Martin Robbins: "Science Is Cool, You Idiot! Wait, Wait, Don't Walk Away…"

By Chris Mooney | November 24, 2010 6:55 am

The award has now come in for the most off base and, frankly, elitist response to the Rock S.O.S. campaign. It goes to science blogger Martin Robbins of the Guardian, who doesn’t even understand what the campaign is, and so acts as if everything he objects to is something done by GQ magazine rather than by the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign, which ran a PSA in GQ.

Robbins isn’t merely unaware of what he’s criticizing; he’s also apparently clueless about the U.S. public and how it regards science. His basic argument seems to be that people should already know that scientists, not rock stars, are the really cool ones. (Even though many Americans can’t even name a scientist.) Rock stars should kneel at the feet of scientists, rather than vice versa. And if you don’t get it…well, just look at this picture of science from the archives that Robbins has to show you!

surveyor3_ap12cIt’s a NASA moonscape shot. More specifically, it’s billed as “Pete Conrad inspects Surveyor 3. Conrad’s own spaceship, the Intrepid, can be seen 200 yards away in the background.” Yes, it’s very cool; no, it’s not currently running in GQ’s “Men of the Year” issue. Magazines like new photos, not photos from the bygone days when Americans actually paid attention to science. Robbins adds this gloss:

This is a picture of two spacecraft on the moon at the same time, taken by astronauts who have walked from one to the other. If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.

To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.

In general, most Americans don’t think science is cool. It isn’t even on the radar. You can tell them they’re wrong, and that they’re the ones who don’t understand cool–but in this case you’re a British blogger occupying a media niche that few Americans will find themselves visiting. Meanwhile, you’re bashing a campaign that has a far better chance of reaching them.

You also won’t reach them by…making fun of hip-hop artists like B.O.B., whom Robbins calls “a child rapper named Bob”:

‘Bob’ is apparently notable for his breakout hit Haterz Everywhere, which is clearly a clever satire on conspicuous consumption, making a powerful statement about the ability of successful capitalists to act above the law and oppress the common man…

Much of the time Robbins is at least a funny writer. Not here. Not remotely.

It’s a kitchen sink attack, so Robbins also criticizes some overly technical language on the Rock Stars website (not GQ’s website), which admittedly could have been better written. The funny thing about this critique, though, is that Robbins starts off his first sentence by denouncing the “isochronal cavalcade” of the Rock Stars campaign. Clearly, here’s a man who understands the pitfalls of jargon.

Sun-at-NightThe critique then closes with the incomprehensible. Robbins provides a mysterious image that he seems to think is cooler than the Rock Stars campaign and writes:

…here’s a picture of the Sun. Taken at night. Through the Earth (explanation here).


Yes science can do many marvelous things. But you’ll notice that Robbins’ image requires…an explanation. As it happens, it involves neutrinos, which–I’m quite certain–most Americans do not know about or understand.

Now compare the image below, and decide which the American public is more likely to respond to:

RSOS Final JPEG Page 6


Comments (24)

  1. Ha! I’ve been wondering if some of the UK disdain (including my own if I’m honest) for this is rooted in a lack of cultural understanding of “the American public” and, moreover, the types of science/ society divides we just don’t have to worry about.

    I don’t take the elitist point though… Have you seen this – maybe makes point better?

  2. Isn’t the real issue the reach of GQ?
    Your average GQ reader is 33.4, with ~1/3 over 34. They have a 55% change of being white, a 71% chance of being college educated and have a median income of $81k.

    Mostly male, mostly white, mostly educated and mostly well off. Not a demographic underrepresented amongst scientists, well apart from the well off bit.

  3. Handbags aside, can you actually point to a single piece of concrete evidence that GQ readers have been engaged by this campaign and that this has had a positive effect on the perception of science in the US?

    You leap on this glossy stuff as though it’s some sort of amazing thing, and scientists and science communicators who might not appreciate it so much are told they’re just ‘out of touch’. The thing is, you do this on the basis of virtually zero evidence of the impacts of it. I’m a 29 year old man in the audience profile of GQ, and I see a bunch of old guys posing in the background of shots of rock stars and looking frankly a bit weird. I don’t see anything here that would inspire me or my age group about science.

    If you can show me evidence from focus groups or reader surveys that will back up your claims then I’ll eat my hat and go stand behind some rapper myself. But if you can’t, then you’re guilty of jumping on a bandwagon without being particularly scientific about it.

