Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The modern Sagan effect

Carl Sagan is an internet hero. Even now, some 17 years after his death, the words of Carl Sagan resound as a clarion call to science advocates. Sagan's biographers, however, claim that his popularization of science is what kept him from membership in the National Academy of Sciences. The so called "Sagan effect" is the belief that contact with the public is inversely proportional to academic achievement - those who have risen to the top of the "ivory tower" of academia wouldn't need to speak with the public. Therefore, if a scientist is spending time popularizing science he must not be a real scientist. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite is true, and Carl Sagan himself was a prolific scientist.

I don't believe the Sagan effect is of any current concern (an opinion I've had for some time and recently saw that Phil Plait agrees with me). I think scientists are much more willing (even excited) to share their results with the public - a change that can probably be itself attributed to Carl Sagan. Younger scientists, many of whom were drawn to science by the Carl Sagan/Bill Nye types of activism, are eager to continue the science outreach that brought them to science. They not only accept science outreach, the embrace it as a necessity. The modern Sagan effect isn't to discount a scientist because they seek to popularize science, it's to criticize a scientist that "dumbs science down". I can think of two specific examples:

1. "I F***ing Love Science"   
This wildly popular Facebook page (5.4 million likes) just may be the greatest science outreach success in the last 15 years. Elise Andrews has a massive audience willing to hear daily updates from the scientific community. There are those that criticize the page for not being science enough (most famously this one).
Now, to be honest I agree with some of the criticism. I have seen plenty of misinformation on "I F***ing Love Science", and the moderators of the page do very little to clarify misunderstandings. This is true both for inaccurate content and misunderstandings presented (and perpetuated) in the comments. When you control the most popular science page on the most popular social media site that comes with responsibility - responsibility that can't be shrugged off like it seems "I F***ing Love Science" does.
That being said, "I F***ing Love Science" is successful at gaining a new, larger audience that is interested in science. A great addition to the page has been a "This Week in Science" infograhic that shows somewhere around 6 advances reported in science literature every week - complete with sources for those that want to read more. Elise Andrew isn't doing a perfect job, but she's reaching a large audience and doing real science outreach. True, not everyone that subscribes to her page will become a scientist, but they are becoming more scientifically literate. 

2. "MythBusters"   
Over and over it seems that I hear people criticize the MythBusters for poor experimental design or misrepresenting science. I've said before that science, the MythBusters way, is a great advancement in science outreach (and Kyle Hill agrees with me). It is true that the MythBusters don't present a rigorous approach to experimentation. However, and more importantly, they show their audience that experimentation is possible. 

These are just two examples of the modern Sagan effect. There is no need to call out "dumbed down" science as wrong. Science was meant to make our complicated universe more understandable. Communicating science correctly, then, means to simplify a complex idea to the level that it can be understood. If someone walks away from science because they are "too stupid" we have failed miserably.