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Charles Darwin Superstar: The Rise of the Celebrity Scientist, in ‘Skeptical Inquirer’

June 9, 2015

The unprecedented availability of scientific data does not necessarily make for greater public understanding, as a celebrity-obsessed media turns to a handful of compelling scientific personalities to help us sort it all out. From Darwin to deGrasse Tyson, the rise of the “celebrity scientist” is explored in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

In a piece adapted from his new book The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight, Declan Fahy explains how a media that favors individual personalities over scientific nuance spotlighted a coterie of scientists whose charisma equaled or excelled their scientific credentials. “These scientific stars gripped the public imagination, using their vast influence to stimulate new thinking, drive scientific controversies, enhance public understanding, mobilize social movements, and shape policy,” writes Fahy.

Fahy explains how none other than Charles Darwin, whose personality was “commoditized” during the Victorian era, established the template for the celebrity scientist, foreshadowing the stardom of Albert Einstein in the twentieth century. With Carl Sagan’s crossover into entertainment in the 1980s with Cosmos and stints on late night television, the celebrity scientist began to find friction with the scientific establishment. “Students who watched Cosmos wanted to become scientists. No modern scientist had yet achieved such reach, renown, and reputation,” Fahy writes of Sagan, but notes, “A number of influential peers dismissed him as a mere popularizer and not a real scientist, someone who spent too much time on The Tonight Show.”

For the current crop of celebrity scientists, which includes Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, Fahy describes them as “emblems of a new era of science, one embedded in the dynamics of the media, the demands of celebrity culture, and the vicissitudes of public life.”

Also in this issue: Stephanie Savage tells of the imaginary adventures she experienced during a coma, without claims of a glimpse into an afterlife; Benjamin Radford delicately allays the fears of a woman who has been convinced by psychics that she has been cursed; and Bruce A. Thyer brings to light a little-known opera by Scott Joplin that championed skepticism of pseudoscience and paranormal claims.

All this and much more is in the July/August edition of Skeptical Inquirer!

Skeptical Inquirer is available on newsstands, in the Apple App Store, or on Pocketmags for Android, Kindle, and other platforms. For more information, visit http://www.csicop.org/si.