Sarah Wild COMMENT: Enter the rockstar scientist, exit trust in science

“Rockstar scientists”, such as Professors Lee Berger and Tim Noakes, oversimplify complex issues and play to public emotions. This is dangerous for people's trust in science.

Social media has changed the way that the public engages with science. It has also changed the way in which scientists engage with a broader, non-science audience – something they’re now expected to do.

Self-promotion is almost mandatory if a scientist wants to attract interest, grants and funding. In fact, as this blog post on the prestigious scientific journal Nature advises, “Social media is a powerful tool for promoting your work and interacting with your research community – so get yourself out there!”

Science’s substance hidden behind a face

Enter the rockstar scientist: an academic who engages with the public through the media and often argues their point of view through public sentiment.

They become a brand and their science’s substance is hidden behind a face. This science populism, which is similar to political populism in its oversimplification of complex issues and playing to public emotions, is dangerous for people’s trust in science. It creates erroneous ideas about what science – and the scientific method – actually involves.

“Trust is different from faith because it [is] usually based on some evidence of trustworthiness, whereas faith involves belief without evidence,” writes bioethicist Dr David Resnick in a journal article called Scientific Research and Public Trust. “Trustworthiness can be earned, enhanced or lost.”

Why does this matter? The most important reason is that it is easy for an audience to lose faith and trust in an individual, but if that person is seen as a face representing science, people may well lose their trust in science as a whole.

Berger played media like an orchestral conductor

South Africa has two notable rockstar scientists: Professors Lee Berger and Tim Noakes. They work in different fields but both know how to use the media to their advantage.

Berger, a noted palaeoscientist, announced the discovery of a new hominin at the Cradle of Humankind, setting off a media frenzy in September. The Homo naledi find was quite singular in that a large number of fossils were discovered in a cave, which Berger and his team described as an “intentional body disposal” site. Emotive phrases like “almost human” and “burial site” were bandied about.

This was stated as uncontroversial fact, and reported as such in mainstream South African media, but it’s not the case. Many international palaeoscientists disagree that Homo naledi is a new species or that it disposed of its dead intentionally. But Berger ultimately controlled the narrative and played the South African media with the acumen of a conductor directing a 100-piece orchestra.

On the positive side, the announcement generated a great deal of excitement about science in South Africa, a country where there is not a strong science culture among the general public.

But it also means that if Berger and his colleagues are proven wrong, it will be almost impossible to dislodge an incorrect idea from South Africa’s collective mind. And if it does prove possible, South Africans may not only lose trust in this one scientist, but in human evolution scientists in general.

‘Noakes diet’ controversy not over data

The case of Homo naledi is comparatively benign compared to the antics of Prof Tim Noakes. While celebrated for his work in his field of expertise – exercise and sports science, not studying nutrition in non-sports-people – Noakes has attracted controversy for his endorsement and advocacy of a low-carbohydrate-high-fat (LCHF) diet since he first tried the diet in 2010.

The problem here is that the arguments over the “Noakes diet”, as it is being called, are not fought over data. It is a battle that is being waged in the media and through popular sentiment, via anecdotes, belief and social media.

As Africa Check’s Nechama Brodie points out, the Noakes diet has “resulted in what can fairly be described as a cult of personality rather than pure medicine – to the extent that it is now almost impossible to interrogate the nutritional science of LCHF without it being seen as a direct attack on Noakes himself”.

A field as large and complex as nutrition – in which thousands of scientists work worldwide, and which affects every person on this planet – should not be condensed into whether you believe one man. If that person comports himself a champion of science, and if he is proven wrong, he may well take people’s trust in science with him.

This is not to say that controversy in science is new or something to be shied away from. In its science communication toolkit, the University of Berkeley says: “True scientific controversy [scientists disagreeing over an hypothesis or theory] is healthy and involves disagreements over how data should be interpreted, over which ideas are best supported by the available evidence, and over which ideas are worth investigating further. This sort of catalyst sparks careful examination of the data and additional research and so science can move forward.”

But since nutrition can quite literally be a matter of life or death, it is more important than ever that the scientific method – which humans have been honing for centuries – be raised above personalities and the obsession with rockstar scientists.

