01 December 2010
Science Cheerleader and the Brouhaha
Science Cheerleader, run by Darlene Cavalier. Darlene leverages her position as a former cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers to attack a pair of stereotypes: don't assume cheerleaders are ditzy blondes, and don't assume scientists are ugly nerds. Darlene is one of the very few people who actually tries to push science content into more "mainstream" communities that don't see it often, and she knows you sometimes have to find creative angles to do this.
Darlene was at the National Science & Engineering Festival on the Mall in DC with a group of professional cheerleaders who also have careers in science. At the event the cheerleaders talked with young people about pursuing careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, explained a bit about their jobs and what it took to get them, and how rewarding careers in those fields can be. Media reports suggest it was a very positive experience for the kids at the event, and I'm sure the cheerleaders had a good time too.
They also produced the following "offending" video:
The event on the Mall generated some fairly robust criticism from the science blogosphere. Apparently some people thought the "GOOOOO SCIENCE" cheering stuff was basically all they did, and never checked with Darlene (or read any of the ample news coverage, or even visited The Science Cheerleader blog) to check on this. Some of the criticism was really quite thoughtful, some was rather misinformed, and some suggested that the blogger saw the word "cheerleader" and really couldn't get past it. You can find a decent summary with a lot of links at Skulls in the Stars.
I've had a lot to say about this in the past. I think making science "relevant" is more important than making it "cool," but if cool opens the door first then that's what you do. I reached out to Darlene before I wrote this to get her thoughts. She's taken more than her share of criticism from science bloggers, and she doesn't take it personally. However, she was a bit surprised at how many bloggers got their facts wrong. More than once she noted the irony of science bloggers who often complain that journalists don't check their facts now doing the same thing here. Darlene has been very accessible about this project, and she's consistently asked bloggers to contact her if they have questions about anything.
The other point she mentioned more than once - science bloggers aren't her audience. Kids (especially girls) and moms are. To this audience, "cool" is basically the same thing as "relevant." Darlene gets letters and emails - lots of 'em - from moms thanking her. Letters that say things like "my daughter has only been interested in cheerleading and now you've shown her that she can do this too."
There's an issue here that irks me a bit more than it does Darlene. I've worked in PR and politics for about 20 years now, so I've spent a lot of time developing and implementing successful communications campaigns. What Darlene has done strikes me as effective, at least in terms of the media attention and the spike in traffic to her blog. Time will tell if it contributes to more people pursuing STEM careers. But she's getting bashed by people who have never developed a successful communications campaign in their lives and wouldn't know the first thing about building one. And here's the kicker - many of them don't publish their real names on their own blogs.
I understand completely why some people feel the need to remain anonymous as bloggers. Sharing thoughts publicly involves some risk, and sometimes the only way you can safely get information "out there" is anonymously. This isn't unique to the science blogosphere - it happens a lot with people who write about finance. Further, some people just don't want the over-the-top abuse Darlene or people like Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney take when they put their names to their words. I'm cool with that.
But let's get real here. Sometimes - definitely not always but sometimes - some of this anonymous posting is really about avoiding accountability. It's about sidestepping the awkward moment when you meet the person you called an "ignorant fuckwit" last month. And sometimes maybe it's writing something that benefits you personally or professionally without having to disclose that teensy little conflict of interest. Maybe some people find anonymous bloggers to be completely credible. For me, there will always be that kernel of doubt.
Bottom line - Darlene is one of the few people actually trying to bring science to mainstream communities and having some success. She's putting science in a positive light. She would be the first person to tell you her approach isn't intended to engage everyone on everything. But she takes constructive criticism very well, she's open to working with people who don't agree with her on everything (like me), and she has a relentlessly positive attitude.
And with very few exceptions, the science blogosphere remains scientists talking with other scientists about science and the things that irk scientists. There's nothing wrong with that, but science needs all the PR help it can get these days. If you want to criticize the people who are trying to promote science and scientists, you might want to put some actual skin in the game.
And start by sharing your name.