Over the past two months, I’ve been watching Years of Living Dangerously (YLD), a nine-part documentary series examining the issues and politics of climate change science through the eyes of popular American celebrities, who serve both as narrators and foils for exploring global warming scientific arguments and (mis)conceptions. Employing visually compelling imagery and urgent, albeit mostly alarmist, rhetoric, YLD is actually pretty standard fare for contemporary climate science programs. What makes the program interesting to me is the role it has assumed as a sort of cheerleader for science in a contest that in the past was populated only by participants (climate scientists and non-believers) and observers (the general public). In that paradigm, you either played the game, or watched from the stands. Now, it seems, with the right credentials you can be on the field as a cheerleader, yet not really in the game.
RAH! RAH! SIS! BOOM! BAH! SCIENCE! SCIENCE! SCIENCE!
The history of cheerleading dates back to the late 1800s where the first cheer leaders were male students recruited to literally give greater voice to audience participation at college athletic events. While cheerleading has changed much since that time, its fundamental role of audience motivation remains the same. Cheerleading’s role in science is perhaps more metaphorical and was, until recently, relatively unpracticed.
Years of Living Dangerously is the brainchild of Hollywood icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, and Jerry Weintraub, who are joined in their efforts by other powerhouse media producers like Joel Bach and David Gelber and supported by philanthropists like billionaire Paul Allen. Entertainment celebrities like Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, and Harrison Ford join ranks with news media notables Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman, New York Times Reporter Mark Bittman, journalist Chris Hayes, and others to lead a cheer of unprecedented volume for a broader public acceptance of climate science evidence. It’s science communication done Hollywood style.
After more than two decades working as a science communicator myself (both as a science writer and public information officer at a national laboratory), I understand well the need for promoting science. Very little public awareness of any scientific achievement is gained without some form of it. And while YLD may take science promotion to new hyper-theatrical heights, its participant’s motivations appear to be earnest. As I watched the series, I could not help but wonder if, in Years of Living Dangerously, we are witnessing the birth of a new science communication hyper-publicity in which Hollywood access, influence, and production values will be employed more widely in the future to articulate scientific debates of broad import or consequence.
EINSTEIN! EINSTEIN! HE’S OUR MAN!
If we use YLD as a model, then perhaps the archetype of a science cheerleader is someone who is neither a player, nor a simple observer, but rather a motivational professional. That is, someone who motivates observers (fans) to feel greater passion toward science and perhaps move them toward action. Science cheerleaders in this respect are not politicians, pundits, or industry lobbyists with vested financial interests in the success or defeat of climate science. They are not practicing scientists, nor are they scientists who excel at science communication in the manner of Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse-Tyson.
I need here to digress slightly at this point out to give due credit to my friend Darlene Cavalier, who literally has the franchise on the Science Cheerleader exemplar. Darlene is the founder of Science Cheerleaders, a group of professional cheerleaders pursuing science careers who want to inspire more young women toward careers in science, engineering and math, encourage greater public involvement in science, garner increased government support for science, and “change the tone of science and science policy in this country.”
In contrast, the science cheerleaders exemplified by Schwarzenegger and company have suddenly found value in using the powerful influence they have on public opinion to benefit science. The show’s producers and performers are neither scientists nor science communicators, but powerful purveyors of popular culture who are more interested in seeing science policy succeed than they ever will be in even participating in scientific research or dialogue. But to me, that’s fine. That’s not their job. Still, I wonder, is their cheerleading really necessary, or even helpful? Is there a role for Hollywood hype in science communications?
It is perhaps fortuitous that this example of science cheerleading comes at a time when even the traditionally cosseted practices of science communications are coming under fire. For example, with typical Twitter mischief aside, significant public consternation seems to have accompanied the history of science components of Neil deGrasse-Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. And in the UK, the popular television series Science Britannica has likewise taken a bit of heat recently for some less than precise presentations of British scientific history. Just two examples of how even science edutainment seems to be struggling.
Regardless of whether YLD is successful in furthering the world-saving mission of climate science, I cannot help but think it is the start of a new way of supporting science learning in the future. Perhaps science can use the help of the Terminator and Indiana Jones, but I worry that YLD could set a dangerous precedent, as it has been my observation that where media giants tread, intellectual carnage can follow.
Then again, what could possibly go wrong?