Sarah Wild is a science journalist and won the Dow Technology and Innovation Reporting award at the MultiChoice African Journalist Awards announced last week.

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Comments 30
  1. By Sam

    Interesting article Sarah,

    Are you implying that it is impossible to be both a good scientist and a good communicator? your tone with regards to the Homo naledi discovery suggests that its only a matter of time before Prof. Lee Burger ‘s hypothesis is disapproved. I don’t what know informs your tone but I hope its not the fact that other scientists in the field are in disagreement, because this is normal and expected.
    South Africa needs its very own “Brain Cox effect” that lead to higher enrollment of young people into science.
    So what if your hypothesis gets disapproved? is this reason enough to stop communicating science ?We need more Scientists to be like Lee and Tim, we need more rockstar scientists.
    South Africans need to learn from the Americans on how to coin their achievements.

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    • By Sarah Wild

      I don’t think that being a good communicator and a good scientist are mutually exclusive. Neither am I saying that scientists shouldn’t talk about their research and get this info out into the world. We need the Cox Effect, but there must be a way to do that while being accurate and balanced.

      My concern is scientists who play the media to market themselves. In that marketing, they do not admit to uncertainty about their research. When researchers paint their findings as unequivocal (when there are other valid points of view), that is problematic.

      It’s about balance — there’s a middle ground.

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      • By Jamie Richards

        Sarah I’m now very confused. Timothy Noakes is famed for putting his hands up and saying that he got it wrong. He’s already done what you’re questioning him for not doing. I’m sure he’ll do it again given the opportunity.

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        • By Prof Timothy Noakes

          The reality is that the current obesity/diabetes epidemic will not be reversed until we (doctors, dietitian, nutritional scientists, health epidemiologists etc) all put our hands up and admit that we all got it wrong. That the nutritional advice we have been giving for the past 40 years is wrong and is the direct cause of this epidemic.

          Until we do that as a collective, those who benefit financially and in many other ways from this epidemic, will continue to dominate the public debate in part by attacking the scientific and other credibilty of those who wish to bring the full truth to the public.

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      • By Greg

        Scientists who trade on trust in science do this all the time. Big wig scientists make an announcement and it is reported as gospel because they are big wig scientists. They defend peer review, assert groupthink is a fantasy, and assure us that funding has no influence.

        When someone like Noakes comes along and publically challenges the orthodoxy, they get branded a maverick. Other scientists close ranks to try to defend their reputations, and science reporters start to cast doubt on the heretic for fear that their own writing will lose people’s trust. However if we didn’t have these mavericks, some pretty crap hypotheses would still be the norm.

        It is interesting that the mavericks often come from a different but related field to the one they are challenging. This is probably because they are close enough to have a deep insight into the problem but not too close to be caught up in the groupthink or be threatened with defunding.

        My biggest fear is losing the mavericks. They are rare. Imagine the debate without them, there would be none. They should be commended for having the guts to challenge the norm and put themselves out there for criticism.

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  2. By Re Hodgskin

    -been honing for centuries. And resulted in increased obeisity in huge parts of the population, and starvation in others. Doesn’t take science to observe that current dietary guidelines are just plain wrong

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  3. By Henry Gum

    Nechama Brodie’s article was badly researched – to the point where one has to question whether she actually understood the subject she was writing about or whether she had done ANY research whatsoever. Most of what she has written in that article is hyperbole and NOT AT ALL what the actual facts are. When a person who has a BA degree starts writing articles about science, you should know upfront that you are wasting your time reading it. I wouldn’t quote her if I were you Sarah, she’s hardly a credible source.

    The point is that Tim Noakes has been attacked in his personal capacity since he changed his tune about carbo loading. And mostly the attacks have been vitriolically personal without contradicting SCIENCE being used to prove him wrong. So it is hardly a surprise that people who he has helped (to the point where he has changed their lives completely) are coming to his defense.

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  4. By Marina Joubert

    Getting science communication right is a difficult balancing act with many inherent risks and rewards. (Nurturing public trust in science is probably infinitely harder and more complex.) On the one hand, we want scientists to get out of their ivory towers and participate in public debate. We want them to be visible and share their science with society.

