Sciency Words: The Sagan Effect

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


This year’s A to Z Challenge is fast approaching. I’ve already revealed my theme: Sciency Words, specifically scientific terms related to the search for alien life.  And with that theme in mind, there’s one person whom I expect we’ll be talking about a lot: Carl Sagan.

Sagan deserves a lot of credit for making astrobiology a respected branch of modern science, and he invented some of the scientific terms we’ll be talking about next month.  But Sagan himself was not as well respected by his peers as he should have been.

Why not?  Because he wrote too many books.  Because he was on television all the time, giving interviews, hosting his own T.V. show, and waxing poetic about our place in the universe.

Apparently that led to a perception among the scientific community that Sagan must not be spending much time doing actual scientific research.  As a direct consequence of that perception, Sagan was denied membership to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and it’s widely believed that this is also why he was denied tenure at Harvard.

And Sagan is not the only working scientist to suffer from what is now known as the Sagan Effect.  As described in this article from the Journal of Neuroscience, quite a few researchers have lost grant money or been reprimanded by their supervisors or faced other career-derailing consequences simply for giving a TED Talk or having too many followers on Twitter or writing a few articles for popular science magazines.

This despite the fact that there is a growing awareness in the scientific community that scientists do need to engage with the public. To quote from that same article from Neuroscience:

Most scientists agree that science communication is important, and some even say that it is a scientist’s duty to interact with the media and the tax-paying public.  Yet, the concern remains that science dissemination may be incompatible with a successful academic career, particularly if the scientist is a junior or pretenture investigator.

So it would seem that if you’re a scientist and you want to engage with the public, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The frustrating thing is that Carl Sagan was no slacker when it came to science.  The oft cited statistic is that he produced, on average, one peer-reviewed paper per month.  All that work he did to popularize science was on top of his regular workload as a scientist, not instead of it.

And the same could be said of many “popularizers” today, according to this paper titled “Scientists who engage with society perform better academically.”  Yes, the scientific community has been researching itself, and the evidence shows that scientists who engage with the public do not slack off with their regular work.  Quite the opposite: they outperform their less publically engaged colleagues!

Even so, the Sagan Effect remains in play. Scientists seem to have embraced certain stereotypes about themselves, and, quoting again from this Neuroscience article, “deviating too much from the idealized image of the single-minded, focused academic is still considered problematic.”  But I think it’s time we all let that stereotype go, because if you’re a working scientist today you can do your research AND help inspire the next generation of scientists (and give people like me ideas for cool Sci-Fi stories)—just like Carl Sagan did!

10 thoughts on “Sciency Words: The Sagan Effect

  1. I often see the same sort of snobbishness in other fields too. It’s an odd phenomenon. It reminds me of being an insecure high school kid pretending I didn’t like popular hit songs because it wasn’t cool.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I can’t speak to Sagan’s scientific work, but I can say that when I was a kid, he was pretty much the only voice I heard speaking to the public about actual science. This was in a sea of misinformation about UFOs, bigfoot, ancient aliens, ESP, and a lot of other garbage on mainstream TV and magazines. Sometimes I wonder why scientists of the period were surprised by the public’s gullibility, since they punished anyone who attempted to be a counter-weight to all that nonsense.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is true. I really bought into the UFO thing as a kid because it on television all the time. And there still is way too much of that kind of stuff out there, which is why we need good science communicators so desperately!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Very true! That article from Neuroscience says the Sagan Effect is absolutely not motivated by envy. Now maybe envy isn’t the only motivation behind it, but really… envy has to be part of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Scientists like Sagan are the reason that Science itself is allowed to continue in the hearts and minds of the public. They are the reason that inspires sci fi stories and students to pursue a career in science. Good post.
    I’dd love it if you could check out some of my posts! I think you may find them interesting.
    Looking forward to your feedback!

    Liked by 1 person

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