Pharyngula

You know I’m a sucker for heresy

So you won’t be surprised that I really like that Erin Podolak has asked, Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other dude from my parents 1970′s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

Oh, good. Now I can confess that I too was not a Sagan fan boy. I liked him all right, I appreciated what he was doing for astronomy, and I’m not going to argue with you if he inspired you. He did great work! But his voice didn’t resonate with me.

To me, he was completely overshadowed by that other white guy with a documentary popularizing science at the same time, Jacob Bronowski. There was no comparison. I watched Cosmos and learned stuff, but the man who inspired me and made me think was Bronowski. You do appreciate that different people will respond to different messages, right?

My other big inspirations in the 70s, when I was getting fired up to go study science, were Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, EO Wilson (that those last two were feuding was so discouraging to me), and Jacques Cousteau. A bit later I was avidly reading Peter Kropotkin and Aldo Leopold. When I was acquiring a focus on developmental biology, it was D’Arcy Thompson, John Tyler Bonner, and Gould (again!) — and when I really was deeply into the field, the brains that blew me away with their work were those of Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and Susan Oyama. Notice — they were biologists or biology-centered. It was nothing personal against Sagan, he just wasn’t writing about things that interested me as much.

Another important point, though, is “this one guy? Nope.” I worry that one of the problems we see in getting people focused on a movement is idolatry and hero worship — if you’ve got only one name in your roster of science heroes, you’ve got a serious deficiency: get out more. Read more. I don’t care how great Sagan might have been, Sagan is not enough. And if you want an example of a related problem, notice this complaint on Podolak’s blog: No more reading your blog for me, what a shame. Really, dude? If someone doesn’t share your same idols in all things, you won’t read them any more?

Then, of course, the other reality is that these people are all human beings, not saints. Feynman was a pickup artist of the worst sort; Einstein was a jerk to his wife; James Watson is a racist bigot. When we set up individuals as idols who must be respected, we’re simply setting ourselves up for disappointment. Appreciate the work they do with an appropriate perspective on their strengths and limitations.

So can we stop talking about Carl Sagan now? Yes, if you’d like; no, if you’d rather.

How about if we talk about Jacques Monod instead, or Rita Levi-Montalcini? It takes more than one voice to make a chorus.

Comments

  1. […] By PZ Myers […]

  2. #2 Nick Theodorakis
    November 14, 2013

    Are people still talking about Sagan? I hear much more about NdGT than I do about Sagan.

  3. #3 bobh
    November 14, 2013

    I agree with you re Jacob Bronowski. His special on The Ascent of Man blew me away. Many years later, after being widowed, I met a woman who I had seemingly nothing in common with. She was a school teacher and dancer, me a physicist for whom the concern about walking and chewing gum and the same time was real. It turns out we had both read Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and had the same reaction to the scene in his TV special where he reaches into the mud at Auschwitz and makes the comparison between uncertainty and the absolute belief by the nazi regime that they were right. It turns out she and I were very compatible and have been together ever since.

  4. #5 Chris Tucker
    Kansas
    November 14, 2013

    Just that you mentioned in Passing Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac was required reading in my first undergrad Wildlife Conservation course, and it is still one of my favorite recommendations to anybody wanting to feel connected to the world around us.

  5. #6 hailong
    Beijing
    November 14, 2013

    But PZ, I read/appreciate your blog partly because you’re hero-like, I suppose, (but I don’t worship you in ways other than reading your blog).

    You have a particular personality and style, I’ve read/watched you write passionately or informatively or humourously for a long time.

    Eventually/possibly people might gain some emotional attachments(burdens) towards some such people. Not wrong, just human.

    And when people slap you, carl sagan, or my grandmother it invokes a similar neurological response in me that has little to do with science discussion.

    But you are sorta just part of the old white boys [science] club and I’m not sure you fit the modern era. What a shame.

  6. #7 Red Shift
    November 15, 2013

    You’re forgetting Leonard Nimoy and “In Search Of”. Ok that wasn’t exactly science but Star Trek was.

  7. #8 csrster
    November 15, 2013

    I loved Sagan’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures but found Cosmos pretty unwatchable. But I’m not sure Sagan or anybody else that I can name fired my interest in science. Rather it was my interest in science that drew me to good science communicators – which as a Brit in my day meant mainly Patrick Moore, James Burke and the Tomorrow’s World team.

  8. #9 Russell
    November 15, 2013

    A ” stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago.”

    Wait a minute- a stereotypical old white guy scientist wrote a book that a lot of people really liked more than 150 years ago. The plan of that that book, called ” Cosmos ” was a grand tour of the universe touching on all the natural sciences.

    Will those who have taken over the franchise get around to mentioning St. Carl of Ithica’s having plagiarized the title and copied the format of Alexander von Humboldt’s 1859 best seller, which briefly outsold the Bibe in America ?

    Or can we look forward to hagiography as usual from the politically like-minded de Grasse?

  9. #10 GregH
    November 15, 2013

    What, no love for James Burke? I thought his Connections show was great, and it really got me interested in process analysis and… physiology.

    2nding the question about NdGT. He’s the most successful marketer of Neil deGrasse Tyson, but I don’t think he’s Carl Sagan reincarnate.

  10. #11 Andrew
    November 19, 2013

    Do people think that a Carl Sagan day does some harm to the efforts of the current popular science communicators?

    Does anyone know a single person that has “only one name in their roster of science heroes”.?

    I don’t have any experience with the objections raised, so forgive me for not really grasping why some people are so offended.
    Sagan was never a great influence on me, but I think the way he is remembered is kind of sweet.

  11. #12 Noel O'Connor
    November 19, 2013

    What kind of non-argument is this? Who the hell has an interest in science based on the work of one guy? Who saw a TV show in the 70s and said “that’s all I need to know, thanks”. Sagan’s value as a communicator was awakening an interest in science in the lay person, and initiating a love in reason and evidence based thinking. I know that reading his books as a kid gave me a foot in the door into concepts and ideas that would have seemed intimidatingly difficult to approach otherwise. That curiosity has stayed with me to this day. Sagan would have been the first person to point out that he was just the introductory factor. In his writings he spoke of the ongoing need for new, informed – and, importantly, entertaining – populists in the fields of science and technology. I distinctly remember him speaking about the danger of general scientific ignorance in a consistently more technologically complex world.
    FWIW, the self same books by Sagan inspired my son when I passed them on 20 years later.
    Oh, and James Burke? “Connections” blew my mind as well.

  12. #13 David Hewitt
    California
    November 26, 2013

    I concur entirely with Noel O’C. Sagan was a masterful communicator, not a god. He was, it seems, equally at ease discussing profound concepts with intellectuals and explaining concepts of, say, distance on the galactic scale with elementary school kids. We still need more like him–we have more now, but we can use all that we can get, in every field.