    Communication experts advise them to make their work “real” and “human” by moving away from “cold facts” and focus instead on telling compelling stories. They are advised to include their own feelings and emotions since this helps people to connect with them and their work. Science stories that are packaged with excellent visuals and great infographics are more likely to make it into the media and be shared online.

    Science communication has become sophisticated and competitive. The campaign and media kit for the Homo naledi announcement is a good example. But, scientists who are expert communicators will inevitably become public “celebrities”. Is this something we should celebrate or condemn? Very often, they are then accused of being limelight-seeking “science rock stars” in search of self-promotion. The perception that media prominence may tarnish a scientific career and that peers will disapprove of a high public profile is well known in science, and often referred to as ‘The Sagan effect’ (remember him?).

    What is the solution? More focus on more “responsible” communication of science? Should scientists emphasize the scientific method more clearly, and explain the tentative, uncertain nature of new evidence? Should they keep quiet until they are 100% “sure” of new evidence (if that is even possible)?

    I fully understand the concern about premature or irresponsible science communication, but I’m equally concerned about putting more barriers between scientists and society. A difficult balancing act, indeed!

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    • By Sarah Wild

      Marina, I agree with you.
      I’m not saying that scientists shouldn’t engage with non-scientists, or that we don’t need more science in the South African landscape.

      My issue is one of balance and responsible communication. This is something we should be talking about, both within science communication circles and without.

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  5. By David Rhodes

    In actual fact, the LCHF controversy is indeed over data; the very same data that proponents of the low GI, heart-healthy diet now find themselves forced to ignore without doing exactly what Noakes has done: Turn back and say oops, sorry, we were wrong. Unless you have a very limited scope of research you will know that the fight is not against one man. Noakes was not the first on this wagon, by any means. But he is one of the few who realised that he couldn’t carry on advocating the high-carb diet that has clearly caused so many problems since it was adopted practically on the advice of ONE MAN.

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    • By Sarah Wild

      I purposefully did not argue the merits of the LCHF situation because that is a full article on its own. Also, this is an opinion piece, rather than news/feature journalism.

      My interest is in scientists’ engagement with public, and a situation in which scientists become that face of their science and that science is not engaged with adequately in the media and in their comments.

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      • By David Rhodes

        One would have to be really naive to think that, given the ongoing saga between Noakes and HPCSA, any opinion of Noakes’s use of the media and the LCHF diet are mutually exclusive in the eyes of Joe Public.

        Some would have you think that endocrinology (because that’s what we are really talking here, not dietetics) is some kind of “hallowed ground” that cannot be followed by other learned folk. It isn’t. Meanwhile, many Dietitians are arguing their (low-fat) cause from a completely flawed standpoint, and either they don’t know it or cannot accept it; there is a necessary refusal to consider other hypotheses. This is not science. This is the point that needs to be made. Accurately. But it hardly ever happens that way. So, someone has to try and do something about this by those means available to them.

        We can no longer allow ourselves to be steam-rolled by this planet-wide mess that makes the VW scandal pale into insignificance.

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  6. By Johannes

    Sam,

    You make a good point. Good communication is a tremendous benefit to science, and we can do with more eloquent and media-savvy scientists to offset ignorant/sensationalist science journalism and who can make science more attractive. When scientists are passionate about their work, that passion is contagious.

    But Sarah also has a valid point: identifying a particular person with an idea or study (especially if its controversial) gives the impression that it is a popularity contest, and that the findings are inextricably linked with that proponent. In other words, celebrity science may counter-intuitively end up communicating a very unscientific message: partiality, personality, sensation; the impression that if you are able to pitch a view just right, it will have a better chance of being true.

    If it is really about critical thinking, we have to emphasise that consensus matters, and that even the most eloquent and passionate proponents of an idea have to convince their peers first. The public just isn’t equipped with the necessary data to make that call.

