Artwork by David Amoroso
The recent Emmy Award nomination of Brad Pitt, for his impersonation of Dr. Fauci on SNL, has brought with it a consequential dilemma to the fore. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, most people would have never heard of Dr. Fauci – who by now is a household name. Even though, he’s a highly accomplished doctor, who has been running the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 36 years. This situation is an allegory for the dire predicament that is facing the world today.
As a society, we idolise celebrities and social media influencers when we should be looking up to people who are responsible for the advancement of society: doctors, scientists, engineers and frontline workers. Not to discredit celebrities and influencers but we should not deny the people tasked with shaping the future, the spotlight they deserve. The lack of media coverage coupled with the cliched and stereotypical depiction of the “pioneers of the future” as geeks and antisocial have significant contributions in the creation of a culture which undermines and stigmatizes science.
This culture has led birth to companies like Goop which was founded by Gwenyth Paltrow and was valued at $250 million in 2018. Goop’s business model relies on the placebo effect to push products with unsubstantiated claims to its customers by capitalizing on Paltrow’s fame. This resulted in a lawsuit against the company last year, however, they settled it without admitting liability. The fact that the claims they make regarding their products are not scientifically proven, let alone approved by the FDA, reveals a chilling truth. Why would Goop need science when Gwenyth Paltrow’s words have become powerful enough to trump it? Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a prominent critic of Goop, eloquently summarised this entire scenario. “The placebo effect is very important when you are selling snake oil because you move from one product to the next, hoping to meet that ill-defined outcome,” she said. “Generally, the placebo effect is temporary. You are in the cult of personality with Paltrow.”
Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, revolves around the premise of stagnation in the progress of science and technology in the last few decades. Which despite the illusion of all our flashy devices, is nothing but the truth. JFK gave his infamous Moonshot speech at RICE University in 1962, where he proclaimed that by the end of the decade America would send a man to the moon and back. And in 1969 as the Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a vision which was considered to be science fiction was transmuted into reality. Yet over 50 years after the landing of Apollo 11 we are yet to send an astronaut beyond the moon, which may be a long time in the making, considering that NASA hasn’t sent a manned mission to the moon since 1972. If we want to get out of this slump there needs to be a cultural change. Hard science is hard and there is nothing appealing about hard work. But without a culture which values hard work, as much as fame and fortune, rapid advancements in science remain but wishful thinking.
However, this doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any progress in STEM over the last few years. Sequencing human genomes has gone from moonshot to mundane. What took almost $3 billion and 13 years, can now be achieved with a $1000 within a day or two. The reason that scientists were able to decode the coronavirus’ genome so quickly was because of the Human Genome Project. Had the Human Genome Project not garnered enough attention it may have taken scientists much longer to decode coronavirus’ genome. Had the work of these scientists not been recognised at the highest international level at the White House, we may have been 13 years behind in genomics than we are today.
The silver lining in this entire pandemic has been the increase in the awareness of the importance and the appreciation of doctors, scientists and frontline workers who have dedicated their lives to a certain cause and have long been cast aside from the spotlight. The pandemic has also brought with it an opportunity for societal change. When you search up the definition of the word celebrity on Google, the first definition is, “a famous person, especially in entertainment or sport.” When our definition of celebrity is one which neglects the people who deserve a seat in the spotlight, how can we expect such advancements in STEM? It is only when the Turing Award is as glamorized as the Grammys, when the Kyoto Prize is as glamorized as the Emmys and when the Nobel Prize is as glamorized as the Oscars, will we advance as a society.