Throwing Rocks over Rock Stars of Science
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a good ol’ fashioned argument, would it? Chris Mooney and Martin Robbins have gotten into a public turkey-throwing match over their defense and assault, respectively, of the Geoffrey Beene Rock Stars of Science campaign. If you’re reading this, or if you can click that link, you know what the campaign is all about.
So why the animosity? Chris is an official ambassador of the campaign, and he has likely invested a lot of time to its (hopeful) success. Martin is an Englishman who thinks it’s a pile of rubbish, and said so. I don’t know whose side I am closer to being on. There’s lots of problems with the campaign, but I don’t think Robbins gets to what they are at all. Let’s see who gets the drumstick:
1. What the hell is it for? The RSOS website says “Our most brilliant scientific minds are dedicated to finding cures for the diseases that threaten our future, and America’s most celebrated Rock Stars stand behind them.” First of all, the rock stars are standing in the foreground of most of the pictures. That aside, what is the point of this campaign? Chris claims that it puts scientists “on the radar” of the American public. Robbins says it’s like “a puppy trying to hump a leg,” full of effort, but not likely to do much good.
I say it’s really neither. Is this a charity by Geoffrey Beene? Is it a hospital ad? Cancer awareness? Nothing about these pictures gives a GQ reader any idea of what they are looking at. So it’s some Dr. Something they’ve never heard of standing next to a famous person they have heard of. It’s publicity for the scientists, but that assumes that a GQ reader finds the 12-point font, types in the URL on their computer, and takes the time to figure out just what these pictures mean. Not one single thing on those pages really differentiates it from a car or watch ad, which there are 50 pages more of in an issue.
Robbins wins here, in that the promotion of science and scientists is not accomplished by printing pictures of them next to more famous people. RSOS made an ad, and it’s about as sticky as one.
2. Why GQ? Who knows? You’d have to ask Geoffrey Beene. My guess is something to do with existing advertising contracts with a certain large men’s magazine by a certain men’s fashion company, but that’s a guess. Over at gimpyblog, the demographics are analyzed:
Your average GQ reader is 33.4, with ~1/3 over 34. They have a 55% change of being white, a 71% chance of being college educated and have a median income of $81k, putting them in the wealthiest 18% of the population.
Making science cool to educated, white men with high incomes. Not really a demographic that struggles in an unequal society.
Robbins touches on this by asking where the beardless, perhaps more female, maybe post-doc (ha!) scientist stars are. Wouldn’t they satisfy the GQ readers a bit more? Maybe, but first answer “Why GQ in the first place?”. Neither win this, because gimpyblog takes the rug out.
3. Is science really cool? This is my favorite part of the argument, so far. As an example, Robbins uses a moon exploration photo featuring an Apollo-era rover and lander. He adds:
This is a picture of two spacecraft on the moon at the same time, taken by astronauts who have walked from one to the other. If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.
. . . to which Mooney responds:
To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.
While most intelligent humans agree that Dan Brown is the McDonalds of literature – easy to consume, simple, and usually immediately regretted upon finishing – guess what? Most Americans do not think science is cool. Go ahead, go outside and ask 10 of them, heck, ask 100. Sure, I don’t imagine that most people would say “science is uncool, I hate it, and I hate your scientist face”. But science is not cool to most people in the same way that making a soufflé isn’t cool to most people.
Think about it. Take someone who has already been bitten by the bug of cooking. For a person who brings an established interest to the table, the magic and delicacy of constructing a delicious, airy castle out of merely eggs, structural support and heat is cool. But to Joe Public? Not interesting. Same goes for Robbins’ example. That picture is cool to someone who regularly analyzes the feats of space travel, who possesses a wondrous respect for the accomplishments of humankind that allowed us to walk and drive on the moon. To my friends outside of science, it’s a picture of an astronaut. That’s it. You don’t get to discount them simply because they don’t bring a Scientist’s Club card to the table.
I think Mooney almost misses it too, though. Because while he is right that most Americans would be more interested in Dancing With The Stars than would get all Bieber-feverish over a picture of two vehicles on the moon, more people would be interested in Dancing With The Stars than would even pause on the RSOS campaign. It is not inherently cool. It, too, requires a certain established interest to be meaningful.
Mooney gets the point here, though, for understanding that cool isn’t a reflex response to science. Robbins had to use a paragraph explain why his photo should be so cool, and he also hates you if you don’t get it off the bat.
4. Does this campaign change any of #3? I have to argue no. If I didn’t read both of their blogs, and I didn’t know this campaign existed, I would flip past it in a magazine. And I am in the demographic and I ooze interest in science! I have read papers by most of the scientists featured! But it doesn’t fail for me because science should be inherently cool. It just doesn’t convey its message, and it doesn’t connect science to anything at all. As my friend JL Vernon points out:
. . . if you want to put scientists with rock stars, perhaps the next stage should be actually putting the science on display rather than unrelated scientists. I’d like to see the actual scientists behind Rock ‘N Roll represented in the ads. What is the science of electric guitar? Who invented the amplifier and what kind of science is necessary to put on a rock show? Who are the scientists behind Bret Michaels’ youthful looks?
That’s where the cool is. Show readers why these scientists relate to something else that they find cool. Relating them visually to a celebrity in a photograph does nothing but confuse them, or worse, make them ignore the effort outright. Sadly, a GQ ad spread isn’t going to be a very good venue for this.
Given an opportunity, and a context that rings true to their own lives, laypeople can find science cool on even the smallest scale. Context could be some other interest they have, some demographic they relate to, visual appeal, art, even sex. But RSOS will probably not succeed because it doesn’t create that context. Celebrity is not automatic context unless you are selling something, and there’s nothing for sale here. Except ad space for Geoffrey Beene.
Final score? It’s a tie. Mooney is right that Robbins can’t claim science’s divine right to cool. Robbins is right that the message is lost, and could have been done in a better way. But since he called Chris names, and doesn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving, Mooney gets the drumstick!
Final thought: I sincerely hope that any impact assessments of the campaign prove me wrong, but I am not holding my breath. And I don’t know what the right campaign would look like, but this isn’t it. Hopefully this can be used as a learning experience for all.