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  7. By Patrick Frickel

    In terms of your comments of regarding #LCHF eating advocated by Prof. Noakes. His ability to have his voice heard is limited to social media and other “non-official” science channels. Why? As most normal science channels are closed due to associations like ADSA and heart foundation being funded by big food i.e. Kellogg’s, sugar association, etc who definitely don’t want this this way of eating becoming pervasive. Interesting fact: 4 of the ADSA executive/past executive members either consult for or work directly for Kellog’s.

    Would love to see an article on Professional nutritionists and their conflict of interest in taking money for the makers of Coco Pops, etc. who’s products are by weight 30% sugar. No rationally minded dietician can possibly condone this in a balanced diet, but are more than will to get money from them. Apart from the fact that Kellog’s is premium sponsor of ADSA!

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    • By Perfide Consultus

      Patrick

      You make a very good point. One has to consider what is at stake for dieticians when Noakes is proved to be correct.

      I would suppose that once Noakes is proved correct (the proposed way of eating is straightforward and simple – no “balancing” of diets required) the whole nutritionist and dietician profession will simply disappear, along with soothsayers, apothecaries, medicine men and seers. I believe that ADSA and NSSA are literally fighting for their very existence.

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  8. By Prof Tim Noakes

    Dear Sarah,

    Please explain how we “play the media to market” ourselves. What do you mean by the emotive word “play”? And of what benefit is this to ourselves? Lee runs a huge team that would not exist if he did not have the public support and trust that he has. How much of his life has he spent building opportunities for young scientists (through contact with the media and exposure of his science to the lay public)? And when he makes one of the most important archaeological discoveries in South African history you feel it’s your duty to criticize his methods (of garnishing public support and funding). What responsibilities do you have to others in your profession? How many people have jobs dependent on you raising their salaries? Welcome to the real world of modern science in a Third World country.

    Then you say that there is uncertainty in the nutritional field and I am guilty of presenting one side with undue certainty. But you don’t address the bigger issue of the 1977 US Dietary Guidelines which have been accepted without question for nearly 40 years. This has been protected as an absolute nutritional truth by the US government through its research funding of specific studies aimed to support that dogma and aided by numerous industries. And when I have the temerity to question that certainty, you criticize me for being unscientific etc. But you don’t ask the obvious: Why do we have a diabetes/obesity epidemic beginning in 1980 if those dietary guidelines are correct? Perhaps you would do us all a great favor by addressing that question and asking why everyone else in nutrition is so certain that they are right that they won’t encourage a national South African debate of the topic?

    Finally it would help if you were to attend a lecture by me or to read either of our nutrition books. Better still why not read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes and The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. When you have read that material, perhaps you’ll be in a better position to write a reasoned article on who is more guilty of promoting absolute nutritional certainty – Tim Noakes or those who decry him.

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    • By Sarah Wild

      Dear Tim,

      It is my job as a science journalist to ask questions and comment on trends in science. One of these trends is the rise of “rockstar scientists”. I have used Prof Berger and yourself as examples of scientists who know how to work the media.

      I, nowhere in the piece, criticise Lee’s work or denigrate his discovery. I just question his methods of communicating that discovery. It is my job as a journalist to question people’s motives and hold them to account.

      With regards to you, I question the way in which you have turned nutrition into a battleground, where no one can question you, your science or your motives without being harassed and bullied (my Twitter feed and inbox today are a good example of being harassed for questioning your methods).

      You will notice that I purposefully did not engage with the merits or concerns about LCHF and nutrition — that deserves more than an opinion piece. My issue is about your method of engagement, the silencing of dissent through bullying, and setting yourself up as the face of a whole field of science. That is problematic.

      Note: I’ve read Taubes’ book and I have seen you speak.

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      • By Robert

        Hi Sarah,

        It is correct of you to question any discovery or theory or conclusive result inferred by or explained by reliable experimental data. Such is the founding principle of science. Just as Noakes has said in some of his lectures- “When you have consensus you are in trouble”- meaning that once consensus is accepted, scientific questioning and testing is no longer being applied to further our understanding. There is no (or very little) complete understanding of anything (we still do not have a handle on things like fundamental particles and wave-particle duality), let alone something as similarly complex and hard to experiment with as nutrition and paleoscience. I do, however, applaud those who commit themselves to the hard job of taking our understanding forward.

