Meet the Science Cheerleader: Darlene Cavalier Is Fired Up for Physics (And Biology. And Chemistry ...)

 

Cheerleaders, who are basically just bundles of muscle fiber and energy in short skirts, get little respect as athletes. As intellectuals? Forget it. But Darlene Cavalier is banking on that very stereotype of the flighty, popular cheerleader to help make Americans more comfortable with core scientific concepts.

Cavalier, a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader and a senior manager of global business development for Walt Disney Publishing Worldwide, is the Science Cheerleader: a vocal advocate for ensuring that adults grasp how science influences their daily lives.

"Americans are afraid of science, in part because it feels unapproachable," she says. Enter the cheerleaders. In YouTube videos on the site, professional cheerleaders from the 76ers, pompoms aflutter, introduce 18 concepts essential to understanding how the universe works. (The concepts were developed by lead science-literacy expert James Trefil, a professor at George Mason University, who also blogs on the site.) Future videos are planned with Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders.

Cavalier eventually hopes to reestablish the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, which was shut down in the mid-'90s, and would give citizens more of a voice in science policy. She spoke to NEWSWEEK about science, feminism, and the surprising amount of scientists moonlighting as dancers, models, and cheerleaders.

Excerpts:

What is the Science Cheerleader?
The Science Cheerleader is a blog that advocates for increasing adult science literacy, getting people involved in doing science, and pushing for a mechanism for the public to weigh in on science policy discussions.

Those three things are key. American adults fund 50 percent of the basic science [through tax dollars], and we entrust people with issues that impact our lives, but we’re cut out of the conversation.

How did this get started?

My original path I set out on was very highbrow: how can we reopen this congressional agency to allow for public participation in technology assessment? Through a number of conversations, it became crystal-clear to me that there wasn’t a heck of a lot of faith in the American public because adult science literacy, for example, is very low: it’s at 7 percent.

I started reading up, because if we don’t have faith in our public this is never going to happen.  That’s how I paired off with a professor from George Mason University, James Trefil, who is really the expert on adult science literacy.

What is it that knowing about electricity and magnetism [item 3 on the list of important concepts] that is going to help people be better advocates for science policy?
A world understood is a world that’s less frightening. That example would go right to lesson No. 1, which is that the universe is regular and predictable. It wasn’t that long ago that people thought lightning was a way of God punishing you. And when you really understand just that premise, that it’s regular, it’s predictable, and here’s how your daily life fits into this pattern ... OK, let’s establish that and then move on to No. 2.

So why bring cheerleading into this conversation?
The National Science Foundation and other groups that were interested in the public understanding of science kept running into the same thing─we don’t just want to keep preaching to the choir. How do we reach that mass audience out there? The cheerleaders definitely helped.

People often assume cheerleaders are dumb. Was that something you had to deal with?
Definitely. I kept it secret for years [when I worked at] Discover. It’s also one of the other reasons for using science cheerleaders, because it playfully challenges other stereotypes as well. You just don’t expect to see "science" and "cheerleader" in the same book, let alone sentence.

Do you think cheerleaders are more biased against science, or scientists are biased against cheerleaders?
I don’t know if it pinpoints so much to cheerleaders and science. There might be more of that "two cultures" divide between the intellects and the perceived non-intellects. On Science Cheerleader I’m covering all of these scientists who were or are professional cheerleaders. There’s a Flickr page called Sexy Scientists and Engineers, and there are probably 15 or so professional cheerleaders who are scientists.

That’s a high number, considering how few professional cheerleaders there are.

I love pulling that part out because every one of them has a story too. One I just spoke with said, "God, I think I had a hard time getting a job because they knew I was a professional cheerleader." She’s a chemist. I know that feeling, but the fact of the matter was that when people at Discover and Disney learned I was a 76ers cheerleader, they thought it was so cool.

Why the perception that pretty people can’t be good at science?

I don’t know. I don’t know where that started and how that started, but I am trying to change that a bit. I realize it’s ruffling some feathers. The people who have as their goal increasing science literacy, they like it because it’s working. But if you’re a science-literacy blogger who also happens to blog about feminist issues, you’re probably not going to like it.

Are there people who are scientific elitists?
I think it’s important─I think there is a certain population that’s territorial about science. They want the public to understand it to the point that they support what they’re doing. It’s sort of, we’ll take your money and we’ll take your vote, but other than that, we don’t need you to be a part of this. I also think that might be why there’s so much of an emphasis on educating kids. There's a lot of money that’s poured into our education system, and it doesn’t necessarily do a great job, but there are very few efforts that are focused on the people who are paying the bills right now and voting on these issues.

Do you think having greater science literacy makes us better able to understand the health-care debate?

Oh, sure. There’s always going to be politics. For example, people have opinions about stem-cell research, but can you really be taken seriously if you don’t know what a stem cell is? You’ve got to start somewhere and get the basic understanding of these issues.