Why celebrities should become science communicators

Simone Redaelli

Simone Redaelli

Simone is a biologist and scientific copywriter. He is vice-director of Culturico, where his writings cover the intersection between philosophy, poetry, science and society. He is also the author of "A Sonnet to Freud", a blog for Psychology Today to illustrate how the life of poets, novelists, and intellectuals can be an inspiration for individuals to better face their interior and social life.

In light of the recent media exposure of Amazon wildfires in South America, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly denied the trustworthiness of scientific evidence that supports the devastating impact of deforestation, calling it “lies”. This discrediting behavior towards science from a political leader might negatively impact public opinion. As a global community, we are therefore in desperate need of public figures with relevant media resonance to communicate science in a solid and reliable manner, in order to eventually fight biased political ideologies. Cristiano Ronaldo and Leonardo DiCaprio recently attempted to send vigorous messages, but their initiatives are sporadic and sometimes even inaccurate. As a solution, I propose that universities and research centers from all over the world should allocate huge amounts of resources into trying to turn movie and sports celebrities into reliable science communicators. 

A sustained number of fires has been devastating the Amazon rainforests in Brazil. In 2019, more than 75000 fires were spotted in the region, compared to only 40000 in 2013.
Until August 2019, more than 2500 burning sites were still active.

Although it might surprise many readers, Brazilian deforestation is not a sensational piece of news. Unfortunately, this crisis represents an ongoing process which has already covered entire decades.

In light of this alarming scenario, the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – a long-standing skeptic towards climate matters – does not seem to care. When the director of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute declared a rise in the loss of rainforests, Bolsonaro had him fired, stating that those observations were not relevant.
Funnily enough, Bolsonaro has proposed lately that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) started some of the recent fires on purpose, without showing any evidence to support his claims. When he was asked how to combat the spreading of wildfires, he responded that Brazil has no resources to fight such a threat.
Nevertheless, his politics might have eventually encouraged activities like “slash and burn” agriculture, according to which local farmers would cut down trees and burn them, in order to fertilize the soil and give room for agriculture and livestock.
It is indeed well-known that the livestock industry in Latin America and the Caribbean is growing annually, and it provides more than 23% of beef and buffalo and more than 21% of poultry, globally.
Thus, farming represents a big source of annual revenue for Brazil.

I will leave the responsibility to draw conclusions on the matter to the readers.

What really scares me is the idea that a political leader can deliberately refuse to be confronted with scientific evidence.
If a political leader refuses to deal with reality, and their powerful opinion falls from the top into the minds of citizens, most likely it will impact them negatively, infecting them. How can we fight this? How can we efficiently protect public opinion from such a threat?

Someone will argue that other political leaders should take the floor.

Indeed, Emmanuel Macron tweeted that “Our house is burning” – with the word “house” he meant our planet – re-launching the hashtag #ActForTheAmazon.

He also suggested that the Amazon crisis should have been a matter of discussion in the G7 meeting, which was held in France on 24–26 August 2019. Intriguingly, Angela Merkel publicly supported the French President´s statement. Recent news suggests that the G7 countries were willing to offer 20 million dollars to fight wildfires in Brazil, but Bolsonaro refused the help.

Nevertheless, in current politics, public opinions most often fluctuate according to political consensus. If you sympathize with a xenophobic and racist character, most likely you will end up sympathizing with anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideas. This doesn’t really define you as a firm racist or a white supremacist: it means that you will behave like one of those guys.
On this basis, fighting a leader’s attitude with another leader’s attitude is not really instructive for the general population. This political environment quickly escalates into a bazaar where the most persuasive leader wins over the remainder.

It was at this point in my reflection when I accidentally stumbled upon two posts, one by Cristiano Ronaldo and one by Leonardo DiCaprio.

These posts are simple but effective calls-to-action. It shouldn’t surprise us that Leonardo DiCaprio campaigns for worldwide protection of habitats. We have already discussed this topic here.

