Why I’m not singing Hallelujah yet on Science Idol idea

Ok, gentle readers, prepare for some grump. I’d like to think of it as insightful and enlightened skepticism, but really it’s a bit of a rant. I’ve been abstaining lately, so I thought I would indulge myself tonight. There might be a few posts worth.

Apparently Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is a huge fan of science, and wants to start a show that would combine science with an American Idol style competition. I really hope this is awesome. Great things can happen when performing artists and storytellers combine with scientists to sell science to the public, and show the public how great science can be. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the way to do it. Here’s a few snarky responses, then on to more meatier:

Oh great, so, like TED, but edited to be lighter, more bite-sized and peppier!

Isn’t there already a show that A: is awesome, B: teaches science facts, C: shows how the logic of science works? It’s called Mythbusters.

So, is this going to be like one big televised science fair? Let 1000 molds grow! Whatcha gonna do with all that junk (DNA) all that junk (DNA) inside your cells? 

Beyond this snark, my first worry is that any network TV show is loyal to being a popular TV show first, and everything else second. The emphasis will be on performance, and a heavily edited personal narrative. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. I love hearing stories about great scientists like Nicola Tesla or Lillian Moller Gilbreth or Ignaz Semmelweis. I was a history of science major, after all. And I love performing scientific demonstrations for the Sensation and Perception Class. Here’s Richard Gregory talking about the Ames Window. What’s not to love about that? When done well, personal stories and performances bring the science to life, and inspire wonder and curiosity. When done poorly, we hear an amazing personal story, with no science content. We see charismatic showmen, who glide past any questions, complexities or contrary evidence and paint a too-simple cartoon of how science works. As someone who teaches introduction to psychology, many students come to my class interested in becoming glamorous forensic psychologists, analyzing how criminal minds work and solving crimes. Law and Order may make great television, but when it has to chose between being faithful to the facts of how the science of psychology works, and what makes a cool plot twist, they make the same decision each time.  

My second worry is that I have deep misgivings about celebrating talent and glossing over craft. While some people certainly start out more talented in science, I think of science more as intensely practiced techniques of curiosity, and I think we would all be better off if more people thought of it that way. When the judges celebrate talented singers on American Idol, I doubt they focus on technique (I could be wrong here, but I doubt you hear words like “diaphragm” or “phrasing” or “placement”). My sense of the few snippets of American Idol is that there is a lot of talk of “You were really bringin’ it today” or “I just wasn’t feelin’ it.” When Simon says you are horrible, does he ever say exactly why? Does he ever tell anyone how to improve their technique? I can see how American Idol makes great TV, but does it really celebrate singing? Does it make us all like singing more? Does it make us want to sing? I haven’t found that. We certainly don’t have any increase in valuing the performing arts in schools, in fact, just the opposite. Only 25 percent of Chicago public schools have both music and art instructors. This despite the fact that most have more than 400 students, and 100 have more than 750 (10 year old data, but I can’t imagine this has changed that much). 

My final worry is that the science content will be “jazzed up” to be made more interesting, rather than taking the time and energy to understand the science well enough to present the science itself in an interesting way. For example, one could present a study on the neuroscience of “erasing” memories in rats. In one way, we could gloss over the study details and skip straight to cool movie clips. In another, we could drill down into the complexities of moving from rat brain research to humans. In considering teaching science in school, I don’t like the “spoonful of sugar” approach to teaching science. When we show students that we need to “gamify” some piece of content, or “spice it up” with stuff we know they like, we send the message “You aren’t going to enjoy this by itself, let’s make it fun through other means.”  Science is freaking amazeballs all by itself. Let’s act that way when we teach it and present it to the public.

All this said, I would love to be proved wrong on this. I would love to see three thoughtful scientists talk about the process of science in the view of thousands of cheering fans. I would love to watch elder stateswomen of science mentor a group of “contestants” through the trials and tribulations of making good science, celebrating complexity, patience, openness, collaboration and careful precision. I would love to see teenagers, young adults, and the occasional 48-year-old who have practiced science alone in their rooms, or in their backyards, for years, waiting for this moment. But I just got rid of my cable, so I guess you can see where I am betting on the chances of that appearing anytime soon on  TV.

But to end on a positive note, I would love to see Will.i.am support and extend some of the ideas in the amazing science that already happens on TV. Sid the Science Kid is a fantastic show. They Might Be Giants Here Comes Science is really great. National Geographic makes some great science shows. There is great science video content on YouTube, from minutephysics to sixtysymbols to the amazing vihart. So, and maybe this is my distrust that “let’s experiment” too often means “let’s ignore the hard work other people have been doing for decades.”  But this is also a respect that communicating the glory and wonder of science to the public is something that many smart people have been doing (and practicing) for a while. Very few of them have made it into a competitive award show. Why is that?


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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2 Responses to Why I’m not singing Hallelujah yet on Science Idol idea

  1. techkim says:

    Here’s why I like the idea. I think will.i.am can reach an audience that none of the shows or people you mention do. Science could use a dose of cool, especially in the media. HIs involvement in the FIRST robotics competition last year got a lot of positive media buzz, including more entertainers advocating science to young people. Isn’t that a better message than most of the stuff they “sell” because the media is going to keep them “selling” something and young people are going to keep “buying” it, whatever it is. I view what he is doing more as awareness raising to young people that science isn’t unapproachable and boring and he’s able to use the media to get that message out.

  2. Cedar Riener says:

    That’s a good point. Like I said, I hope it works out well. I think a similar argument could be made for featuring science at the Huffington Post, or any other major media place where it reaches audiences it might not otherwise. I just worry that we’ll be “selling” a vision of science that is fun and cool in ways that make sense to entertainers, just not to scientists. Science is not cool because you can win a contest with it, but because it is amazing to find out new truths about ourselves, our world, and the universe. But I suppose that the reasons things are cool don’t always matter as much as the fact that they are. Thanks for commenting.

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