Category: Public Perceptions

Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

Update #3 [Up at the top, so that hopefully people read it.] Does the title of this post make you angry? Well, you’re not alone. I continue to hear from many people who think I am downright stupid for daring to ask this question. Seeing all the backlash, I’ll be first to admit that I wish I had titled it something less provocative (even though it didn’t feel all that provocative at the time.) All I want to suggest is that we hold up some other examples of good science communicators, I don’t want to, or think that we can, erase the past. Sagan has a deity-like position for some people, and I didn’t do a very good job of explaining why that makes me feel so bad sometimes. I wanted to offer a different point of view. As was said to me on twitter, we should recognize Sagan the way we recognize Da Vinci, Einstein, Galileo – as greats. That doesn’t mean we should let that stall our ability to move forward and try to make new great things, with new great people.

Update #4 You know, the moment I had to ask my Mom (because my computer was giving me trouble and I couldn’t log into my own site – go figure) to log in to this site to respond to a comment to say that I don’t think Sagan hated women kind of made me want to give up completely. But I’ve read two thoughtful responses to my post, and I realized that the main thing I’m not saying is why I felt the need to write this in the first place. When we hold up Sagan again and again as the greatest there ever was, when we take his quotes and put them on pretty pictures that go viral, when the TV special continues to live online, when we talk again and again about how this one person inspired humanity and made people see that science is human – and all of it makes me feel nothing, I can’t help but think that perhaps I’m less than human. I joked with a friend yesterday that perhaps I’m just dead inside, but it isn’t really a joke to me. If Sagan represents all that is good, and I don’t understand it, then I can’t be good. So, if you want to know where this post was written, it was written from a place of fear and self doubt.

I am hopelessly optimistic about life to the point of near desperation to find the good in everything. So I thought, well, if I feel this way, other people must too. I warped that thinking into the blanket statements that caused so much of the trouble in this post. I know better than to publish without letting something sit so I can rethink it, and I broke my own rule, and made a mistake here. Some people have reached out to me to say they shared my feelings. So, to those people, I hope knowing you aren’t alone in not feeling so inspired makes you feel better.

My problem isn’t really with Sagan himself, and I didn’t do a good job of explaining that I take issue with the culture surrounding Sagan, with the way he is idolized as a one-and-only, with the vehemence of some of his fans. People have told me he would also promote women and diversity, which is a good thing. I do still think that other examples are needed not just to show a different approach to science communication, but to show different people to encourage other people that they can do this, even if they don’t see themselves in Sagan.

To everyone who challenged me to refine my thinking and more clearly state my point of view, you are everything I love about the Internet and I thank you for keeping your calm demeanor and engaging with me in a productive way. To everyone who called me stupid, self-absorbed, uneducated, and told me to learn my place, to learn some “respect, baby” well, I don’t particularly know what to say to you, but I hope you feel better too. To those who accused me of having no appreciation for the past, disrespecting my parents (what? – I felt so bad about that I even asked them, and they laughed at me) and wanting a world of nothing but listicles and Honey-Boo-Boo and instant gratification – that wasn’t the point I tried to make, which I admit to failing to make the first time, and I hope you’ll think again about what I’m actually asking us to do.

If what the world really needs are more and more Sagans, I guess I may be out of a job. But, I continue to think that I don’t really want to try to be anybody else, that’s the whole problem with idol worship, and I just want to try to make my own good things. Quite frankly, I don’t think we even CAN have another Sagan – it’s a very different world. I hope that in holding up other people as examples we can drive home the idea that there is more than one way to do something, more than one way to reach people, more than one way to do something good.

I also want to say that to those that called me out on categorizing Sagan based on his appearance, you’re right that I hate when it gets done to me, and as frustrating as I can get about it, it is still not right to categorize someone else that way. It wasn’t a productive way to have this conversation. If I offended you, but you kept quiet about it, you have my sincere apology too. The body of this post is largely intact, all of my flaws and all, so you can read the original below along with the other updates. I would also encourage you to read the response posts here and here.

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 person from my parents 1970’s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

[This paragraph is edited] 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 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 cares about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. [Please see Updates #1 and #2 at the bottom of this post, to address the flaw in this blanket statement.] 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.

[This paragraph is edited] It isn’t just the age thing. I recently read Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers by Apoorva Mandavilli about the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting, and how there was a distinct lack of minorities, let alone minority women. She said:

“You can never overestimate how empowering it is to see someone who looks like you—only older and more successful. That, much more than well-meaning advice and encouragement, tells you that you can make it.”

That idea stuck with me. Role models are a great thing, and I get that Sagan inspired people to become scientists themselves. But, if we want to seriously address issues of diversity in science and science communication holding up the stereotypical scientist over and over again isn’t doing anyone any favors. I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s inspiration for pursuing science, let alone belittle Sagan himself. I respect the work Sagan did as a scientist and communicator. I respect that at the time he brought science into the mainstream in a way that hadn’t been done before. But, we need new things.

We need things that fit a modern era, things that will supplement the nerdy white dude stereotype (I mean, I generally like nerdy white dudes, you don’t have to leave, we just need other people too.) I believe that we can do better than lamenting some guy in a turtleneck as if nothing good will ever happen again. We can focus on diversity – showing men and women, of different ethnicities and backgrounds that science isn’t only for nerds.

The answer isn’t as simple as rebooting Cosmos, as FOX is doing, and sticking Neil deGrasse Tyson in front of the camera. While Tyson is far more relevant, and yes is a minority, we still need to get women, other minorities, and young people doing all kinds of science out in public view. If we want diversity we need to show people that people just like them can, and do, like science. We need everybody.

