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What Scientists Talk About When They Talk About Kim Kardashian

August 01, 2014 • 10:55 AM

Here’s Neil Hall, of the Centre for Genomic Research at the University of Liverpool:

[C]onsider Kim Kardashian; she comes from a privileged background and, despite having not achieved anything consequential in science, politics or the arts (although apparently she does have a scientific mind, she is one of the most followed people on twitter and among the most searched-for person on Google. Her notoriety is said to have stemmed from an inadvertent internet release of a video featuring her and a boyfriend in a private moment. While her Wikipedia entry describes her as a successful businesswoman, this is due most likely to her fame generating considerable income through brand endorsements. So you could say that her celebrity buys success, which buys greater celebrity. Her fame has meant that comments by Kardashian on issues such as Syria have been widely reported in the press. Sadly, her interjection on the crisis has not yet led to a let-up in the violence.

Why is Hall, who once co-authored a study titled “The ingi and RIME non-LTR Retrotransposons Are Not Randomly Distributed in the Genome of Trypanosoma Brucei,” writing about Kim Kardashian? Because, as he writes, “I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous (or, to put it in science jargon, renowned for being renowned).” And so Hall put together the “Kardashian Index,” which is a measure of the discrepancy between a scientist’s number of citations and his or her number of Twitter followers. While there are concerns over the methodology’s suggestion that citations equal quality, Hall found that, generally, “there is some kind of positive trend in scientific value when compared with celebrity.” Which seems comforting and maybe not all that surprising; on the whole, real gets recognized.

However, when Hall introduces the study, he uses the examples of Mary Anning, Ada Lovelace, and Rosalind Franklin, three scientists, who despite historically important scientific contributions, were not initially acknowledged for their work. What do the three of them have in common? They’re women. And of the women Hall analyzed, only one had an inflated number of Twitter followers w/r/t number of citations, while 11 of 14 had fewer Twitter followers than Hall’s model suggests they should. As women remain almost comically underrepresented in science, things don’t seem much better once they break in, either.

Although this wasn’t the objective of Hall’s study, he sums it up best: In science, “most Kardashians are men!” —Ryan O’Hanlon

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