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  • Aimee de Köning

The risks of following a celebrity instead of scientists

What happens when people choose their idol and his/her inadequate knowledge instead of a real scientist who truly knows what she/he is talking about? How to bridge this gap? These are the things our DSII doctoral student Aimee de Köning is pondering in her blog post.


Mary Louise "Missy" Cummings is an excellent, well-respected, and established expert on safety in autonomous systems that operate in high collaboration with humans [1].

Her appointment to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the USA does not come as a surprise and is very well deserved.



Her nomination and subsequent appointment should have been accepted for the blessing it is, in reliably ensuring the safety of humans in high collaboration with autonomous systems [2].


The development of autonomous systems advances at such a significant speed, it allows for its practical implementation, most notably within autonomous motor vehicles.

Arguably one of the most recognizable car manufacturers focused on developing autonomous cars today is TESLA, led by Elon Musk.


Undoubtedly Musk is very charismatic and has a grand vision for society. This is reflected by the companies he launches, and especially in his use of social media, such as Twitter, which sets him apart from typical CEO’s.


This makes him quite a recognizable character with an impressive media presence. Musk has a large group of followers – exaggeratedly devoted fans who unironically refer to themselves as the “musketeers” believing Elon Musk to be some kind of hero, here to save the world [3].

Elon Musk

Twitter as a weapon, molding the public opinion


Now, while Tesla cars are quite advanced in their autonomous driverless systems, they are far from being able to roam the public roads reliably and therefore safely without constant human supervision.


While Musk might have you believe otherwise in public statements such as “If you want the Tesla Full Self-Driving Beta downloaded to your car, let us know...” on Twitter [4]. This, however, is quite misleading.


The reality is that these systems, meaning all autonomous motor vehicles meant for publicly accessible roads, are far from being safe


When Musk tweeted after an appointment with Dr. Cummings: “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla”, his followers, "the Musketeers", amassed due to this cult of personality that exist around him. They started defending Musk attacking not just the appointment with Dr. Cummings, but also harassing her personally for the perceived slight against their idol [5] [6] [7] [8].



The NHTSA as part of the department of transportation whose mission is to "Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes” [9], appointed Dr. Cummings as a senior advisor for her expertise in autonomous systems especially when they operate in high collaboration with humans.


The goal is not to impede future developments of autonomous systems, instead, it is to look from an expert’s field of view where current legislation lacks in ensuring public safety when autonomous motor vehicles are in use.


This is not the first time of such events and it highlights one of the dangers of scientific work being so encapsulated within the bubble of academia.



The public only sees what is shown to them


Another notable example is that of former President Donald Trump. His Twitter account is full of blatant disregard to scientific facts, which consequently led to a severe backlash to highly acclaimed scientific research from radicalized sub-factions exiting within his fandom [10].


The public is often unaware of what occurs behind the scenes, forming their opinion from information received from the myriad of social media challenges currently in existence.


These days (well respected) scientists are often regarded as invisible enemies of technological advancements, and modern-day hero CEOs are perceived as their victims. The reality is quite the contrary. Technological advancement is most often born within academia.


Scientists are not the enemy. They are those who conceive the state-of-the-art and make it happen.



Making the science understandable and relatable


Mr. Matti Apunen, who is very well respected and tremendously experienced within the newspaper and broadcasting industry, teaches us the importance of bridging the gap between academia and the public.

A scientist is not merely a scientist, keeping themselves occupied with facts, figures and numbers somewhere hidden in the shadowy corners of old stuffy universities.


A scientist generates new knowledge, pushing humanity further and raising the standard for what is known.


Therefore, as the new generation of scientists, part of our job is to close the gap between academia and the public. We should come foreward as people who desire the scientific and technological advancement of the entire human race and to make the science understandable and relatable to the public. This is one aspect that could bridge the gap.



Aimee de Koning

DSII Doctoral Student



Works Cited


[1]

M. N. O. Morgan Bettex, "In Profile: Missy Cummings," MIT news, 05 04 2010. [Online]. Available: https://news.mit.edu/2010/profile-cummings-0405. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[2]

D. Shepardson, "Biden to tap No. 2 official to head U.S. auto safety agency," Reuters, 20 10 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/exclusive-biden-tap-no-2-official-head-us-auto-safety-agency-source-2021-10-19/. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[3]

B. Stephen, "The gospel of Elon Musk, according to his flock," The verge, 26 06 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/26/17505744/elon-musk-fans-tesla-spacex-fandom. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[4]

E. Musk, "@elonmusk," Twitter, 06 03 2021. [Online]. Available: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1368017749851598850?lang=en. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[5]

G. C. Dana Hull, "Tesla Fans, Musk Lash Out at NHTSA Safety Adviser as Biased," Bloomberg, 21 10 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-20/tesla-fans-musk-in-uproar-as-nhtsa-taps-biased-safety-adviser. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[6]

M. McFarland, "Tesla fan attacks on government's new safety advisor are 'calculated,' says head of safety agency," CNN Business, 28 10 2021. [Online]. Available: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/28/cars/tesla-ntsb-cummings/index.html. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[7]

C. Musk, "@Clairemusk," twitter, 21 10 2021. [Online]. Available: https://twitter.com/ClaireMusk/status/1451067902766030853?s=20. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[8]

G. Coppola, "Elon Musk Sounds Worried About New NHTSA Advisor Missy Cummings," Bloomberg, 21 10 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2021-10-22/elon-musk-sounds-worried-about-nhtsa-advisor-missy-cummings. [Accessed 03 11 2021].

[9]

NHTSA, "NHTSA," National highway and traffic safety administration, [Online]. Available: https://www.nhtsa.gov/.

[10]

J. Tollesfon, "How Trump damaged science — and why it could take decades to recover," Nature, vol. 586, no. 2020, pp. 190-194, 2020.




Photos: Pixabay & WiX