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I realize that instinctively we want to defend our childhood heroes. You may be sitting at your computer thinking, “but, but, you just don’t GET it, you don’t understand what a big impact Sagan had.” You are right, and that is 100% my point. I’m an admittedly nerdy, white, science communicator. If I don’t care about Sagan, do you honestly think the general public does? Science, particularly space, yes. Sagan, nope.

I sincerely hope the reboot of Cosmos starring Tyson does well, because science programming on a major television network in primetime is a good thing. I have  faith that the science will be sound, and we are in dire need of an upgrade from Mermaids and Megalodons so I think it’s great. That said, I still think it is a complete waste of our efforts to keep going on and on about WHO will be the next Sagan when we should really be talking about HOW we’re going to engage with a diverse audience about science and WHAT platforms and tools will we use to be effective. To me, those are far more productive conversations to have.

The science isn’t going to stop being interesting, it isn’t going to stop being relevant – but if we can’t push our professional conversations and aspirations past Sagan, we will stop being relevant.

Bonus: I didn’t know where to include this link, but here is Hope Jahren’s Ode to Carl Sagan. You should probably read it.

Update: Well, this is easily the most talked about post I’ve ever written. Lots of feedback here and on twitter. Most prominent are the voices saying but I love Sagan, he did such good things. Rock on, I’m not saying that he didn’t. Keep your fondness for him. There are young people who find Sagan inspiring. Blanket statements like the ones I made here don’t do justice to the fact that really, what inspires you is deeply personal. To each, their own. I took a hard line stance because it feels important to me for people to feel comfortable admitting that Sagan doesn’t inspire them if he doesn’t. Again, to each their own.  So, I nod to those young people who are inspired by Sagan, you’re right that I don’t speak for you, nor do I have a right to do so. But I also nod to everyone who said this made them feel better because other role models for science and science communication are something that many of us (if not all) would benefit from. Some people feel othered by not being into Sagan – if that makes any sense. But, I’m not trying to other anyone here either. I shouldn’t dismiss the significance of what Cosmos achieved, and should have included that we can still learn from what has been successful – even if I am seriously cautious about merely trying to replicate the past without pushing further, to do better.

Update #2: I wish I could change the title of this post to “Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan All of the Time” but it is what it is. I’m still getting comments about how wrong I am, because Sagan means so much to so many people, so to clarify: I took a very line in the sand approach in this post. I’ve talked to a lot of people since advocating for a middle of the road approach, the “we need everybody” that I mentioned. Keep Sagan, but find a way to promote others too. His popularity speaks to the fact that his work gets through to a lot of people. My blanket statements contradict that in a way that is confusing. I should have been more careful, and written about how he doesn’t get through to some people and we do need new things to get through to the people his work doesn’t reach. I don’t want us to throw away the good work that Sagan did and never talk about it ever again as if we can’t still get value from it. Keep what worked, appreciate the value added, but I still think shifting our focus to new things is beneficial.

Book Review: Best American Science & Nature Writing 2013

Lately I’ve really enjoy reading collections of stories, I love being exposed to different writers and most importantly I can typically get through at least one story before falling asleep. I say typically because a few nights ago as I was reading  a Sherlock Holmes story on my Nook I actually did doze off, and my device slipped from my hands smacking me in the face – a fun night to be sure. But I digress, in general, collections make solid pre-bedtime reading.

For the last week or so I’ve been reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 (on honest to goodness paper, so no technology induced injuries here. ) I was given the opportunity to review the book, which is available today, in advance and encouraged to share my thoughts. Well, my thoughts are mixed – there are good and bad things about this particular collection, and despite my enthusiasm for collections for me it highlghted a general downside.

science-medium-2013[1]One of the most valuable things about collections is that they presumably do a lot of work for you. The BEST implies that some authoratative figure has done the druggery of sorting through the entire body of work in a field, in this case science writing, for you. For this collection these authoratative figures are series editor Tim Folger and edition editor Siddhartha Mukherjee. Mukherjee is author of the pulitzer prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer, which I read and think is deserving of all the praise it has garnered.

I was so optimistic about this collection upon seeing that the edition editor was Mukherjee because I admire his work quite a bit. His own writing certainly doesn’t disappoint – I honestly think checking out the collection is worth your time just to read his introduction. It is a lovely description of science writing painted against the background of the “father of genetics” Gregor Mendel. The book includes writing that I think is terrific, and I have no problem with it being held up as exemplary of the best science writers among us – I was happy to see names like Michael Moyer, John Pavlus, Michelle Nijhuis, David Quammen and Katherine Harmon. As it seems with all good things though, there is always a “but” and I do have an issue with this collection.

You enter into a bit of a contract with the authority figures who determine what is featured in a collection when you purchase a book like this. The relationship brings with it the promise that the stories have all been vetted and are the BESTof what is out there. You trust that you are in for a good show, a quality show. However, the collection of what is the best is merely an opinion. We all have opinions, and my opinion isn’t always going to match your opinion, or Mukherjee’s opinion, or anyone else’s opinion.

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Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane: New TIGHAR Expedition

The Internet doesn’t think very highly of Amelia Earhart. As a girl I was fortunate enough to do school projects on some great female role models. One that stands out in my memory was Amelia Earhart. Learning about great women helped form my conviction at an early age that women have as much to offer the world as men. I loved Amelia Earhart for what she represented to me: defiance, adventure and mystery. Reading this article in the Telegraph, and checking out the comments where she is called a “dumb woman” and “foolish” made me pause. The commenters also slam the effort to find out what happened to her based on the Telegraph’s claim that the expedition is “backed” by the U.S. