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Beautiful scientists not taken as seriously as less attractive colleagues

Brian Cox has encouraged people to take a wider interest in science. Credit: Press Association Images.

Beautiful scientists may draw a crowd but are seen as less academically able than their less attractive colleagues, researchers in Cambridge have found.

It is thought the good looks of former musician and TV physicist Brian Cox and anatomy expert Alice Roberts may have played a big part in their roles as science communicators.

But, if the results of a study by psychologists at Cambridge University are to be believed, neither are rated as highly competent scientists by members of the public.

Lead researcher Dr Will Skylark, from the Department of Psychology, said he wanted to find out what impact good looks had on the perception of scientists.

"Given the importance of science to issues that could have a major impact on society, such as climate change, food sustainability and vaccinations, scientists are increasingly required to engage with the public.

"We know from studies showing that political success can be predicted from facial appearance, that people can be influenced by how someone looks rather than, necessarily, what they say. We wanted to see if this was true for scientists."

– Dr Will Skylark, University of Cambridge.

In the first of a series of trials, volunteers were shown photos of more than 300 British and American scientists and asked to rate them for intelligence and attractiveness.

Other groups of participants then indicated how keen they would be to know more about what each scientist did, and whether they thought the academics were likely to be carrying out accurate and important research.

People were more interested in learning about the work of scientists who were seen as physically attractive and who appeared "competent and moral".

But when it came to judging scientific ability, having an attractive face counted against the researchers. The better looking and more sociable they were perceived to be, the less they were expected to be conducting high-quality research.

The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

TV presenter and author Alice Roberts, an expert in anatomy and anthropology, is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. Credit: Press Association Images.

"It seems that people use facial appearance as a source of information when selecting and evaluating science news.

"It's not yet clear how much this shapes the spread and acceptance of scientific ideas among the public, but the rapid growth in visual media means it may be an increasingly important issue."

– Dr Skylark.