Charismatic Scientists

I have been thinking about science education lately. Not the kind you get in school. Rather, the education that comes from watching charismatic men (for some reason it seems to always be men) of science on the television.

When I was growing up, we had Carl Sagan, we had Phillip Morrison. Earlier than those two, Richard Feynman. We even had niche guys like Jack Horkheimer and his 5-minute show “The Star Hustler.”

All those men have passed away, and there isn’t much taking their place. We had Steve Irwin for a while, who did for zoology what Sagan did for astronomy, but he is gone now, too.

I can think of only three major players today, Steven Hawking, Bill Nye, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Hawking is unique. Nye seems to appeal largely to those already scientifically literate. DeGrasse Tyson is the newcomer. He is in the mold of Sagan and Horkheimer. He’s likeable and knowledgeable, a good speaker, and able to hold the audience’s attention. We need more populists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Unlike ?the days when Sagan and Morrison were on the air, we have an environment much less friendly to scientists and to the science in general. The science literacy of the U.S. legislative branch is appalling, and the common person tunes out whenever something “hard” like science is under discussion.

We need populists who can communicate ideas to the lay person. This nation and this planet face some important issues. Profit feeds lies to keep the status quo, even if the long-term outlook for status quo is catastrophe. We need populists who can raise the public’s level of understanding, and can change the mantra of science is hard into science is cool.

One way to move in the right direction is for the scientific community to lose the stigma of being a populist. Lose the opinion that a populist isn’t a “real” scientist. Populists are important. Public research money often depends upon them. The alternative is corporate money with research intended to line shareholder pockets instead of understanding for the sake of knowledge itself.

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