        Your statement on media reporting of the LCHF diet approach:

        “The problem here is that the arguments over the “Noakes diet”, as it is being called, are not fought over data. It is a battle that is being waged in the media and through popular sentiment, via anecdotes, belief and social media.”

        is true- the primary problem is the media not the scientists trying to move forward with understanding of the topic. Noakes and Berger will rightly continue to assert their data-based views and put this information into the scientific arena for questioning and testing- this is, after all, a basic part of the scientific method. The extent to which any scientist is considered a not-to-be-doubted “rockstar” is a media construct, not one that any scientist would subscribe to. For instance, I take issue with Noakes’ penchant to not take pains to point out that his research findings apply to, at the most, about 30% of the population (type 2 diabetics and diagnosed and undiagnosed pre-diabetics (high A1c values)). This deficiency has confused many and the media consistently fails to make this clear. Noakes seems to be, lately, getting better about this however- then again no one is perfect.

        As an active scientist for over 40 years, it has become clear to me that many (perhaps even most) very well educated people do not understand that science is not about final answers, undeniable fact, and absolute conclusions. Science, rather, is about disproof not proof. It is the imperative of the scientist to prove the hypothesis incorrect, not to dedicate oneself to searching around for that which supports this hypothesis.

        As far as communicating scientific results in an acceptable, scientific, manner, the media are the worst of violators with the routine use of incorrect, hyped-up headlines and soundbites about scientific discovery the purpose of which is to attract readership and that very same “social media” traffic you are so quick to scorn. The general public accepts this drivel from the media and it then promulgates. We, as scientists, scorn our colleagues who take liberty with such media outlets; but the real result is how well a discovery, theory, or conclusion stands up to constant and rigorously-apllied questioning and testing.

        In true scientific spirit, your questioning is well placed, however, you should also look inward and toward the media as well and to the source of the apparently poor understanding of science by the general public- a public that should scorn any media outlet that incorrectly or incompletely communicates scientific discovery.

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      • By Timothy Noakes

        Dear Sarah,

        So you have 3 complaints. Let’s go through them.

        1. I have turned nutrition into a battleground.

        Please explain how I did that. I wrote a book chapter in Challenging Beliefs and then contributed to 2 books and a number of scientific publications on nutrition. I have raised funds to research the low carbohydrate diet and have initiated a Foundation to assist in funding that research and in taking this eating plan to poorer communities in South Africa. I have been relentlessly vilified in the media for doing this including by my own University and Medical Faculty.

        I am active on social media but I use that as a tool to disseminate new knowledge and from which I learn a great deal from my colleagues who share my nutritional interests. There are occasional arguments but I act only in response to provocation (like your article).

        I look forward to your answer of how I turned nutrition into a battleground.

        2. I am responsible for bullying anyone who dissents from my opinion.

        Please provide direct evidence of when and how I have achieved this? In which of my many publications or video clips have I “bullied” those who disagree with me. My style of argument is to present the evidence as I see it and then to encourage rebuttal. That is how I write – I do not focus on vilifying individuals but rather exclusively on the science (see my debate with Professor Lionel Opie as an example). I have probably spoken more than 120 times in public on this topic. I do not recall any single instance in those 120 public appearances in which I have bullied a critic. It is simply not my style as anyone who knows me will attest. I will debate a topic vigorously but that is not bullying. Pointing out the flaws in an opponent’s argument does not constitute bullying.

        So please explain to me how it is I who is “bullying” you and others who continue to promote a science which I believe is totally wrong and is harming the majority of people in our nation. Also explain to me how what I have had to endure including your article, is not a form of public shaming and bullying and is not personally insulting.

        Or is it really you who does not like your opinions to be challenged? And so you call it “bullying”? Especially if you cannot provide credible answers to those questions.

