Sci doesn't generally like expressing her opinion on things in the blogsphere. It usually gets her yelled at, and Sci is a very conflict-averse little soul. But every once in a while. I see something that gets me thinking. And so I must comment. And at least half the internet will probably declare war on me forever more. So it goes. I'll don my protective headgear, and get on with it.
A few days ago, Sci mentioned that this year's Rock Stars of Science is out. I was pleased this year that they had women and African-Americans represented (last year's edition was pretty distressingly white and male). On the other hand, as my commenters mentioned, people either looked really REALLY awkward, or were posed with that cross-armed posture that reminded me of the ads for CSI. At least they weren't all wearing suits this year, the ladies were definitely rocking some cool looking leather jackets.
And at first I completely overlooked Dr. Oz. Sci, to be honest, doesn't own a TV, has never seen an episode of Oprah in its entirety, and while the name Dr. Oz looked familiar...I couldn't place it. I did note that he looked ok in a bow tie (for a guy in a bow tie). It was only when a commenter pointed it out that I got warning bells, went back and read the bio, and realized where I'd heard of him. Orac. Hoo boy. Dr. Oz is a peddler of the non-scientifically accurate type of medicine.
Sigh. And Elizabeth Blackburn looked so cool.
And so I felt sheepish.
And I wondered, as others have pointed out, what awareness does this raise? How does a GQ spread in print help? Sure we promote it online, but let's be honest, people going to science blogs probably already think science is cool (in theory). And how does famous scientists posing with rockstars make the scientists look cool? It mostly looks like they are trying to look like rock stars...awkwardly. So I'm not really sure how it helps.
Then I thought of another method of outreach that has gained a lot of attention lately. I am speaking of course of the science cheerleaders.
Watching that video, I am nothing but impressed with these women, who manage to juggle a hardcore career with an equally hardcore sport. But there is something about this kind of outreach that makes me really uncomfortable. I've tried to explain it to several guys, and the conversation always ends up going somewhat like this:
Sci: I don't know that I want cheerleaders representing women in science this way.
Guy: They don't really, it's just to build up interest! It's for the kids!
Sci: If it's really for the little girls, why are they wearing those booty shorts and bringing along the cleavage?
Guy: That's the way cheerleaders DRESS! And that's what kids think of when they think of cheerleaders!!
Sci: But these cheerleaders aren't DOING SCIENCE, they're cheering. They may be saying "go science!" but they aren't actually showing these kids what doing science and being into science really looks like.
Guy: But they're changing the stereotype! They're showing that you can be a scientist AND a cheerleader.
Sci: No, they are showing you can be a cheerleader. They aren't actually DOING science.
Guy: But they are making science popular!
Maybe it is good to for these women (who are, as I mentioned before, some seriously impressive people) to be cheering about science...but I'm not seeing a lot of cheering ABOUT science. I heard "GO SCIENCE!", and I heard "we're BUSTIN', We're BUSTIN', We're BUSTIN' UP THE STEREOTYPES!"
Well, they're definitely 'bustin' out of something.
I can't help but think that if they're going to promote science, maybe they ought to...cheer about science. I don't know, something like "Gravity, it's everywhere! Holds down your feet and holds your chair! It's a force between earth and me, let's hear it for GRAVITY!!". Or, I dunno "Here's a cheer for H2O, with us in liquid, ice or snow! In oceans and in ice caps too, water's essential for me and you!"
So I feel like, right now, it's a bit of a gimmick, cheering for the nerds.
But that's not the only problem I have with it. The goal is clearly to make these women visible. Visible as women who love science, who in many cases ARE scientists. Visible with their long, flowing hair, their long toned legs, their short shorts...bouncing...
And I'm not sure this is a great thing. Not necessarily for getting the notion of science out...but for the women who are already in it.
Stories abound (I've got a few of my own) of women in science getting flak for BEING women. Being treated like objects, in the lab, at conferences. I've been at conferences myself, or teaching, showing my WORK, and had to watch as my male colleagues focus on...things about me other than my work. Women in science fight against this sort of thing ALL THE TIME, working not only on our science, but on getting the men in the field to take us seriously, to not see us as objects that can also pipette.
And when I see science cheerleaders, bouncing around in teensy shorts and extensive cleavage...well, they're cheering for science, but they are also making themselves objects. Objects to be looked at by men, and not really to be taken seriously. And seeing them objectified seems to make it that much more ok to objectify the other women in science. The women on the job, the one's who want to be presenting the papers and not holding the pom-poms. You see that woman, on the job...and you know, she's HOT. She could be a CHEERLEADER.
There goes her data presentation.
So. Science rock stars? Or science cheerleaders? I'm not sure that either is really doing any good. And it's not because they don't love science, they DO. Rather, it's because, to make science cool, you can't just associate scientists with cool or popular things, like cheerleaders or rock stars. You have to make it cool to DO SCIENCE. That means more than having rock stars be rock stars next to scientists, or cheerleaders cheering at scientific meetings. That means, maybe, having the rock stars try science. Having these cheerleaders, who can sure has heck DO science, doing their work. People may say that "that's not something Sheryl Crow would do". Well, maybe if she's into science and into making science look cool, IT IS.
While I don't think that either the rock stars of science or the science cheerleaders themselves are all bad, I think we can do better. But I think that doing better may have to involve something more than pom poms and guitars. It may have to involve...some science.