    And my wider gripe with the attitude is this – if you can’t make science itself interesting – to an educated middle-class audience! – then frankly you’re just not a very talented science communicator (I don’t lay any great claim to be myself incidentally, I’m well aware of the limitations of my own greenhouse). If you’re going to fill four pages of GQ with something to grab people’s attention, I suspect you could do a much better job without resorting to shoving rock stars in the foreground.

  4. Chris Mooney

    Martin, as a scientist…you must be aware of the problem with demanding data on the spot that isn’t easily obtained, especially when this campaign has just launched. Of course there will be attempts at follow up and impact assessments. But you can imagine how complicated that is to perform, and how many aspects of the influence will be very difficult to detect or measure.

    So you are setting a burden of proof extremely high and assuming that it falls on Rock Stars. Most people I talk to would assume the opposite…that it falls on you, given all the data I do have on science and the U.S. public.

    It is *six* pages of GQ. 8 rock stars, 17 top scientists. A massive undertaking to coordinate, as maybe you can imagine. And all to raise awareness about the importance of science to the economy and the future and to change perceptions that scientists are dysfunctional nerds.

    But no good deed goes unpunished.

  5. Cheyenne

    Martin – Good work. You’re obviously right. I have no idea how Chris doesn’t seem to understand what you are saying. I’m in the target demo too and – well, wow- he seems a bit clueless.

    ”Now compare the image below, and decide which the American public is more likely to respond to:”. Chris, that Rock Stars campaign is the most ridiculous and lame thing I’ve seen in awhile. Good sentiment I suppose, I get why people are doing it, but seriously- you think that’s “cool”?! Give me a break. That’s just weird and unconnected. Except for the Bret Michaels one with the finger throw out. That’s just the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!

  6. Chris Mooney

    I am not spokesman for GQ, Rock Stars, etc, but I can see what others think of the point about demographics.

  7. Chris

    I think the best way to promote the coolness of science begins in the classroom, at a young age. Teaching the ways of science must begin at a young age because adults tend to solidify their ways in their mid 20s. The rock star science campaign here only targets a demographic more apt to understand science than any other, as it’s been pointed out. Promoting science upon the middle aged and seniors isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but I don’t believe it will have much impact in gaining that demographic to appreciate science anymore than they do today.

    The best science has done thus far is to promote recycling and modern medicine. Otherwise, most people don’t care to learn the ins and outs of physics, biology, meteorology, etc. Most people just expect science to provide something for them (information, medicine, cool technology…), but have no ambition to understand the applications, why, how, etc. That’s what happens when people move towards careers; they get focused on their own field (and biased), it’s human nature. There’s plenty of science related shows on the Discovery channel and such, but those obviously haven’t done much to change peoples’ minds, otherwise we’d all be gaining knowledge instead of watching “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and “Real Housewives”…

  8. Dave

    In a way, I have to agree. Trying so hard to look awesome is like the dork who shows up to school one day in $300 jeans. Everyone just laughs, thinks it’s a little pathetic, then doesn’t care.

  9. Dave

    Oh right, and also good points on the GQ readers too. Kari Byron in a teen rag probably has a better shot. Kids read that crap, she’s hot and HS boys think so too (sorry, that stuff counts).

    Really want eyeballs? Get to run ads that point to it. Yeah, this makes us all want to wretch… but that’s the reality of it.

  10. Bob

    I think it would have been cooler to portray the scientists as Superheros instead of Rock Stars and showcase all the cool stuff they’ve done. And put it in a different magazine that is geared toward younger people who might be inspired to do great things with their lives as well.

  11. Waltz

    Um, so those of you who dislike the campaign think it’s a bad thing to attempt to elevate scientists and science in the public? You do know this isn’t the only campaign attempting to do so, right? If you don’t like this approach then you are not the target demographic.

  12. I posted a response to the campaign a few days ago on Future-ish that briefly discusses the design and potential impact of the campaign:

    First and foremost, you gotta remember that Geoffrey Beene didn’t do this to promote science. They did it to promote their brand in a way that came with prestige (thus, the scientists) and in a way that would capture headlines (thus the rock stars). Their biggest goal is to get to new markets, new demographics, and to new customers, as well as get their current customers to purchase more. From that perspective – even without data – I’d say they’ve been pretty successful since there is a buzz around the campaign in multiple social media outlets.

