Between Two Ferns, Obama’s Cool Factor and Cautions for Science

“If the President [Obama] can take down Jimmy Kimmel, who gets paid million of dollars for hosting a late-night talk show, surely he should be able to handle Romney, whose rhetorical talents are, let us be kind, less fully developed.” – The New Yorker

If there is an underlying message in Obama’s recent appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, it’s that the President is youthful, hip and can trade jokes with the best of us. He ‘gets’ us. He’s got that cool factor – even for science communicators (exhibit A: his selfie-sandwich between Bill Nye ‘the science guy’ and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson).

“With television, John F. Kennedy could lose a presidential debate on spoken words while winning the debate – and the presidency – through image.” – Kirby Goidel, America’s Failing Experiment

Kirby Goidel makes a case in America’s Failing Experiment for “too much democracy” in today’s U.S. political landscape. Goidel writes that since 1984, “the more likeable candidate of the two major party nominees has won the presidency in each election,” a trend highlighted by President Barack Obama's ‘coolness’ factor and the benefits it has awarded him in election seasons. Has politics been replaced by imagery? According to Goidel, politics has become defined by imagery, and the harnessing of public opinion. Political elites may be failing to bring about meaningful policy changes, but the root problem, according to Goidel, is the uninformed and contradictory whims of the American people. Elites are failing, but only because they have learned to appeal to and manipulate democratic passions with digital and social media. They have been rewarded, in both Facebook fans and votes, “not for solving problems but for being on the right side of political issues.”

Or for being on the ‘cool’ side of political issues.

Exhibit B: Barack Obama – 42.1M Twitter followers; Mitt Romney – 1.55M followers; Hillary Clinton – 1.25M followers; of course MANY of these are fake.

“As President Obama explained, the mistake of his first term ‘was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.’” – Kirby Goidel, America’s Failing Experiment

Of course, this is a science blog, so I would be remiss to not tie these observations to – you guessed it – science communication. There is certainly a place for stories that simply inspire an awe for science and nature, just as President Obama supplies the American people with stories of unity, purpose and optimism. But, just as certainly, this can’t be the whole job of science journalists and other science communicators.

Goidel points out how digital media have changed the game of political campaigns: “Thanks to the advent of digital media, […] A single individual with a tablet PC or smartphone, fairly minimal Internet skills, and enough commitment can express opinions instantly and to fairly wide audiences.”

Digital media has also changed the landscape of science news: what gets covered and what doesn’t; what gets blogged and what doesn't; what gets attention and what doesn’t. And unfortunately, many of the choices for what becomes science news happen regardless of the veracity, significance or relevance to the field of science or society at large.

As average readers of science in the past, we trusted traditional media outlets like the New York Times to tell us what questions were at the forefront of science, and what important research was being conducted. But as these outlets have learned (and have HAD to learn) to serve up what they already know we will read, or what we will find ‘cool,’ do the important scientific questions get put on the back-burner as we debate questions like whether we should vaccinate our children, whether evolution is real, or what latest furry creature has been discovered in the Amazon? [note: I’m not knocking the discovery of new mammals, or any new species for that matter – very important work! But should these discoveries take headlines away from other important but less ‘cool’ scientific discoveries? I'm also not knocking the New York Times, whose science coverage is actually very good, but rather many other traditional and digital news outlets.]

‘Cool’ science stories will always take our hearts and inspire our minds - critical qualities in science education for young people today, many of whom find science ‘icky’ or boring. But this is a very different question than: what happens when mainstream media outlets drop in-depth coverage of important scientific issues in favor of ‘cool,’ novel and controversial science stories? (But tisk tisk, I’m asking that question as if it hasn’t already happened.)

It's SCIENCE! Shutterstock:

“Technological change likewise increases competition and choice, and subsequently results in more sensational tabloid-style news coverage as news outlets compete for audiences…” – Kirby Goidel, America’s Failing Experiment

Patterns of news coverage increasingly focus on breaking news events, negativity, conflict and novelty, and science isn’t exempt. Goidel argues that informing the public will always take a backseat to the commercial pressures of selling the news. Science, again, is not exempt – and perhaps is even more affected by these pressures than other beats. Could it be that science communication today is TOO responsive to audience clicks, likes, ‘ooohhs’ and ‘aahhhs’?

Interesting Q: What do you think about judging science, for news coverage, etc., according to its 'cool' factor? Yes? In moderation? No?

— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench In moderation, b/c 'coolness' is such a fickle factor (highly subjective).

— Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench IMO that's what leads to overly ambitious scientifically meaningless headlines in media.

— Ram RS (@_ramrs) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench not just science news. Journals reject papers every day based on "relevance" criteria, subjective as that is

— Alejandro Montenegro (@aemonten) March 17, 2014

Also, do you agree that #science news in general has become too much about the 'cool' factor? What about sci funding?

— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench Funding for sure. - in my field 'cool' factor is (a) fancy numerical modelling (b) UAVs. Not environ monitoring/fieldwork.

— Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench Coolness does get media coverage for Science, look at Watson, Mars Rover, Google Glass, Tesla

— Michael Nardi (@iPublicPolicy) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench paleontology has a coolness factor problem too - but there are some who resist it, including publishers

— Brian Beatty (@Vanderhoofius) March 17, 2014

And do we have an obligation to make the research on important scientific questions just as 'cool' in the media as sex, dinosaurs & space?

— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) March 17, 2014

@FromTheLabBench I believe we do.

— Amanda Haddock (@AmandaHaddock) March 17, 2014

According to Goidel, U.S. citizens “do not need more or better information; they need perspective, interpretation, and guidance.” Goidel speaks in the context of politics, but I think the same could be said for science communication. Some new long-form outlets for in-depth coverage of science, like Matter and Mosaic Science, are trying to do this – provide perspective, interpretation and guidance on issues related to science in the public sphere. But these forms of science journalism are certainly not in the majority, and are presently dwarfed by readership of popular, and arguably sensational, science content in more traditional channels.

BEE APOCALYPSE NOW: Scientists discover what’s killing the bees and it’s worse than you thought. - Quartz. What a headline, right? But if we boil down all the sensational coverage, blog posts and news articles on “this Science paper just out!” what do we get? Do we get the contextualized and interpretative stories on the scientific issues and discoveries that really matter to us as individuals, as a society, and as a scientific community?

Beware the ‘cool’ factor. There is more to science than sex, dinosaurs and outer space.

Update 3/18/2013 - More feedback from Twitter on 'coolness' in science storytelling: