Recently ahead of the premier of the latest Men in Black film Will Smith came to London on a promotional tour. The premier was a media circus with many celebrities gracing the red carpet; this was not his only stop however. In a slightly lower-key event Will visited London’s Science Museum. This is not the first time the actor (who has made a very comfortable living from science fiction movies) has shown a fondness for all things science. Will understands that by openly sharing his interest he may inspire children and perhaps change some perceptions of the subject. I support this with the same gusto as I do the role of Star Trek’s Uhura as a NASA advocate. The throwing of celebrities at science is not necessarily a good thing though.
I was reminded as Will posed with local school children about another celebrity endorsed science activity. The FIRST Robotics Competition is a high profile robotic competition in the USA. Last year they produced a promotional video overflowing with celebrities. The video (opposite) features Justin Timberlake, Jack Black, Justin Bieber, Snoop Dog and most prominently Will.i.am. There are also many more. I dislike this video immensely and for several reasons.
No one can question the popularity of the celebrities featured in the video, they each have legions of fans that will follow them devotedly. So why will Justin Bieber saying ‘science is cool’ not lead to an instantaneous increase in college applications? Well frankly he is just not that good an actor. For the most part the celebrities in the video have shown next to no interest in science throughout their career. Jack Black tells us “Showbiz aint nothing compared to science” this being true and me being a scientist I can only pity you Mr Black for being trapped in such an under appreciated profession.
Steven Tyler tells us that he becomes a “doctor of thinkology”. I question whether or not he even finished his undergraduate. Celebrities have great power to influence the public and I think this can be used in the ongoing battle to remove stigmas and dispel misperceptions that surround science. I think the benefit is lost when celebrity is used for celebrities’ sake. Here a group of famous people have been sat down and prompted to promote science. They have no link or no interest in the subject and come off as completely disingenuous. The promotional equivalent of answering “does my bum look big in this?” Science is well aware of its unsightly bits and telling it that is as cool as Justin Bieber is not a magical cure.
It also has to be questioned if they picked the correct famous people. I will not deny that Snoop Dog has in the course of his live shown a rather passionate interest in certain areas of chemistry, as for his relationship with biology the less said the better. In terms of role models I would rather see him glossed over. If he completed a PhD next year I would still not hold him up as inspirational material. Especially given that one of the major problem areas facing science is the inclusion and encouragement of women within the subject. This man stands for the exact opposite to me.
The one positive note on this video is the prominent placement of Will.i.am. Here we have a celebrity who has proven to go out of his way to pursue an interest in science. Will.i.am is Intels director of creative innovation and instead of throwing out general positive statements actually has thought about how science has affected his live. It takes very little internet digging to reveal that will.i.am is indeed a supporter of science and long may this continue!
Basically- if there is a reason you like science- tell us! If however you would like to make a paid (I assume) appearance in a promotional video to tell us we are ‘cool’ thanks but we’ll manage along without you.
Jamie Gallagher, May 12