Scientists as Celebrities

A relatively new phenomenon: despite Professor Joad of the 1940s and 1950s British radio and his once famous ‘It all depends what you mean by…. ‘strapline format for his answers

There is a new celebrity come to the door of science and scientists. It is not the enthusiasm of rather bookish schoolboys for faddy science and its purveyors – another phenomenon which like the 1940s and 1950s has long passed away.

Faddish schoolgirls are as much enthusiasts as schoolboys in the post-modern age.  But bookish? No.  Rather, both boys and girls are gadget oriented, and the celebrity of scientists, on British TV and Radio is a thing grown out of the technological success of scientific research and its discoveries.

Whichever way you cut the cake science is seen by most people to have delivered during the late 20th early 21st centuries. The growth and increase in range and power, particularly of gadgets, owned by 95%+ of the populations of the developed world, are the soup de jour and the crème de la crème of science’s everyday contribution to our present lives. These gadgets have impressed us all the more for their handiness and versatility; their actual personal usefulness and their abilities which are used in the course of everyday business and social life.

Like Autolycus, or else like Aladdin’s Wicked Sorcerer, science has offered us ‘knickknacks and gewgaws’, or else ‘new lamps for old’; and has placed shiny new objects in our hands for us to ogle. At the same time it has taken away from us something of much more treasure.

The desire to ‘shoot the messenger’ works backwards also; and we like to fete and celebrate the bringers of glad news.  This seems to explain a good deal of why scientists are now so often of celebrity status here in the UK – because they have handed us the goods.

Like children, whose candy has been taken from us, by a set of kindly adults, who have substituted a few McDonalds toys, for us to play with instead, we are well pleased with the exchange – although we might have missed the fact that the candy we lost was our nourishment and sustenance, and that it has indeed been spirited from us?

So we accept the toys and celebrate the scientists who have provided them: they are undiluted good news.

Reciprocally the scientists accept and take up the role with some agreeable relish; appearing in the television and radio engagements on game shows and quizzes and on chat shows and special-guest slots.  Some few of the younger ones might become pin-ups – if that term is understood?  Centrefold glamour

At these media appearances the scientists reveal themselves to be human and accessible like many of us ordinary people are; only they carry with them the glamorousness and faddishness of their reputations in general and in particular – as being of the genre scientist, and as being of the specimen, rockstar.

Because they are made welcome and sought after they oblige us by displays of learning and knowledge.  Mixed into their knowledge and learning their common foibles and fallibilities carry to listeners and viewers, of whom few have eyes to see and ears to hear them.  (All of us, every one of us as persons are silly creatures nursing a range of idiocies we own to believing or sympathising with)

The unlucky thing is that having a certain aura of status and glamour the prejudices and assumptions of our popular scientists obtain a standing of validity and reasonableness, which is obtained from our willingness to sit at their feet regardless.

And so it is that popular myths and fallacies are promulgated and evangelised and enfranchised by way of our own glad imputation of a doubtful authority.  Indeed many items of thought and speech which our celeb scientists offer us as food for our minds, belong in fact in disciplines and fields in which they hold no especial qualification or expertise. But we, like the gullible fish with the fisherman’s shiny spinner, swallow it whole and are caught on a hook of misprision.

The insidious flatteries of fame and celebrity; of people telling you you’re the best so often, offer temptations to their subjects for them to start believing they really are ‘the bees knees’ and a ‘star turn’.  And so opinions become dogmas and aspirations and privileges become rights due, and so on.

The scientists are just as liable to fall for this self-aggrandisement as are any of us – they are part of a general we, and this we involves us all; and all of us are no different from one another in most regards. Thus our celebrity scientists have been given a platform whereupon they have been placed as the guys who know what makes the world (and the people?) tick; and why the earth goes round and round and illumines every day.  They probably feel almost obliged to speak on things and issues which they can in  fact know little of, simply because the chalice placed at their lips carries in its liquor an obligation which we their listeners and viewers are forcing them to drink – so that we expect such wisdom thereof from them.

Thus the celebrity scientists proffer a small bag of allsorts as their answers to the overwhelming questions of life and existence.  This means that, we, their listeners and viewers, get short changed, and in return for our treasure of homage we are offered and we accept a box of mixed toffees or a bunch of fruit chews (Something about a birthright and a mess of pottage here?)

This seems to be all very natural and human in its circumstances and its development; even right down to the smugness with which the cock-sure cosmologies and neurologies and epistemologies are purveyed in our celebrity scientists’ shop windows; and right down to the blind presumptions and casual assumptions made in them also.

(Because a guy is able to install your media centre for you does not mean he has the answers to the microphysics and phenomenology which allow it to be, and to function)

But it is natural for us all to fall into line with what is expected of us and even for us to become self-assured that much more and more as we repeat ourselves and so offer the same routines and assurances of supposed fact again and again; to a following who waits on us.  (I guess I would have done it myself except I don’t have a following.)

But so – nonetheless we go away believing what is not the truth – believing there is a limit to knowledge and to the extent of life and being – believing certain possibilities are excluded upon sound rational grounds – believing that our gadgets and technological conveniences are some of the best joys we can obtain from our lives – and that metaphysics and theosophy are Grimm’s Tales or Perrault’s Stories – entertainments for children; as well as for those adults who are enamoured by rose petals and glow-glitter.

McDonalds once would give away small toys – some quite intricate and ingenious – with every ‘Happy Meal’ – an entity which a friend of mine called sullenly ‘a misnomer’ – and these toy items were distributed in their billions during their time.  Many died or were lost; but a market in collectibles has grown up around them since here in the UK, and most of those which remain intact hold a keepsake value to them in money terms. Try to look at this sequence of events for McDonalds toys as a parable.

The foibles and fancies of the celebrity scientists will linger on in certain heads; and will be passed mouth to mouth, word for word, to others, who also will keep them tenderly as their creed, and as their justifications for their lives and their life-choices.  And yet these foibles and fancies were merely a bunch of giveaways offered as an inducement to buy a set of fallible guys’ sense of their celebrity

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