credited Helgen for “announcing its existence.”
Achenbach, Yong, and various other science communicators danced around the fact that Helgen and his collaborators were not the first scientists to lay eyes on the olinguito, and completely ignored a far larger plot hole in the Helgen-as-a-discoverer yarn: namely, that the Indigenous people who live alongside the olinguito already had a name for this creature far before Smithsonian scientists launched their “discovery” mission. “Inhabitants of the cloud forest called it Tutamono, which in Kichwa means night monkey.” Helgen and his cronies “discovered” the olinguito in the same way that Christopher Columbus and his cronies “discovered” the Caribbean: they didn’t.
Science reporters’ loyalty to their sleazy sources
When it became public knowledge that Helgen got it trouble at work for copying his boss’ signature without her permission, which somewhat unsurprisingly is against Smithsonian policy, Achenbach and Yong stood by their man. Yong used the occasion to call Helgen “the Smithsonian’s star mammal-discoverer” (I am not making this up) and Achenbach reminded us all that Helgen is both a “rising star” and a “superstar” who “discovered” the olinguito.
A few months later, the same journalist who broke the story about Helgen copying his boss’ signature published another article demostrating that Helgen had knowingly enabled a sexual assailant named Miguel Pinto. Pinto was Helgen’s right-hand-man in the olinguito “discovery,” and admitted on the record that he had sexually assaulted me and another student. The article detailed how the Smithsonian mishandled my ordeal.
Since Achenbach and Yong have so much to say about the olinguito “discoverers” and about Smithsonian administrators’ treatment of researchers, some observers expected them to comment on the Pinto debacle and Helgen’s role in it. But like most of Helgen’s fanboys, Achenbach and Yong remained silent.
Since the Pinto story was published, it has become public knowledge that Achenbach engaged in “inappropriate workplace conduct” toward women. No wonder Achenbach chose not to follow up on a story about a science communicator’s role in a workplace sexual assault scandal!
Yong, too, has nothing to say about his role in promoting Helgen, the columbusing researcher who knowingly enabled an admitted sexual assailant; in an effort to convince us that he really does care about equality, Yong tells us five times a week that 50% of the sources in his stories are women. So next time a sexual assailant and his enabler “discover” something that has long been known to Indigenous people, colonialist women and men will be quoted in The Atlantic at the same rate. Thanks, Ed! You’re a real helper.
Female science reporters are often no better
In this environment, it’s no wonder that the female science communicators who get ahead are often “Aunt Coulter” types who demonstrate their loyalty to the Boys’ Club by selectively betraying their gender. In the same way that Meryl Streep has publicly bemoaned Donald Trump’s sexual-assault proclivities but led a standing ovation for Roman Polansky, there are female journalists who report on sexual misconduct in STEM only under specific circumstances.
Take Achenbach’s female colleagues at the Washington Post. Reporter Sarah Kaplan writes entire articles about harassment of women in STEM. But when Helgen resigned from the Smithsonian a few months after the article about Pinto came out, Kaplan wrote a glowing article about Helgen in which she neglected to mention that his colleagues’ antipathy toward him just might have something to do with his history of knowingly enabling an admitted sexual assailant.
While writing her article, Kaplan reached out via Twitter to Helgen’s wife and to a student who has remained loyal to Helgen even after the public revelation that he enabled Pinto. However I was unable to find any evidence that Kaplan attempted to contact any of the individuals who accused Helgen of misconduct, even though multiple such individuals are on Twitter. It appears that Kaplan is only willing to speak to Helgen’s fans and cronies. According to such individuals, Helgen is a victim of “a witch hunt out of jealousy.” (Which period in history was the one where “witch hunts” resulted in the enablers of sexual assailants choosing to look for a new job?)
Naturally, Kaplan also took the opportunity to credit Helgen with “the celebrated discovery of a new raccoon species called olinguito” even though the olinguito has nothing to do with her article.
The Washington Post’s science editor, Laura Helmuth, has also written about harassment (you know, under certain circumstances). When a Smithsonian administrator named Richard Kurin made the false, obviously unsubstantiated insinuation that an institutional investigation had cleared Helgen of mishandling the Pinto situation, Helmuth could have investigated this claim and sought evidence of its veracity, or could have encouraged the Post’s reporters to do so. (I believe that’s what some people call “journalism.”) Instead, Helmuth thoughtlessly parroted the Boys’ Club’s line.
No accountability for science communicators
By and large, science communicators refuse to police their own. I have not seen a single science communicator discuss the intersection of Achenbach’s inappropriate-workplace-behavior proclivities with his refusal to acknowledge his sources’ role in sexual assault scandals. Nor have I seen a single science communicator discuss the incongruity between Yong’s professed commitment to gender equality and his unquestioning loyalty to Helgen.
We know what happens when Fox News regurgitates a false talking point from Donald Trump. The network is called out by MSNBC, pundits decry Fox News’s sensationalism, and the blogosphere dissects the Fox News journalists’ prejudices and conflicts of interest. In the wake of the Theranos debacle, this sort of self-awareness is finally creeping into tech journalism. But science communicators have yet to go through any such reckoning. They can mislead the public time and again, hyping up Ida and the olinguito and the interstitium and whatever else they want, safe in the knowledge that their audience has no desire to hold them accountable.