Tag: Rockstar scientists

COMMENT: Can a scientist become an activist?


South Africans have been shouting at each other for a decade about whether we should “frack” the Karoo. Everyone has an opinion about hydraulically fracturing (fracking) in this area to liberate natural gas from shale rock, despite a dearth of information and facts – such as whether the gas is there in the first place.

This year, the government established a scientific task team to develop “a science-based assessment to improve our understanding of the risks and opportunities of shale gas development”.

It took 10 years for us to start asking the experts – scientists – to collect facts for us. In the meanwhile, that space in the national discourse has been usurped by politicians, lobbyists and people with vested interests.

That is on the extreme end of the science communication spectrum, where a lack of science voices allowed a national debate to devolve into shouted polemic.

The other side of the spectrum is, as an example, Tim Noakes. Noakes is before the Health Professions Council of South Africa on a charge of misconduct after he advised a mother on Twitter to wean her child onto a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. This diet has not been sanctioned as a dietary guideline and there is little data on its effects on infants.

Noakes is a very strong advocate of this diet, and has gone beyond communicating the science behind his position into aggressively marketing the diet. He also has a personal and financial interest in the diet being adopted as he is co-author of a number of diet books.

This is not the consensus view of scientists, and lacks data on its effects on South Africans: an Indian woman may respond differently to this diet than a white man, for example.

The problem on this side of the spectrum is that people trust scientists. They are disproportionately listened to and believed, in comparison to, say, politicians or government officials. It is very problematic when a scientist plays on the trust conferred to them as a scientist, whilst breaking away from the data- and evidence-driven basis upon which the discipline earned its privileged standing.

While scientists need to communicate their science and engage with the public at large – as shown by the fracking example – there is a difference between communicating science and scientists marketing themselves.

As part of our panel discussion at the Science Forum, climate scientist Bob Scholes said: “Science is not just one way of knowing among others. It is a privileged pedagogy. There is a public perception of objectivity.” He listed three reasons for this: the transparency of the scientific process, that it is self-correcting (“eventually … even if it takes a while”, he joked) and it is based on observation and evidence.

However, when scientists market themselves and their science, the perception of their objectivity is compromised, and sometimes their objectivity itself. This ultimately erodes people’s trust in science.

But an undercurrent running through the discussion of whether scientists can be advocates of their science is that billions of rands are spent on science and research annually. Science communicator Marina Joubert, who moderated the session, said that scientists have a moral imperative to engage with the public about their research because, ultimately, it is undertaken with public money.

Another side to this is that scientists need to convince the public to continue spending money on research, and increase it. By raising the visibility of science and research, it justifies the expense to those holding the strings of the public purse.

This concept of science engagement is relatively new to South Africa. Up until 1994, most of the country’s science and research was entirely funded by the military (and something that was not discussed in public forums) or it was undertaken within corporations or parastatals to help Apartheid South Africa innovate its way around sanctions (once again, scientists were not encouraged to divulge information about this).

But we’re now in democratic South Africa. We need science and technology to develop and boost our economic competitiveness, but most citizens are often not science literate or fail to see how science can make a difference in their lives.

So, on the one hand, scientists do need to communicate their science, but on the other they need to do so in a way that is accurate and not self-aggrandising – because, ultimately, this erodes people’s trust in science. So how does the average member of the public sift through what is trustworthy science communication and science marketing?

That is done through science journalists, but, unfortunately for South Africa, there are only a handful of these journalists in the country. It is the journalist’s job – in science, as in any other beat of journalism – to sift through fact and fiction, and give their reader the information that they require to make up their own minds. This is doubly true for science, where concepts and jargon often obfuscate the message.

Perhaps we are having the wrong conversation, and the question should not be whether scientists can be advocates of their science. It should be: where are all the science-literate journalists who can tell when scientists are trying to promote themselves instead of their science?

Wild was part of the Science Forum panel, “Scientists as Public Experts: From Evidence to Advocacy”


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

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.