Are Celebrity Scientists Just Memes?

An interview with philosopher of science Philip Kitcher

Stephen Hawking's recent death was on the front pages of newspapers and trended on social media. Cher and Katy Perry tweeted about it. It's not often that science or scientists get so popular. In this interview with Columbia University philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, author of multiple books including Science in a Democratic Age, we discuss how and when (some) scientists turned into celebrities, and what are the benefits and costs we derive from that, in a culture that celebrates memes and distrusts experts 

—Paula Erizanu 


PE: Could you explain the appeal of Hawking, Dawkins and Einstein as celebrity scientists?

PK: So Dawkins and Hawking are very different cases. 

There’s a really healthy side to the celebrity science movement and that is the tremendous increase in our acceptance that scientists, including eminent scientists, might write for a broader public. I think that’s something that’s happened over the past 40 years. Forty years ago scientists who wrote popular science books were sneered at and that doesn’t happen anymore. 

The idea that science should be available to the broader public is now widely accepted in the scientific community and I think that we owe a lot to the people who pioneered that movement – Carl Sagan, and Lewis Thomas, Steve Gould, and Richard Dawkins. I disagreed with Dawkins sometimes, I agreed with him sometimes but I absolutely take my hat off to him for what he’s done in increasing the public understanding of science. 

That was really his mission. That was something that it seems to me he did more rather than advance his own scientific ideas. I mean, Dawkins is an original thinker in evolutionary biology but not someone who will be known because of his original ideas. But more because of the way in which he made evolution available to a very broad public. I think he deserves a lot of respect for that. 

Hawking is a different case because you have someone who, like Einstein, is widely acknowledged as a scientist of the very top magnitude. He also is someone who had very severe difficulties but overcame them and was able to work so productively and so brilliantly, and that obviously captured the public imagination.


"Becoming a celebrity may make you more isolated from the team work that is at the core of scientific research. "



In the case of Einstein and of Hawking you have very prominent scientists who partly because of the power of their ideas but largely because of their personality features, have come to be public figures.  

Dawkins is a different case – in the case of Dawkins you feel like this is someone passionate about science as a whole and in communicating it. He has a great talent for presenting and he’s used that talent extremely well in educating the public. But I think about him more as someone who has created this new role rather than as a great scientist who is also a public figure.


PE: But Dawkins is not only known as a scientist, but also as a champion for atheism. Does celebrity transform scientists into political figures?

PK: Dawkins’s New Atheism is recent, really only about a decade long. 

Dawkins and I disagree enormously on this. I’ve written about my own secular humanism and the need for an alternative to the kind of hardline atheism Dawkins purveys. That’s not a side of Dawkins I particularly like but that is entirely separable from the work he did as a professor of the public understanding of science. About that I’m going to say three rousing cheers. 

Many atheists would disagree, they would say he has made the world safer for atheists. I don’t think the world needs fundamentalist atheism more than it needs religious fundamentalism. Dawkins is a fundamentalist, I think. What we need is sophisticated religious people debating sophisticated secular humanists.   

I think less highly of this aspect of his work. This is in a way odd because Dawkins' atheism doesn't in the end have that much to do with his science. Dawkins tends to make the connection. But he’s not very good at arguing the case because the relations between science and religion are very complicated. Dawkins as science educator is one thing, and Dawkins as champion of atheism is a different thing. 


PE: Is there a tension between the way celebrity works and the way science works?

PK: There clearly is. As you become more widely known, as you travel around on TV shows, and give lectures and speeches, it takes a lot of energy and time from the hard work of thinking. It may make you more isolated from the team work that is at the core of scientific research. 

I think this has happened to some extent to palaeontologist Stephen Gould. The fact that he became so widely known meant that there was huge pressure on him to produce a large book at the end of his life. It had to be a large book even if the hard science in it could have been presented in quarter of the volume. I think that it distorted his scientific career, I have to say, as a friend of Steve’s. 

Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, which is a brilliant, novel perspective on things that were going on at that time. Then he went to write what I think is the most original piece of work, The Extended Phenotype. It’s a brilliant book and he could have spent part of his career developing that but instead the books and the articles that come after that go down the public understanding of science. I applaud the fact that he did that because I think it was an important task but I think it was at the cost to his developing the important and seminal ideas that he had in The Extended Phenotype. I can imagine a different career for Richard Dawkins, one in which his scientific work is much bigger than it turned out to be. 

In the end, I think Dawkins, who had the potential to be a major figure in the development of scientific theory, settled for the latter position, the educative role. In fact, he pioneered that role, that’s why I admire him so much.


PE: Would you say that the way the public debate, and science research, takes place at the moment means that some people can become scientists and others educators? Is this distinction between hardcore scientists and science educators inevitable?

PK: I think the scientific community needs people who will wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to a particular line of scientific research and it also needs people who will take that research out and will explain it to the public. 

Einstein lived at a time when it wasn't so hard for his pronouncement to have an effect. He did all of his brilliant scientific work, he was known as a somewhat eccentric genius, and so he could do an off the cuff pronouncement. But as he grew older, as it happens with most scientists, Einstein's scientific work wasn't as groundbreaking as his earlier stuff. It’s possible to transition, to start as a researcher that has a great, groundbreaking idea and then spend the rest of his or her time popularising it. 

