COMMENT: The danger of rockstar scientists

First published on AfricaCheck.

Social media has changed the way that the public engages with science. It has also changed the way in which scientists engage with a broader, non-science audience – something they’re now expected to do.

Self-promotion is almost mandatory if a scientist wants to attract interest, grants and funding. In fact, as this blog post on the prestigious scientific journal Nature advises, “Social media is a powerful tool for promoting your work and interacting with your research community – so get yourself out there!”

Science’s substance hidden behind a face

Enter the rockstar scientist: an academic who engages with the public through the media and often argues their point of view through public sentiment.

They become a brand and their science’s substance is hidden behind a face. This science populism, which is similar to political populism in its oversimplification of complex issues and playing to public emotions, is dangerous for people’s trust in science. It creates erroneous ideas about what science – and the scientific method – actually involves.

“Trust is different from faith because it [is] usually based on some evidence of trustworthiness, whereas faith involves belief without evidence,” writes bioethicist Dr David Resnick in a journal article called Scientific Research and Public Trust. “Trustworthiness can be earned, enhanced or lost.”

Why does this matter? The most important reason is that it is easy for an audience to lose faith and trust in an individual, but if that person is seen as a face representing science, people may well lose their trust in science as a whole.

Berger played media like an orchestral conductor

South Africa has two notable rockstar scientists: Professors Lee Berger and Tim Noakes. They work in different fields but both know how to use the media to their advantage.

Berger, a noted palaeoscientist, announced the discovery of a new hominin at the Cradle of Humankind, setting off a media frenzy in September. The Homo naledi find was quite singular in that a large number of fossils were discovered in a cave, which Berger and his team described as an “intentional body disposal” site. Emotive phrases like “almost human” and “burial site” were bandied about.

This was stated as uncontroversial fact, and reported as such in mainstream South African media, but it’s not the case. Many international palaeoscientists disagree that Homo naledi is a new species or that it disposed of its dead intentionally. But Berger ultimately controlled the narrative and played the South African media with the acumen of a conductor directing a 100-piece orchestra.

On the positive side, the announcement generated a great deal of excitement about science in South Africa, a country where there is not a strong science culture among the general public.

But it also means that if Berger and his colleagues are proven wrong, it will be almost impossible to dislodge an incorrect idea from South Africa’s collective mind. And if it does prove possible, South Africans may not only lose trust in this one scientist, but in human evolution scientists in general.

‘Noakes diet’ controversy not over data

The case of Homo naledi is comparatively benign compared to the antics of Prof Tim Noakes. While celebrated for his work in his field of expertise – exercise and sports science, not studying nutrition in non-sports-people – Noakes has attracted controversy for his endorsement and advocacy of a low-carbohydrate-high-fat (LCHF) diet since he first tried the diet in 2010.

The problem here is that the arguments over the “Noakes diet”, as it is being called, are not fought over data. It is a battle that is being waged in the media and through popular sentiment, via anecdotes, belief and social media.

As Africa Check’s Nechama Brodie points out, the Noakes diet has “resulted in what can fairly be described as a cult of personality rather than pure medicine – to the extent that it is now almost impossible to interrogate the nutritional science of LCHF without it being seen as a direct attack on Noakes himself”.

A field as large and complex as nutrition – in which thousands of scientists work worldwide, and which affects every person on this planet – should not be condensed into whether you believe one man. If that person comports himself a champion of science, and if he is proven wrong, he may well take people’s trust in science with him.

This is not to say that controversy in science is new or something to be shied away from. In its science communication toolkit, the University of Berkeley says: “True scientific controversy [scientists disagreeing over an hypothesis or theory] is healthy and involves disagreements over how data should be interpreted, over which ideas are best supported by the available evidence, and over which ideas are worth investigating further. This sort of catalyst sparks careful examination of the data and additional research and so science can move forward.”

But since nutrition can quite literally be a matter of life or death, it is more important than ever that the scientific method – which humans have been honing for centuries – be raised above personalities and the obsession with rockstar scientists.

Sarah Wild is a science journalist and won the Dow Technology and Innovation Reporting award at the MultiChoice African Journalist Awards announced last week.

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