What’s Wrong With Sexy Scientists?

Hey everybody. Sorry for omitting a post about going on vacation. Regular posts will now resume.

So the other day I was looking to illustrate an article and googled “sexy scientists”. I was looking for the girls in those Trojan ads before remembering where I’d seen them. The first hit displayed a fine collection of researchers courtesy of Business Insider. And by “fine” I mean mighty fine. I spent the better part of twenty minutes checking out brainy babes, delighting in the facts that not only were the genders represented in roughly equal numbers, but the sample included two men and a woman in their fifties. Plenty of ethnicities graced the list as well. All in all, it seemed a well-rounded and respectfully-presented list.

The message seemed clear: these attractive people are leaders and innovators in their respective fields, so can we please give the cliché of the of the wild-haired goof in a lab coat a rest?

Then I read the comments. And sighed.

An annoying large number commenters and bloggers took offense. “The things this site posts sometimes are just so juvenile” wrote one detractor, whose comment got 81 likes. And although science communicator and blogger Theresa Liao has better-reasoned arguments for why she doesn’t like the article:

But regardless of whether they are sexy of not, scientists should be celebrated for their achievement in scientific discovery and the communication of science. The list emphasizes “sexiness” that is irrelevant in science . . .

I nonetheless disagree. BI’s list does celebrate scientists for their achievements. It lists their positions at various companies or institutions. It describes their achievements. By adding fun facts, authors Dina Spector and Jennifer Polland really do make these attractive, intelligent folks more accessible to the business world. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard successful entrepreneurs call science and math arcane at best.

Also while sexiness is irrelevant to the objectivity that and painstaking care required to do competent research, it becomes very relevant when scientists interact with each other and with people outside their fields. Science, just like anything else, is a human endeavor. Sure, we’ve become better at redirecting our stone-age urges, but they’re not so far away. Sex is important. Sex is part of our daily lives in a hundred overt and subtle ways.

So even though I’m coming late to the discussion, my conclusion is: up with sexpots of science! If all it takes the word “sexy” to maybe change people’s views a bit then I’m all for it.


40 responses to “What’s Wrong With Sexy Scientists?

  1. I agree with your sentiment, but I would augment it by saying we need more charismatic, engaging, accessible scientists. Good looks will get you in the door but capturing someone’s attention and holding it is the holy grail of getting more people involved and active with science. Carl Sagan was goofy but he was a great writer and engaging speaker. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is my current science hero because he treats the public as intelligent, he is witty and well-spoken and he can bridge the gap between laypeople and complex science effectively and with grace. And he is a handsome fellow to boot.

    • Good points. However, it only helps that Neil good looking. I don’t think Bill Nye, for example, will ever be as highly-regarded and believe that part of this is due to the disparity in appearance.

      • I don’t think appearance is as much of an issue for Bill Nye as you do, I think his public perception is parallel to his actual scientific cred – he’s an engineer by training, but has spent much of his career as an entertainer. Only recently has he been getting serious exposure again for his efforts to promote scientific thinking and skepticism of creationist theory. As such he’s perceived as an (educational) entertainer first, a scientist second. Whereas Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a vastly stronger science pedigree, continues to actively develop it and his role in the public eye as a science leader and communicator is an outgrowth of his scientific work. In this light how the two men are perceived (I believe) is directly related to their science chops far more than their appearance.

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