Someone who is really interesting is Jennifer Doudna. She discovered this genetic modification tool, CRISPR-cas9, a molecular tool that you can use to modify the genomes of organisms. It’s a cut and paste device, not entirely accurate, but it is orders of magnitude more accurate than what we had before. She is one of the co-discoverers. She wrote a brilliant educational book about it and the social implications of this discovery, A Crack In Creation. My guess is that she will go back to researching CRISPR-cas9 and the uses of it. I don't think she has any interest in becoming a public celebrity. She’s probably going to win a Nobel Prize at some point. 


"Dawkins, who had the potential to be a major figure in the development of scientific theory, settled for the educative role. In fact, he pioneered that role."



In a way, she’s like Francis Crick. Throughout his life, Crick pursued a very large number of important ideas in molecular biology, unlike his collaborator James D. Watson who had this one major breakthrough in discovering the structure of the DNA. And then basically never did anything of the same level again but built the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and wrote a fabulous book on molecular biology and the DNA.

Crick was almost all the time consumed with the scientific world. He was also something of a public figure, an eccentric English genius transplanted to Southern California, and he used it, quite effectively, to write books about the kind of science that interested him. But his life was really centred on the lab and research. 

Doudna is going to be like Crick, she’s going to do her research and once in a while, or perhaps once in a lifetime, she will write a book for the general public about it. That seems to me a very healthy way to go.


PE: Do you think celebrity scientists help restore public trust in science, or do they just become internet memes?

PK: I don't think it’s easy for anyone to restore trust in all sciences. The appeal to experts is seen with suspicion now. That’s being used politically in the Brexit debate and in the fake news, alternative reality stuff that my own country is currently suffering through. 

Is Dawkins’ atheism counterproductive for restoring trust in science? I doubt it. Is it productive for restoring trust in science? I certainly doubt that. 

Has Dawkins enabled people to understand a particularly controversial area of science? Absolutely. Even though I think he tends to oversimplify evolutionary theory, I think he's done immense amount of good in getting people to understand aspects of Darwinian evolution and to take the theory seriously. I suspect Dawkins’ books and Youtube clips have been very helpful in getting people to understand aspects of cosmology that they didn't understand. Have either of those restored trust in science? It’s hard to say. 

In the area that matters most now, climate science, no public science educator can really restore trust. Lots have tried to do it, for example Michael E. Mann. That’s where we need trust to be restored, and that’s where it hasn’t yet happened.


PE: Are there other ways to get the public interested in science? In your book Science in a Democratic Society, you mentioned citizen panels. Could you say more about them?

PK: I think that it would be a good idea to completely change the way we teach science in education.

Little kids are fascinated by science. And most people who graduate from secondary education are science haters. We've obviously done something wrong.

Instead of lumbering throughout years and years of school of memorisation of all sorts of amino acids, we should let the people who know by the age of 14 that they are not going to go into science to have a completely different kind of scientific education.

One that brings home to them things about how scientific breakthroughs have occurred, the fascination of scientific discovery, we should get them to understand how evidence is assembled, how scientific creativity works, and make them literate, to read scientific articles written for the public in ways that they can carry forward throughout their lives.


"Little kids are fascinated by science. And most people who graduate from secondary education are science haters. We have obviously done something wrong."


The history of science is full of fantastic stories. People love good stories. Teach them something about the culture of science, have them do open-ended experiments. Have them understand how to make inferences and assemble evidence. Teach them statistics but in the context of them finding out why smoking is bad for you.

Here is something that we tried out at Columbia, with the first year students. Put a whole bunch of skulls on a table in a classroom. Tell the students, I want you to figure out which of these skulls are related to other skulls. Here is some equipment, here’s a ruler, some pencils and paper. Figure out how you might decide which of the skulls are related to other skulls. It’s a fascinating task. They’re then reconstructing bits of palaeontology for themselves.


PE: A bit morbid but yes, fascinating. Basically you’re suggesting ways in which we can make people curious about science.

PK: Yes, it’s retaining the sense of wonder and curiosity and giving them a sense that in mundane things there are fascinating puzzles. Another thing that people like to do is solving puzzles. Have them work in groups, they would learn a lot about the internal dynamics of science. 

So much of scientific education is deadening at the moment. There is a discipline that people who are going to go in science have to learn. But you have to differentiate between the people who are going to be scientific researchers and the lay public. 

I’m writing a book on education so I’ve given you a primitive digest of it. That’s a long term solution to the breakdown of trust in science. 

But in the short term, Evelyn Fox Keller, with whom I co-wrote Seasons Alter: How To Save Our Planet in Six Acts, and I think that the right way to restore trust in science is not to go down the public authority route. Fox News viewers don't like public authorities very much. So we suggested that what we need is dialogues between climate deniers and climate activists. This isn’t just for the sake of the reputability of science. 

What we’re hoping is that people will start working with neighbours and colleagues and that we will get a coalescence of groups to pressure for real political action on climate change.

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Haji Benstoke 27 July 2021

It's not often that science or scientists get so popular. In this interview with Columbia University philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, author of multiple books including Science in a Democratic Age.