    When it comes to promoting science and scientists in general, I’d say the 2009 campaign did a much better job as it was…actually inspiring. As I said in my post, the 2010 campaign has a “look/feel more like a Sopranos or Law & Order ad than a hip spread with real life rock stars”. When I look at the images again…they kinda remind me of a prizefighter poster, which is again…not so good. Add poor image editing (shadows are odd, you can tell images are touched up, and they are pieced into position) and you get overall creative elements that just aren’t good. A better stylist and creative designer could have solved these problems easily.

    All that said, there are a lot of people talking about the campaign and as anyone in pop culture know…any press is good press. Interesting how that is not the case in the science world. As I said in my post, ” I do think an opportunity was missed here. We need to make science aspirational and using pop culture is certainly one way to do this, it just needs to be used wisely”. The campaign is a great concept, particularly for Geoffrey Beene’s purposes – but to truly support broad science and scientists (if this is something they want to do), it will need to be better thought out, better designed, and better executed to truly harness the power of pop culture.

  13. Chris

    I bet a reality based show on scientists would help garner some interest… unfortunately, it would likely only degrade the prestige of the field and title of scientist (and no network would want to pick it up because it wouldn’t earn enough ratings). Pop culture is so fake and materialistic (all about image), the total opposite of science, the two just don’t mix in my opinion. Think about it, trying to intermingle science between music stars, movie stars, reality tv “stars”, and the like… I can’t see it. It’s better promoted in mainstream news sources (as it already is), but it doesn’t garner much support and interest of the public because they’re interested in other things (unless they became interested in science at a young age). It’s gotta start in the classroom with good teachers.

  14. Actually, there have been many early-career scientists (recent PhDs or hold a BS or MS) on some reality shows…So You Think Dance, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, etc. And don’t forget VH!’s America’s Most Smartest Model that put early-career scientists up against non-scientists (male and female models in both categories). They had to do some crazy things like name dinosaur species while walking the catwalk…it was kinda fun. And there is always Big Bang Theory…it may reinforce stereotypes but at least is makes science/scientists accessible and lovable <3 (<– that would be a heart emoticon).

  15. Anna

    It’s funny to me that people keep mentioning GQ with this campaign and objecting that GQ demographics made the campaign unnecessary. I’ve never read GQ, have no interest in reading GQ, and had no idea this campaign was running in GQ.

    I was aware of the Rock Stars campaign through blogs (including this one) and thought it was neat. (I also liked it when Stephen Hawking showed up on the Simpsons.)

    Agreed that promoting interest in science does have to start in the classroom, but I also think it’s important for the general public and young people to see being a scientist as something desirable and exciting to be — there are plenty of other media images of scientists that show them as socially inept and culturally clueless, so this is a counter balance.

    Finally, some of the rock stars pictured are musicians my teenaged kids actually listen to. Which surprises me, but along with acts I’ve never heard of, they like the ones I listened to growing up. Since the music distribution industry decompensated, it’s all apparently one big musical mashup.

    My daughter’s boyfriend’s favorite band is the Ramones (!); and my daughter has been shocked and somewhat annoyed to find out that some ‘cool’ bands she thought she discovered were ones her mother listened to . . .

    So I think this campaign may be on to something, and I certainly think it reaches beyond the limited demographics of GQ.

  16. dcwarrior

    It’s funny though. I can see how this might not be the societal event that forever changes how Americans view science. That no one will ever be able to prove this made one iota of difference.


    How is the GQ spread a BAD thing? Indeed, one might think it’s a good thing from a marketing perspective, albeit perhaps just a little blip. Indeed, the fact of discouraging further such endeavors through snark may cause more anti-science feeling than the program generates in positive feeling… assuming an appreciable number of Americans have read Mr. Robbins’ column.

    Maybe Martin’s just angry he wasn’t asked to be on there? I mean, the snark seems to have a whole lot in common with barroom sports arguments and not a whole lot in common with scientific endeavor. Just ask any American sports fan whether he or she thinks Boise State should play for the national championship (I’m sure there is a corresponding Brit question) and you’ll get a lot of impassioned responses that look a lot like Mr. Robbins’ column – long on invective, about what amounts to entertainment.

    So perhaps American politicians should stop taking pictures with notable sports figures and celebrities and if GQ does a spread with movie stars and teachers, the teachers should stand in front. Whatever.

    Fluff is fun and fun is fine. The GQ spread merits a chuckle and we should all – including Mr. Robbins – move on from there.