        3. I set myself up “in the face of a whole field of science”. Presumably this is your main complaint – that I cannot be correct because the majority is right. That is why I suggested you read Gary Taubes’ book and also The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. Please tell me after reading those 2 books that the science of nutrition is absolutely water tight and settled beyond doubt so there is no reason to challenge this “whole field of science”. You will need to explain why these two authors are completely wrong and exactly where and why they are wrong. Interesting that the British Medical Journal should have recently included an article by Nina Teicholz explaining why the new dietary guidelines (which you apparently defend) are as flawed as are the previous ones

        (http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4962).

        Interesting that one of the world’s leading medical journals should include this article written by a journalist who has also set herself up “in the face of a whole field of science”.

        When you have done that, please also critique this report from Credit Suisse

        http://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=9163B920-CAEF-91FB-EE5769786A03D76E

        and explain why this investment bank which has no horse in the race, agrees fully with my interpretation and with those of Taubes and Teicholz. How can such a world-leading institution also have got it so wrong? Are they also going to be accused of setting themselves up “in the face of a whole field of science”.

        See what’s problematic for me is your presentation of me as a “rockstar scientist” with the inference that my sole interest is the narcissistic manipulation of the media and the whole of South Africa to my benefit and the nation’s detriment. That is what you imply. You cannot conceive that I have worked incredibly hard at my science for the past 40 years – I am not a dilettante – and I have sacrificed much because I am passionate about finding the truth and sharing that information with the general public so that they might be better informed to make better choices. I suggest you read my book Challenging Beliefs to understand the full extent of that contribution.

        What you need to understand is that the nature of medicine is changing more rapidly that anyone can imagine. Within a short time, the current paternalistic model of medicine and dietetics will fall away. No longer will my profession and that of dietetics inform the patient what he or she will do on our orders. In future the job of the doctor and dietitian will be to empower the patient to make up his or her mind and to chose what he or she wants to do.

        This is all very threatening for those raised in the paternalistic model as it is for journalists who share the same approach – i.e. tell the readers what they must believe and don’t consider them clever enough to be able to make up their own minds.

        I submit that your responsibility in this new model is to provide your readers with all the evidence and let them decide what is correct.

        Your present article absolutely fails to do that largely because you seem unable to interpret the evidence without your personal bias. Frankly the article is insulting and disingenuous. Why could you not have made your case just as well without naming myself and Professor Berger? Haven’t you fallen into your own trap?

        In the end the question remains: What really is your agenda?

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        • By Grant Gordon

          A few thoughts:

          You point out that there is uncertainty within nutritional science and that all you’re doing is questioning the established wisdom. That’s great, that’s exactly what science should be about, rigorously testing existing theories to come to a better understanding of the world. However, the criticism you have come under is not about you questioning existing scientific work, it’s about taking your still much disputed hypothesis directly to the public and submitting it to a popularity contest. It’s very telling that you refer to your ideas as “new knowledge” rather than something on which the jury is still out.

          And when you’ve been called out on this, instead of addressing those concerns, you portray yourself as David, going up against the Goliath of dogmatic nutritional consensus and accusing anyone who criticises this science-by-public-opinion as having an agenda and being out to get you.

          You may well be 100% right about the benefits of a LCHF diet, but that shouldn’t be decided in the court of public opinion. And instead of using your vast platform to encourage a healthy debate about nutrition, you instead seem to be using it to encourage a fairly dogmatic following of your hypothesis without admission that there is still research to be done to validate or disprove it. Quite frankly, giving the public firm nutritional advice when there is still so much debate surrounding the topic seems, to me, irresponsible at best.

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          • By Prof Timothy Noakes

            Your points apply even more precisely to those who promote the conventional dietary advice. This advice has been projected as an unquestionable dogma for the past 40 years despite the clear evidence that (i) it has never been shown to be correct and has frequently been disproven (for example read The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz and the Credit Suisse report referred to above) and (ii) it is the clear cause of the obesity/diabetes epidemic that will destroy the financing of global health care within the next 10 years (apart from destroying the healths of hundreds of millions of people worldwide).

            That you believe that this evidence does not exist indicates only that you do not know the published literature. And I would ask: Why not?

            What I have done is to present the public with the totality of the evidence showing that a high carbohydrate diet is the cause of the obesity/diabetes epidemic (and more) in those with insulin resistance. I am still awaiting one expert either in South Africa or elsewhere who will present the evidence that that conclusion is incorrect.

