The Sagan Effect

If the title of this post caught your eye and made you curious about reading it, it is a safe bet that you know who Carl Sagan was. It is also entirely possible that Sagan turned you on to the wonders of science. If so, we have that in common.

He is so well-known that I will not say much but the “basics”. Sagan is one of my scientific heroes. Even though I have always loved science, reading his books helped me understand why. He was an outstanding scientist, with more than 500 (!) scientific papers to his name. However, Sagan is best-known as a science “popularizer”. He wrote several books, mostly about astronomy and the relationship of humans with the universe in general, but he also wrote about the evolution of human intelligence in his Pulitzer Prize-Winning book “The Dragons of Eden”. He also wrote the novel “Contact”, which was adapted into a move of the same name. My favorite Sagan’s book, bar none is Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science.  In a very real sense, just like you never forget your first “Doctor” (cue in Dr. Who’s music theme) you never forget your first Sagan book.

Without a doubt, Sagan is best known as the host of the hugely popular series “Cosmos”.  At one time, it was estimated that the series was seen by roughly a ninth of the world’s population!**

By most measurements of success, he made it. However, he paid a price.

The Sagan effect can be defined in various ways. One of these versions states that the scientific popularity of a scientist with the general public is considered to be inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of that scientist’s scientific work. In other words, the main idea is that the more popular the scientist is, the poorer the productivity and quality of her/his work. This is based on the biased perception of some, but by no means all scientists, that whomever is spending too much time and effort communicating science to the public must not be a very good scientist at all.

Do I have to tell you that I do not agree with that? Some of my thoughts on that are here.

Anyway, again, Sagan did pay a price. Many attributed his tenure denial from Harvard University to this perception from fellow faculty, and it is well documented that this was an actual factor why he was not chosen to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of the USA (the equivalent of the Royal Society of England). The members of these organizations are considered the TOP scientists in their respective fields and countries.

His Harvard tenure denial prompted his move to Cornell University, for which I have a soft spot (;-)… Plainly stated, Harvard’s loss, Cornell’s gain. GO RED!

Ironically, after being denied NAS membership, the NAS itself gave him its highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal for his “distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare”… I’d like to think that the thoughts in Sagan’s head while receiving the award were something like “…why you little ##{^^^€>|{%!?…“, and in fact, if you see the picture of that event, that’s the kind of face that Sagan has.

Now my question to you, dear readers: what do you think, what is your perception? Are scientists called to share their science to laypeople? Are scientists who do it second-rate scientists?

**A remake of “Cosmos” is in the works and will be released in 2014.  The host will be Neil Degrasse Tyson, another scientist with an inclination for science popularization.  I have very high hopes for it!

***Note: The new Cosmos was made. Not too impressed. Sagan was often imitated, but never “equaled”.

Picture credit:

If you want to know more

Davidson K (1999) Carl Sagan: A Life. Wiley.

Ecklund EH et al. (2012) How academic biologists and physicists view science outreach. PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e36240.

Poundstone W (1999) Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos. Holt and Company.

Russo G (2010) Outreach: Meet the press. Nature 468: 465–467.

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    1. Carl Sagan was treated very shabbily by his fellow scientists, and it is a reflection on them, not Sagan.
      So, making science accessible to the unwashed masses is something to ostracize Sagan for. Not a good image for the scientists who participated in that attitude.
      My perception is that the scientists who looked at Sagan contemptuously for trying to communicate the principles of science to the public, were (a) not very good at communicating themselves, and (b) not possessed of very highly developed social skills. These “superior” scientists probably couldn’t communicate with the public if they had to.

      I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson was right; jealously among these asocial scientists played more than a little part in this petty attitude towards Sagan. It takes skill, ability, and even genius to explain complex scientific theories in terms a lay person can understand; skills these self-described “pure” scientists lacked…..

      I think there was an even darker undercurrent at work. People love to think of themselves as superior to others, no matter how evolved they think they are; whether they’re athletes, actors, artists, writers, philosophers, or scientists. And the only way these self-perceived “geniuses” could feel superior (having probably been bullied and teased at school when they were children), was their belief that they could understand scientific concepts the unwashed masses could Never understand. It may very well be that they actually resented the idea that the uneducated lay person might just be able to understand complex scientific concepts these scientists believed that only they could understand; because their perceived mystic is then lessened.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Carl Sagan made science entertaining and accessible. His special touch was that he was able to tune into the questions that the layman has but is too embarrassed to say. (Particularly today, as many get tarred with being conspiracy theorists or nutcases! ) He took on thoughts about UFOs, alien life and time travel and discussed the actual science behind it. He was a scientific mind who also dreamed. In my opinion, this was his appeal. And probably the reason hard scientists excluded him.


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  3. This week this very topic was discussed at an NSF sponsored conference for the advancement of informal science learning. I’m happy to say that the culture is changing a bit in astronomy departments. In fact the American Astronomical Society mission statement includes two key statements in support of outreach :
    The Society, through its members, trains, mentors and supports the next generation of astronomers. The Society supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy.
    The Society assists its members to develop their skills in the fields of education and public outreach at all levels. The Society promotes broad interest in astronomy, which enhances science literacy and leads many to careers in science and engineering.

    In fact, they are investing in communication and outreach training by hosting one or two day communication workshops prior to their DPS and winter AAS meetings. It’s been my pleasure to deliver those workshops for the last two years. NSF funded a proposal called Portal to the Public which is run through science centers to train scientists both in communication and how to develop their own outreach materials. The AAAS and American Chemical Society are also very supportive of their scientists being active in outreach and are providing training for their members.


  4. I think it is vital to be able to communicate science effectively at all levels and I think it is something few people can do well. If we did not have any great scientists who could communicate on this level we would have less people inspired to study science. We’d also risk communication in the media being innacurate or misleading leading to health scares etc…….or do we have this already!


      1. Not everyone can be a public communicator like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, and yet if someone doesn’t want to involve the wilder public, they’re really missing a wonderful aspect of science and how it can shape a better future


  5. I’ve also gotten the impression that the science community tends to think less of scientists who spend “too much” time on science communcation, though I don’t think that’s justified. Having said that, some scientists manage to maintain their reputation as scientists despite their popular work (eg, Stephen Hawking) while others seem to eventually replace the practice of science with its popularization (eg, Richard Dawkins). I think this is an important subject which should get more attention. Science communication is both difficult and important; scientists who venture into the field should be encouraged and rewarded, not penalized.


    1. I couldn’t agree more. You gave the perfect example, Hawking, who has sold millions of popular science books and yet as you well said, kept his scientific reputation intact. Dawkins is another one of my favorite science writers when he writes science. When he strays from science, he goes way off the mark. At any rate science communication is an important and (should be) an essential part of science…


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