Phil Plait, supporting Mayim Bialik to promote science is like supporting Bill Cosby to promote education


I love, love, love Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. I’m especially fond of his full throated condemnation of anti-vaxx pseudoscience.

And I’m deeply sympathetic to the position he’s found himself in. I, too, have written about specific issues and found myself attacked for a tangent that had little to do with the main point. Unfortunately, I can’t agree with his defense of his error in promoting Mayim Bialik as an actress with a passion for science. Bialik, is a fierce proponent of attachment parenting, and especially its pseudoscience offshoots. She is a leading avatar for homebirth, anti-vaxx and homeopathy. Yes, she does have a PhD in neuroscience and she plays a scientist on TV, but that makes her more dangerous not less.

What did Plait do?

A while back I was skimming my Twitter stream, and saw .. a fun graphic created by Elise Andrew of I F’ing Love Science …

The picture is titled “Actresses with a passion for science” and shows five such women: Hedy Lamarr, Lisa Kudrow, Mayim Bialik, Natalie Portman, and Danica McKellar. I know how important it is to have good role models for kids, and how girls need more support in getting into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. Like it or not, actors and other famous people bear weight, so showing famous actresses who love STEM in my opinion is a pretty good thing.

So I retweeted the picture, adding “Love this” to it.

Then things got interesting.

Within minutes I started seeing responses about Dr. Bialik. Yes, “doctor”; she has a PhD in neuroscience. The thing is, she also holds a number of beliefs with which I and many others disagree, some of them very strongly. For example, she’s a spokesperson for a group called Holistic Moms—they support homeopathy, a provably worthless and arguably dangerous bit of “alternative medicine”. They are also strongly anti-vaccination, and Bialik herself supports anti-vaxxers (she has stated she has not vaccinated her own children, a position I am strongly opposed to).

I knew all this when I retweeted the picture. I’ll admit, I hesitated before doing so, specifically because of this. Is promoting this picture also promoting anti-science beliefs? Looking at the responses on Twitter, a lot of people think so. I see their point, but I also don’t think this is quite so black-and-white.

Why not?

Clearly, she can be a positive role model for science. However, we must have a care. The same people who might be inspired by her pro-science message might look into her more and find that she holds some less-supported beliefs, some that are anti-science.

So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.

I disagree, but that’s a matter of opinion.

Here, though, is where Plait went off the rails:

But of course we should also be careful not to put celebrities on too high a pedestal. Yes, Bialik has beliefs unsupported by science. But so does everyone…

I doubt that claim is even true, but that’s not the worst part. Many celebrities may have beliefs unsupported by science, but, in my view, they cross a very bright line when they profit from promoting pseudoscience. Simply put, Mayim Bialik shills for Big Placebo. She’s very far over that bright line.

When anyone (especially a celebrity) profits from promoting pseudoscience, the bad emphatically outweighs the good.

Plait claims:

Bialik has done a lot to raise awareness of science and women’s contributions to it. Celebrating her (and the other four actresses) for that is great, and that was the sole purpose of the picture, and it’s appropriate to praise her there.

No one could be more committed to women in science than I am, but women aren’t in such desperate straits that we should be reduced to praising pseudoscience shills. Moreover, including a shill like Bialik insults the intelligence of young women thinking about careers in science. If you wouldn’t use Dr. Oz, another celebrity shill for Big Placebo, to promote a career in medicine, you shouldn’t be using Mayim Bialik to promote women’s careers in science. The graphic would have been equally powerful, indeed more powerful, if Bialik had been left out.

Plait concludes:

That’s what I meant about this not being black-and-white. We’re all shades of grey, and if you really only want to praise someone who is absolutely the perfect icon of science in every way, well, good luck finding them. You’ll be looking a long time.

As for me, I will continue to support science the best I can, and also support women in science. That’s the bigger picture here, and one we should all bear in mind.

But supporting a woman who shills for Big Placebo is not supporting women in science. It’s like saying its still okay to support Bill Cosby as a role model for young men because he’s a celebrity who got a PhD in education.

This is not about supporting science. This is about appropriate role models, and Mayim Bialik is not an appropriate role model for women in science. To insist that she is demeans both science and women.