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Academic Idol – or do we need Historical Rock Stars?

July 28, 2006
The BC-52's
The BC-52’s – Historical Rock Stars.

Picking up from Coturnix and Afarensis there’s a discussion about Scientist Rock Stars. It comes from a comment by Morgan Spurlock:

We’ve started to make science and empirical evidence not nearly as important as punditry–people using p.r.-speak to push a corporate or political agenda. I think we need to turn scientists back into the rock stars they are.

I’ll widen the net by looking at it from a History and Archaeology perspective and then take that back to the sciences.

Assuming the stars cannot be fictional, and ideally not dead so that they can interact with the media, are there any historians or archaeologists that the public get excited about?

A History of Britain has recently propelled Simon Schama into megastar status, and David Starkey is said to have a seven figure contract with Channel Four. I think these would be recognisable as academics to the public, but still a draw. However I’m not sure that rock star is a suitable simile for the UK, where we tend to go for pop.

Phil from Time Team
Phil. Photo by Anthony Grimley.

The Time Team are the most pop example I can think of in archaeology. For Americans this is a series where a team of archaeologists with a staggering amount of equipment go and dig a site for three days to see what they can find. Rather than present the results, they show the process of archaeology. It’s proved a huge help in bringing students into archaeology and the affection for the Time Team is genuine. If they dig in the vicinity they will make the news and draw a crowd.

Also taking pop as an example, Binford or Hodder can be thought of as Wagner or Handel, deeply worthy but not on everyone’s lips. At the opposite end of the scale who is producing the archaeological equivalent of The Birdy Song or Las Ketchup? You could insert the name of your favourite pseudo-archaeologist here. This isn’t meant so much as a dig at anyone in particular, more a reminder that popularity and worthiness are not connected.

I think the connecting factor that makes history ‘pop’ isn’t the content, it’s the engagement. A good concert is one where you feel part of it. In the case of David Starkey or Graham Hancock you may or may not agree with them, but they’re presenting issues you can engage with. The things they’re talking about matter and they’re open for debate. Time Team took this to its logical conclusion with its Big Digs which encouraged people across the country to dig one-metre test pits in their back garden.

I think this is something that some of the best pop-scientists do. Patrick Moore is the astronomer in the UK. There’s longevity and the fact he’s the BBC’s go to guy for matters astronomical, but there’s also the fact that he is good at relating astronomy with what you can do. Coturnix mentions David Bellamy, who is another figure kids could emulate. You go go out wading in streams or through wasteland while putting on a weally tewwific voice whilst looking at all the cweepy-cwawlies. David Attenborough doesn’t seem to fit this model, but perhaps he does.

Neil Tennant said the best bands were inspirational or aspirational. The inspiration bands were those like Oasis where you thought “I could do that”, like Bellamy. Tennant argued that Pet Shop Boys were an aspirational band, the sort where you think “I’d like to be like that.” You might not be able to have monkeys jumping over you, but you can watch David Attenborough being mauled and think that that’s what you’d do if you were left to your own devices.

It’s this aspect of the personal which is important. It can be missing from interviews where very intelligent people earnestly wrestle with the complexities of their subject in a sincere bid to avoid misleading the public. The best popularisers relate what their subject means to you. This means that some subtleties and nuances are lost. Yet if you think your work, in all its detail, can be explained in 20 minutes to someone with no background in your subject then perhaps it’s not that interesting anyway. A popular presentation, like an academic presentation isn’t a substitute for scholarly work, it’s an introduction to it. The 1% who are inspired can then work their way through the academic literature for the details.

Or at least they could if the literature was openly accessible.

Coturnix ends his post with

We need scientific rock stars. But how do we choose them and how do we put them out there to do their job?

We (academics) don’t choose them. We (the public) do. What academia, science or not can do, is accept that if they are to be publicly funded then production of public material is an important service.

Why wouldn’t popular work be recognised as being of value? Alan Campbell in Tricky Tropes (in the book Popularizing Anthropology) discusses how we perceive work as being either popular or scholarly, which leads to the erroneous conclusion that the less scholarly a work is then it automatically becomes more popular. As anecdotal evidence I’ll lift a quote from MacClancy’s Popularizing Anthropology (in the same book)

Paris [Ernest Gellner] said was ‘the world capital of obscurity. The production of obscurity in Paris compares with the production of motor cars in Detroit in the great period of American industry.’

‘Why then,’ asked the chairman Colin MacCabe, ‘have Foucault, Derrida, Barthes et al. been so influential around the world?’

‘Because,’ replied the imperturbable Geller, ‘there is a demand for obscurity.’ At this, MacCabe turned helplessly to Dr George Steiner. ‘I don’t think Ernest means that,’ said the good Doctor benignly . ‘I do.’ replied Gellner and rested his case.

  1. July 30, 2006 9:30 pm

    Great idea…um, perhpas to truly compete with IDOL concept the show should be structured a bit more like Top Chef or Project Runway. The contestants would be given thesis and theory and the winner would be chosen on who could communicate in the most accessible way to a jury of “public”?


  1. Migrations » Blog Archive » Other Rock-star Scientists

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