Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Scientist in the Closet?: Americans Can't Name a Living Scientist

Evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz: Thanks, Wikipedia
Many Americans can't name a scientist, not a scientist who still breathes. 

47% can conjure up Albert Einstein who for better or worse died over 50 years and is perhaps best known for his hair.  Seems 23% of us can't provide a single name, dead or alive.  

Not one.  Obviously the hot guy from CSI does not count.  Nor the evil Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.

So I read the above miserable stats in a New York Times story about the dearth of real scientists talking science outside of arcane journals (you don't say?). Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic.

Who was responsible for those stats?  Seems back in 2009 the USA Today, yes the paper targeted to fifth graders, polled some people according to a piece I finally found on TechCrunch.  L'Oreal sponsored the survey according to a science blog I came across.  Before you start to smear L'Oreal spokescelebrity Gwen Stefani or smirk your Colour Riche lips, L'Oreal apparently did so under the auspices of their Women in Science program so obviously they do care deeply about women and science, even women scientists.    

The L'Oreal poll was sunny compared to this factoid.  An astounding 63% of people couldn't name a single living scientist in a recent Maryland public opinion poll. Those wearing their thinking hats conjured up a diverse list including these well-known figures:

Stephen Hawking (10%) 
James Watson (2%)  
Francis Collins (1%) 
Jane Goodall (1%)
Bill Nye (1%)

Okay, so we got:

A Brief History of Time Guy
The DNA Guy
The Human Genome Guy

Not so bad. 

The Chimp Chick

Okay.

Then...

The Science Guy  

Jane Goodall, though she's contributed much to our knowledge our chimpanzees, was never formally trained as a scientist.  Though I like the whole Bill Nye The Science Guy schtick and appreciate that someone is making science fun and obviously he's very smart but I must point out that the only doctorate, in fact graduate degree Mr. Bill Nye holds, is merely honorary. Pretty impressive but he's known for his science act not career.  He's not exactly cracking cancer or theorizing about radiation and black holes.

So what we have is a roster of some superior science minds and some remarkable people who've contributed to science and at least one who doesn't actually do much science.

We could get all sad and soak up the last of the Sangria but I'm thankful anyone can name a single scientist besides Albert Einstein.  Honestly, who's that guy or girl in the lab coat?  Uh-huh.  Took a minute, right?

Sure, the lab crowd has never been the sort to preen about the public stage.  It's not like many physicists or geologists end up on the front of Huffington Post or TMZ though there's no shortage of ego or drama on their part (see Retraction Watch).

We're well aware here at MommaData of the poor communication between the scientists, the media, and the parenting public (i.e. the real world).  But before we start crying in the frosted animal crackers (my bad, ooops!) let's take a quick survey...

Name a living scientist who you'd like to invite to your next block party. 

HHhhhmmm. 

Next week: The scientist you'd like to see star on The Bachelor.  Now that I would watch.   

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