Cristiano Ronaldo also seems to have personal missions to campaign for. The Portuguese soccer star shared a story on Instagram that depicted him while he was listening to a song by a young urban artist called Madame. The number of YouTube views of that video clip nearly doubled over a few days: and we are talking about millions of views. This event simply tells us that Ronaldo is a human being with passions, preferences and spontaneous missions to support, as with any other person on this planet.


The idea behind DiCaprio’s and Ronaldo’s initiatives is brilliant: high-profile public figures with distinguished and undisputable talents – trustworthy professionals – standing for campaigns of critical importance.
There is only one huge issue: the practical execution of such initiatives. Despite the genuineness and nobility of the gesture, these interventions are sporadic, not well-structured and sometimes even inaccurate. Emblematic is the aforementioned post released by Cristiano Ronaldo, which included a picture of a wildfire that did not depict the Amazon Rainforest. Furthermore, the post did not refer to any external reliable source, where users could have informed themselves.
Thus, these initiatives might not lead to the most efficient result possible.

Is there a way to “institutionalize” these gestures, and make them more solid and reliable?

We need someone capable of training and instructing Hollywood stars, sports champions and all impactful people with media resonance, but without political interests at heart to speak to the general public. Of course, their “informative speeches” must be grounded in scientifically reliable data, but also accessible to the average person. Cristiano Ronaldo and Leonardo DiCaprio – among many other popular celebrities – must become science communicators.

The way to achieve this goal is pretty simple.
Renowned universities – which commonly have difficulty with closing the gap between academic reality and everyday information – should invite these people for tours. Special teams of teachers, communicators and artists should be allocated to educate them. Once they are ready, video courses and a series of podcasts should be recorded and subsequently broadcast through the new generation media – Facebook, Instagram, Spreaker, YouTube and so on.

Celebrities should become science communicators. Cartoon @ Tom Reed (copyright) for Culturico.

This proposal could turn out to be successful for several reasons.
Cinema and sports are still top remunerative sectors in the business of entertainment. While the global box office revenue is predicted to shift from 38 billion US dollars in 2017 to nearly 50 billion in 2020, the revenue of the European professional football market has been increasing yearly since at least the 2006/2007 season. Such trends suggest that the worldwide population will continue to thrust motion picture and sport celebrities into the spotlight.
Universities are not officially affiliated with any political party. They should promote the diffusion and distribution of free informed thoughts, ideas and research anchored in solid and quantifiable information. As esteemed institutions, they are usually trusted by the population. These two aspects will make celebrities’ talks more trustworthy, sensitizing public opinion towards priority issues.
Not least, the initiative will generate a robust feedback loop beneficial for the academic world: the mediatic resonance will give a tremendous visibility to activities, seminars and initiatives offered by universities worldwide. Young people might become curious and gain interest in the world of scientific research, eventually subscribing to already existing free newsletters offered by top universities like MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge, USA. Overall, this interaction will increase their interest in discovering the beauty of knowledge and its power, especially when it comes to knowing how the world works and what really matters.

Someone may claim that universities would have to allocate unrealistic financial efforts to start these projects. Actors and sportsmen would demand unreasonable budgets to participate, and the whole project would never start.
But I don’t think so. For instance, DiCaprio produced the 2016 documentary “Before the Flood”, in which the consequences of global climate change are discussed by experts. The production was made commercial-free and is available on the main social media platforms, including Amazon and YouTube.

Celebrities are not only voodoo dolls and slaves of the money industry.
Sometimes, they also happen to be people with genuine interests, scopes, and dreams.


Simone Redaelli


Supporting material:

Simone Redaelli’s YouTube video entitled “Cristiano Ronaldo e Leonardo DiCaprio: le Celebrità e la Divulgazione Scientifica” (in Italian only)

Received: 29.08.19, Ready: 21.09.19, Editors: HH, AFB.

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