  17. People. Wake the f*ck up and realize that there is no one, pure, true, best, “proper” way to get Real People™ engaging with science. There are many ways. The GQ campaign is one of them and, while it does come of as cheesy to many of us professional dorks, it ACTUALLY WORKS for a lot of other people. Meanwhile, Martin’s indistinct smear of colorful pixels ALSO WORKS for many other people–personally I do think it IS awesome that we can see the sun through the earth via neutrinos. But this is not zero sum, so please stop being such churlish trolls about good-intentioned attempts at reaching Regular Folks© that you happen not to like.

    Mooney: high five. Martin: High (different) five. We’re all on the same team here.

  18. Martin, as a scientist…you must be aware of the problem with demanding data on the spot that isn’t easily obtained, especially when this campaign has just launched.

    Didn’t you run the campaign in GQ last year? So shouldn’t you have started to garner some evidence from that? Also, what evidence was used in your decision to advertise in GQ?

  19. David Waldock

    I think we’re losing sight of pluralism here to be honest, and frankly I’m surprised that Chris is engaging with it.

    However, I also want to see the evidence that this type of outreach works. I’ve not seen any research that suggests that photos of scientists in a popular magazine will promote the profile of science. I certainly don’t think it will improve “scientific literacy” (whatever that is).

    I also think it’s pretty demeaning to scientists that the only way that GQ would consider having them in the magazine is if there are also members of popular beat combos in the photos as well.

    On the flipside, it’s nice to see that mainstream media are engaging with something considered minority.

    It’ll be great to see the research metrics coming in from this, which I’m sure the Rock Stars organisers have organised for the second year of the program…

    As a suggestion, have we tried getting “amazing pictures” into magazines for the target audience, along with a brief (1 para!), audience-appropriate commentary which provides context? Some of the Hubble photos, micrographs of critters, that sort of thing? Wouldn’t one photo a month make more of a long-term impact than this rather forced concept?

  20. Sean McCorkle

    At least two celebrities, Alan Alda and Tim Allen, come to mind who are science enthusiasts and who have done popular science work. I’m sure there are more. Maybe some of the musicians in the GQ series also have similar leanings and could be drafted into the cause. For example, the scientists pictured with them could host visits to their labs, and the musicians, if interested, could be in videos doing the explaining.

  21. Jon H

    “Um, so those of you who dislike the campaign think it’s a bad thing to attempt to elevate scientists and science in the public? ”

    No, we think this is a poorly-conceived attempt at doing so.

    Why the focus on old people? Why *not* 20-something postdocs doing cool work? And who are likely to look better in the fashionable clothes, and less like fish out of water.

    Given GQ’s demographic, it seems readers are largely past the point of choosing careers, so it’s not like these campaigns are going to result in more people going into science. You have people who’ve committed to a non-science career path reading about late-career scientists whose CV’s are so diffuse it can be hard to focus on what they’re doing that’s cool. (Hell, they’re probably in meetings a lot, and those definitely aren’t cool.)

    A campaign targeting teens, focusing on 20-something scientists doing cool things *now*. That’s not an insurmountable age difference, teens can identify more with 20-somethings, and it’s easier for a teen to conceive of attaining a similar position.

    If I’m 30 years old, and reading the GQ thing about 50 year old scientists, I’m seeing people who I can’t really seek to emulate. The gap is too large.

    If I’m 15, and reading about a 26 year old doing work with MEMS or optogenetics, that gap is not very big, and the 15 year old is at a point where they can choose their path in life. The 15 year old can see him or herself attaining that position themselves, and still has the opportunity to do so, like a 15 year old reading about a 26 year old rock star guitarist and deciding to learn guitar and start a band.

    (Granted, sometimes 15 year olds idolize 40-50 year old rock stars. But such rock stars typically had success when in their 20s as well, so a 15 year old can look to that 20 year old Eric Clapton, for example, and not just the late-career Clapton.)

    Besides all that, the art in this one is pretty terrible. It’s like someone took celebrity photos and stock photos and played ColorForms with them. There’s no implied relation between the musician and the scientists. By contrast, a while back I saw photos of the British science fiction novelist China Mieville with Debbie Harry and Blondie in London; apparently the band had been reading his work on their tour and became fans. I found that far more impressive than a photo of Debbie Harry posed with some random scientists.

    If this campaign could foster that kind of connection between artists and scientists, I think it’d work better. In addition to the awkward posed and composited photos, they should have a photo of the artist with the scientists in the lab, in regular clothes. (To make this work, they’d probably have to pair each artist with the postdocs and grad students of a given lab, rather than with scientists from different labs.)


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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