What Science Can Learn from “American Idol”

By Corey S. Powell | April 12, 2013 4:11 pm

Although it’s been fading steadily in the TV ratings (despite the best efforts of Nicki Minaj), American Idol remains a cultural touchstone, and for good reason. It casts a wide net in the search for quality; it creates intense performance pressure that weeds out weak performers; and it rewards contestants who are able to connect with a broad audience. For those reasons, I thought that American Idol would be the perfect template for a symposium on how to help scientists do a better job communicating with the public.

America’s Science Idol cast: Gillian Bowser; judge Corey S. Powell; host Chris Mooney; judge Indre Viskontas; Joshua Schroeder; winner Tom DiLiberto; Maura Hahnenberger; and runner-up Jenna Jadin. (Not pictured: Dan Gareau and judge Jennifer Bogo.)

Or maybe I just thought it would be a lot of fun.

At any rate, a few weeks ago I teamed up with Popular Science editor Jennifer Bogo,  neurscientist Indre Viskontas, and journalist Chris Mooney to riff on the American Idol format at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. The result was “America’s Science Idol,” a science-communication competition sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and the video of our event has just been posted online:

If you don’t have 41 minutes of free time to watch the whole thing (what, you’re busy?), I’ll cut to the chase and share a few conclusions. First, the six scientists who participated were not only good sports, they all brought a lot of passion and sincerity to their performances. There are few nobler things in life than dedicating yourself to a deeper understanding of the world, sharing that knowledge, and finding ways to apply it to make people happier, healthier, safer, and more aware of their place in the larger order. Science produces fabulous stories, but the general public often does not get to hear them–at least, not in a form they can relate to. All six of these contestants reached out with great conviction and good humor.

Despite that, some succeeded much better than others. We set a taxing challenge for our contestants, explaining their work in 3 minutes or less, in an entertaining but meaningful way, using only language that the average layperson could understand. That is not how science typically works. Normally scientists are encouraged to use jargon that helps them communicate with other researchers in their fields; normally they labor over papers and grant proposals rather than having to spit out ideas at the pace of a music video. I listened to hear who could most clearly articulate the nature, excitement, and relevance of his or her work. It is a useful exercise for any working scientist to be able to articulate those things. In fact, it is a useful exercise for all of us, regardless of profession, to occasionally step back and ask what we do and why we do it.

Although 3-minute public performance may not be a part of the regular practice of science, clear communication is an increasingly essential skill in every profession. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs (this one included), the public is exposed to an unprecedented flow of information. That gives scientists an amazing new opportunity to share ideas, but that also makes it easier than ever for their message to get drowned out. The contestants who fared the best were those who understood that it does not pay to talk down to the public, or to be too cute, or to assume that other people automatically understand your own interests and motivations. Honesty, transparency, and specificity pay huge dividends–as our winner, Tom DiLiberto, ably demonstrated.

America’s Science Idol itself may have suffered from a touch too much cuteness, but to a very deliberate end. By its nature, science is open to new ideas. It allows open debate, and encourages a change of opinion when the facts point that way. Scientists are routinely thrilled to have to modify their theories or discard them entirely in the face of new evidence. At a time of too much petty political polarization, those are incredibly important values to spread. I’m glad to say that America’s Science Idol brought out the competitiveness in our contestants, and in the process helped make sure that their bigger message does not get lost.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • JonFrum

    Chris Mooney? Just what science needs – an ideological hack famous for taking a steaming dump on the dinner table of half the nation. Keep up the good work of identifying science with the Democratic party elites.

  • coreyspowell

    [author] I strongly encourage you to watch the video and see if you can identify even the smallest shred of partisan commentary in here. This was not a political event–it was entirely about communicating science to the public. That is something that should be embraced by anyone interested in intellectual advancement and economic success, regardless of political philosophy.

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About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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