And what do we say when my research is impactful on a personal level?….. #ThankAScientist

thank a scientist

And let it be known that, henceforth, September 18-22 will be #ThankAScientist week, when scientists and scientific institutions demonstrate how to say thank you to themselves in the hope that other public(s) will catch on and start saying thank you too. But why try and elicit praise, appreciation, gratitude for doing their jobs? It’s almost as if science, as a public, feels undervalued, overlooked, under attack?

We need not first assume that scientists are performing science for purely altruistic purposes for this rhetorical bit to work. As with all science, let’s be objective and hint at the common impacts.

By pointing to the societal impacts—invoking personal health, family, relationship distress—participants in this event hope to illustrate public(s) dependence on the work of science. The public(s) as a dependent variable. Science as a universal constant, steadying the relational equation.

Thanks for “understanding”, “improving lives”, “advancing knowledge”. The language evokes philanthropy. Scientists as silent saviors, humble servants effecting lives on a personal level.

Images humanize the scientist and, indirectly, the notion of science and intellectualism itself. The explicit rhetoric—buttressed by empathy inducing imagery and attractive green iconography (visual markers)— and the repeated expression of “thank you” from Tweet to Tweet becomes forceful by it’s mass, its relentless momentum. It’s just a simple expression of gratitude, demonstrated over and over. Can you say thank you too?

Contributors to the event are, overwhelmingly, members of the scientific community, whether as an individual or as part of an institution. The event seems self-contained. But is that by design? It seems that #ThankAScientist wished to encourage proliferation into the public sphere, and encourage involvement from “others” by demonstrating the simple rules of participation: pick a scientist and say thank you.

But most people don’t know a scientist. And, although we live in an age utterly dependent on science and technology, most people don’t  imagine their lives beholden to the workings of the scientific community, even when bouncing their cellphone signals off of global positioning satellites (triangulated to account for the effects of special relativity).

So, let’s disregard that there existed a well-intentioned—if somewhat mawkish—experiment aimed at encouraging public participation and praise. Let’s hypothesize that the effort failed. What else is evident here? What are the implicit, rhetorical implications when we view this as a closed event?

Self-congratulatory. Self-affirming. Although clear efforts are being made to include wider issues of race, gender and societal inclusion, the event acts more profoundly as a flag waving exercise within a community that feels itself increasingly under attack. Whether the express intentions of the event or not, participants are galvanizing participation and mutual support of allied institutions. “I am here,” they cry, “I appreciate you, do you appreciate me too?”

These are the early, tentative days of a movement. These are the inchoate rally cries of a public just learning that they are a public and that their values are at risk. Just learning that there might be an enemy waiting out there, beyond their slowly circling wagons. But scientists being scientists, there is no aggressive will to advance the movement into activation, like there was with Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter (not equating, just comparing).

However, what is well intentioned may miss the mark. This isn’t the public sphere that decided to thank scientists. Science decided to say thank you to itself, which doesn’t have the same spontaneity or meaning as an un-requested acknowledgment. Such rhetoric might risk coming off as haughty and patronizing, which is exactly the opposite of what the event is trying to achieve.

Is what we see here, this idealized online space, what Foucault might deem a heterotopia? A real and unreal mirror, a Utopian vision in which science is a paragon of objective worth and its practitioners—no longer undervalued—are venerated, acclaimed and celebrated as soldiers in the war against ignorance?

Thank you for your service.

Thanks.

I appreciate it.

Cheers.

Seriously though, thanks.

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