07 November 2009

I want to be Carl Sagan, but can’t

I am nearly ready to throttle the next person who mentions Carl Sagan. There seems to be a new cliché emerging in science writing: “We need more Carl Sagans.” This shows up in the books Don’t be Such a Scientist, Unscientific America, and I just spotted Erik Klemetti, who wrote on the Eruptions blog:

We need our new Carl Sagans, Arthur C. Clarkes or Stephen Goulds - people who understand science and can advocate for it. I have trouble thinking of anyone filling those roles anymore.

And it’s very likely that nobody ever will fill those roles again. Look at the names that people toss around as science communicators (with an admitted bias toward my own field of biology).

Carl Sagan: Pulitzer Prize winning book The Dragons of Eden published in 1978.

Stephen Jay Gould: Breakthrough paper on punctuated equilibrium published in 1972.

E.O. Wilson: Breakthrough book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis published in 1975.

Richard Dawkins: Breakthrough book The Selfish Gene published in 1976.

David Attenborough: Major television series Life on Earth debuted in 1979.

David Suzuki: Began as host of The Nature of Things in 1979.

See a pattern? All these people rose to prominence for their work in the 1970s or so. Forget that the internet didn’t exist. This was a world where you could count the television channels on one hand and have fingers left over. This was a time of true mass media rather than pervasive media (which is what we now have).

You see the same thing in music. U2 may be the last band to achieve true “rock star” status. You see the same thing in television. Look at the list of highest rated television shows in the U.S., and you’ve got to go down into the 30s before hitting a show from this decade. People have more choices of what they can read and watch, and people are less famous than they used to be.

How could someone today get the opportunity to talk to people about science at the level that Carl Sagan did? There are a thousand weird, intangible factors that would all have to align in a way that you could not plan or predict. Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an interview on This Week in Science (1 Sept 2009 episode; free on iTunes) that one reason he gets contacted by the media so much is:

My office is eight blocks north of all the new gathering headquarters of the nation. ... When the universe flinches, they just send up an action cam. So I’m an easy date for them.

Don’t get me wrong, Tyson is fantastic at what he does (great interview here), but I’d wager there are many other scientists who would be just as effective on The Daily Show as Tyson was. But not everyone can just go to multiple television studios by taking a taxi to them after work.

Plus, most of the names on that list have done significant technical work that had made them reasonably well-known among their peers. With financial support for science going down and administrative responsibilities increasing, this isn’t exactly easy, either. This means that the huge number of scientists at universities with modest research programs are right out of the picture, no matter how much they might want to do outreach and might be good at it.

The conditions that allowed Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and the others to thrive have pretty much gone away. I’m irritated when people say that scientists don’t want to come down from their ivory towers. There’s an implication that the reason we haven’t seen another Sagan or Gould is that nobody wants to do it, and that scientists could do it if they put their minds to it.

I would bloody love to have Carl Sagan’s gig. I would love to be able to tell a lot of people very cool stories, and help them understand what science is about. But it’s not going to happen, no matter how hard I work.

Note: I swear to you, I started writing this post and all but finished it before I realized today was Carl Sagan day.


Matthew Foster said...

Good stuff. Again.

Nick said...

Great article, but I think the acedemic/media estblishment will still determine Author credibility and sales even in the internet age. Think of how the corperate/political establisment sets the media agenda.
That being said, a mainstream scientists will always be the leading voices. People proven at top Universities and Journals. Those with great mind for synthesizing ideas and conventional accetable scientific morals. (Much like the Humanism of Wilson and Dawkins or at the most devient the utilitarinism of Dennett).
So you You will see more Sagans and Hopefully another Danniel Dennett, But never the scientific equvalent of a Nietzsche.

jrings said...

Good article, you can take Stephen Jay Goulds book "Full House"/"Life's Grandeur" and his view on why the .400 batting average disappeared. Hopefully, it's the same phenomenon, because than it means that the average got better.

Jelena L. Příplatová said...

I'm surprised there aren't scientists who are more visible and able to speak to the public in the US. In here, science is still interesting for public and there are a few scientists who are more than visible. Their books are bestsellers and lot of people know them. For example my supervisor won Czech literature award in non-fiction cathegory with his book Frozen Evolution just a few years ago and his last version of Essentials of Evolutionary Biology became sold out recently... I think it's not hopeless - reality shows can't be interesting forever :)