            Instead all I ever get is the long list of excuses that you present; specifically that I have made nutrition a popularity contest; that I don’t encourage a “healthy debate” about nutrition; that I am irresponsible; that I am a quack – etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.

            But why don’t we stick to the facts? What and where is the evidence that proves my conclusions to be incorrect? Surely it would be easy to present that evidence if I am the rogue scientist that you believe I am.

            Seems to me that what I am really guilty of us is questioning a dogma that has been accepted in the absence of proper evidence for 40 years. And for many reasons asking these questions is very inconvenient for a large number of people. As a result many find it much easier to shoot the messenger than to address the questions that I raise.

            And that is exactly of what you are now also guilty.

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        • By Daniel Hilbrand

          A good reminder of critiquing the balance between ego and method. I agree with the sentiment that popularity does not equate to consensus and enjoy the term “rockstar scientist” as a way to safeguard ourselves from being blinded by reputation and often silenced biases of those that are currently popular. Even Popper hated to be criticised.

          However, Science works independent of egos and claims. It is designed to be in a constant state of self-critique, as long as it is used to further knowledge and not to justify our own assumptions (see Lakatos). Therefore the reputation of Science is not under threat, just the reputation of scientists. What I would propose (and hopefully the professors will allow so) is that we, in the social media, propose critical engagement as the norm, and encourage these type of debates (without getting personal).

          What is under threat here is not Science but rather our society’s ability to critically engage and make their own informed decisions safeguarded from sensationalism and charisma.

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          • By Professor TIm Noakes

            I find it interesting that some, including Ms Wild, believe the public must be protected from any opinion that is not currently mainstream presumably because (in that opinion) the public is simply too stupid to be able to make up its own mind (and must therefore be “protected” by not being exposed to all the facts). Of course this is the paternalistic medical/scientific/journalistic attitude that is ultimately the root cause of public ignorance.

            As someone who has been communicating to the public for 43 years in different forums, I know that the public has the intelligence to make up its own mind. On the diet issue alone I have probably lectured to more than 20 000 South Africans in the past 24 months. It is surprising how easily the public understand the issues once they are presented with all the facts. The monumental success of our book Real Meal Revolution is testimony to that reality.

            Those who do not wish the public to be fully informed of all sides of any debate have their own agendas. One conclusion is certain: Those agendas are never in the public’s interest.

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  9. By Lando Calrissian

    You see… The problem with the rockstar complex applied to science is not actually the rockstar part. Normally true rockstar scientists will deliver their material well, in an honest and genuine way and will normally fill the space in between key points with a good shred of a guitar, on stage, if presenting at a conference. The problem is actually subsequent to becoming a rockstar scientist. There is a rapidly emerging problem in science where rockstar scientists seems to be transitioning into spud scientists. With the term spud scientists pertaining to the fact that the scientists themselves have actually turned into jacket potatoes and no one has noticed. There was a classic case of this on the Death Star with Lord Vader. He was an absolute jacket potato yet no one knew because of his attire. And by the time several of is had found out it was too late. Perhaps, just something to keep in mind. We could aim to develop testing protocols to assess and then catch scientists in the early stages when they are only partially a cooked spud.

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  10. By Jamie Richards

    Sarah you’ll forgive me because it’s late in the UK, I’ve had a glass of wine and i may have got the wrong end of a very long stick. But would you prefer scientists like Professor Noakes were funded by large organisations who then manipulate their twisted results to suit financial gains? Seems to me that it is a battle ground and social media has allowed voices to be heard that would otherwise be nothing other than a quiet whisper.

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  11. By Jenny Cosgrove

    The problem with your “opinion ” piece Sarah was you left very little room for balance or a middle ground. Your own article is very one-sided and at times offensive to two scientists who have earned their professorships. A critical appraisal of your writing would lead me to suggest “you know nothing Sarah Wild…”
    Sorry that’s just my opinion.

