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FameLab and the sexification of science

famelab-square-31I have no objection to trying to make science cool, so long as that doesn’t come at the cost of making it simple. By which I mean, for every Cosmos – rightly praised for its engaging treatment of cosmology, evolution and more (the first episode needed nachos to cope with all the cheese, but the second episode – on evolution – was superb) – there are a dozen painfully obscure, but no less important, attempts to convey the results of research in one field or another.

Or, attempts to convey the fact that research didn’t achieve any results, but that it was nevertheless worthwhile, even though it cost truckloads of money. My point is that much of science involves a slow, long slog, and is conducted by people outside of the limelight, often not even seeking the limelight because they are geeks/obsessives of some sort rather than wannabe celebrities.

This is why the advertorial insert on FameLab in Friday’s Mail&Guardian newspaper became the subject of a little rant between a friend and I over the weekend. The FameLab website carries the following quote from Dr Alice Roberts – “You are making something entertaining but not dumbing it down and I think that is absolutely what FameLab is about.” But take a look at the presentation from one of the finalists from last year:

In summary, the argument is that obsessive dieting can lead to women messing up their metabolisms, and can also impact on the health of their children. A British Medical Journal that Google found for me says:

Mother’s diet in pregnancy has little effect on the baby’s size at birth, but nevertheless programmes the baby. The fetus adapts to undernutrition by changing its metabolism, altering its production of hormones and the sensitivity of tissues to them, redistributing its blood flow, and slowing its growth rate.

Fine – if the challenge is to take some area of science and quickly summarise its findings in a compelling fashion, then FameLab could be described as a success (in general, rather than with reference to the talk above). But the science is of course being dumbed down, in that very few scientific hypotheses or theories can be explained without dumbing them down in 3 minutes (the length of a FameLab presentation) – and many can hardly be explained at all to non-specialists.

And that’s fine. It’s as it should be – because the difficulty inherent in some fields is exactly what motivates us to work so hard to find the answers to questions posed in those fields. If it was easy, anyone would be able to do it – and perpetuating the misconception that science is frequently about “fame”, and can be explained in a 3 minute performance, detracts from the reality of most science and scientists.

Here’s what the insert reported about Raven Motsewabangwe, South African’s winner of the 2014 round who will now go to the international finals in the UK:

Raven Motsewabangwe (North West University) compared viral infections to an attack by aliens and conveyed information to the audience about medical responses through vaccines and antivirals.

The clip isn’t available online, but the analogy is not new, and the rest sounds like science journalism of indeterminable quality. Quite the contrast to what the advertorial insert tells us about FameLab’s purpose:

Forget what you think you know about scientists. Do yourself a favour and meet the new generation. They’re fired up and they’re out to change the world.

[Insert deity of choice] help us, if that’s all there is to the new generation of scientists. We’ve got a difficult enough time of it as it is in the universities, simply asking students to read a few pages of text before coming to class, or expecting a modicum of attention for 45 minutes. It’s the Pop Idols approach to science that allows Nature News, Diet Doctor, Dr. Oz and all the other hyperbolic peddlers of oversimplification to capture audiences and sell books. Should we be encouraging that?

What we need at present are more reminders about the dangers of thinking science is about a persuasive presentation or a three minute summary. We need reminders that there are experts, and that the work they do is difficult, and important. We need reminders that the truth is often not demotic, and thinking that it is can contribute to things like near-record numbers of measles cases in the USA in 2013, as conspiracies and quackery take the place of scientific authority.

In the closing piece of the same insert, titled “Pop Idols for scientists”, we’re told a little more about our winner:

It was a 25 year-old microbiologist from Mafikeng in the North West Province – Raven Motsewabangwe – who emerged the judges’ favourite. His casual pop-star looks, engaging smile and the ease with which he explained the concept of viral infections using little more than two coloured balloons also won the hearts of many of the female audience; and when his name was announced as the winner, they rushed onto the stage to pose with their hero – South Africa’s Pop Idol of science.

In short, science is about looking sharp, and using short sentences (and props). Get it right, and the babes (if that’s what you’re after) will flock to you. Sounds about right, right?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

3 replies on “FameLab and the sexification of science”

I see utterly no problem in making science accessible. That is what Famelab is doing.

They are not “dumbing down” but explaining in an engaging, accessible way. Famelab is giving science a platform and a voice. It is exciting people about science. If you watch a series of Famelab talks are you worse off for it? Have the talks done any harm to the image of science or scientist? I think not.

All participant are scientists. They come from a strong knowledge base. They do not need to play a martyr to science. The do not need long words; unwieldy descriptions or starched shirts. It is about saying here is something amazing, please share my excitement of it.

You say it has to be dumbed down (I object to the terminology, but lets roll with it) for the 3 minute format. Does this mean we should share our ideas like this. Should we share science only in hour long formats highlighting the difficulty and complexity?

Famelab also serves as a starting point for many people in the art of science communication. These talk are not just inspiring and educating large and international audiences but the presenters themselves.

Also you fail to mention the judging criteria for famelab. Somewhat different to that of Pop Idol. The contestants of Famelab are judged on: Content, Clarity and Charisma.

One final point:
“We need reminders that there are experts, and that the work they do is difficult, and important” Oh what a bleak world. I want everyone to say I like science. I can do science. I’m connected to science. The Idea of a demi-god scientist dispensing wisdom to the ill-educated masses is far, far more dangerous than taking the time to make something understandable.

Thanks for the article, Jacques. I recently participated in the “big brother” of Famelab – the Science Slam. It was a hard ask – tougher to get 10 minutes of “simplifying” one’s field together than a 45 minute lecture on atherosclerotic development! I have to admit, my eventual product lacked content ( a bad thing), but did well on razzmatazz and getting the crowd behind me (exercise has that ability!)… and I have wondered at the “dumbing down” HOWEVER, there was a crowd of young people from all over the Eastern Cape who certainly were exposed to something that day – from Parkinson’s research to Fungi and then exercise research – and who surely have benefitted?

As is the case with TED (etc.), these things are of course a mixed bag. Some folks will get turned on to big ideas in a way that inspires them to grapple with the complexities of those ideas, perhaps in a way that leads to fruitful and/or rewarding careers. Others will become Malcolm Gladwells (insert your favourite pop thinker here), and perhaps encourage the kind of dumbing-down I write about above.

So, I don’t mean to dismiss it entirely – this, as with much of what I write about, is intended mostly as a corrective to our tendency towards unjustified enthusiasms.

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