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  12. By Alan

    I partially agree with Robert’s comments: science journalism, in general, is appalling, and it’s even worse in this country where there are almost no science journalists in South Africa, apart from Sarah. Ben Goldacre’s book “Bad Science” is a harsh criticism of media coverage of science. See also the BBC internal review of their science coverage policies.

    But my girlfriend, who works in media and who is not a scientist but who is well-informed on many scientific (especially medical) issues through research for TV, argues also that much of the blame of public misunderstanding of science lies with the scientific community.

    So the scientists (of which I am one) blame the media and the media blames the scientists.

    Tim Noakes and Lee Burger may indeed be rockstar scientists. That is only a bad thing if they abuse their positions as well-known scientists. If there was any misrepresentation of Burger’s findings, much of it can be ascribed directly to the media. National Geographic ran a thorough piece on the Homo naledi story, which was freely available to the public online, so after that article there was no excuse for journalists to not do background research in a reputable science magazine – except for one: deadlines and lack of interest in accurate science reporting from South African publishers and editors.

    But I also agree with my better half – scientists need to communicate directly with the public, especially in South Africa where we have maybe one or two science journalist who actually can report intelligently on press releases and “discoveries”. And that is what Lee Burger and Tim Noakes do – they communicate directly to the public.

    Maybe we need more rockstar scientists, a wider pool of experts who are engaging, interesting and charismatic, to engage the public in science.

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  13. By Perfide Consultus

    Your reference to Nachema Brodie’s article refers: It is simply not true to say that Prof Noakes’ experience and expertise is limited to sports science and exercise.

    If you read his scientific chapter in Real Meal Revolution and the scientific chapter in Raising Superheros you will see more than 250 references to scientific journals and other sources. In addition to an undergraduate medical degree, a doctorate in science, a doctorate in medicine and a PhD honouris causa, a fellowship and an honorary fellowship, he has authored over 500 peer reviewed academic journal articles.

    To say that his expertise is limited to sports science and exercise is like saying that Albert Einstein’s expertise is limited to building bombs. An expertise in a particular area does not limit the expert from professional and academic competence in a general field.

    One should not forget that the dietitians that are hounding him have no more than six years worth of academic engagement. Noakes first two degree took six years, the MB and the ChB. He also has 30 years worth of top tier academic research experience to his credit. Which of his critics and detractors as this kind of experience?

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  14. By Murray Braithwaite

    This is another shallow form over substance argument typical of shallow thinking. Carl Sagan was a “rockstar” scientist. Albert Eistein was a “rockstar” scientist.

    William F. Buckley made a good analogy back in the 1980s. The Soviets push a little old lady in front of an oncoming street car. The Americans push her out of the way at the last moment. Headline in the newspapers: Soviets and Americans push little old ladies around.

    One might disagree with Buckley’s assessment of the substance, but at least he understood that looking at form is a hollow, misleading endeavour. The medium is not the message.

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  15. By Kelly

    As a professional outside of the nutrition world and a working mom raising a young family, I’ve been following these types of debates for many years. My interest is the same as most of my friends and colleagues. The most primal desire to feed myself and my family the most nutritious human diet. What I’ve found is what seems simple has become extraordinarily complex in part because of discussions like this. And I’ve come to realize that each citizen (Canadian in my case!) has to come to their own conclusions. I’ve been following a lower carb, higher fat lifestyle for about a year. I’ve never felt better, I’ve lost 30 pounds, my pre-diabetes disappeared and my cholesterol is perfect. Anecdotal? yes. A study of 1. For sure. But for me, I’m hard pressed to argue that this is a dangerous message. It certainly wasn’t for me. And can one truly stand up and say in the face of stories like mine that the current science backing up the nutrition guidelines is so strong as to not be questioned?

    Ultimately what prompted me to write was I was so saddened by the arrogance of the author and the incredible judgement beneath her words. This is a complex topic and one I don’t believe is even close to resolved. But think it is this type of judgement, this lack of ability to expand mindset and consider all possibilities that stops progress. I don’t imagine that was the authors intent, but it is the way it was received from my perspective. And I think that’s a real shame. We desperately need progress in this field and this closed mindset and judgement of scientists on the same plight takes us backwards.

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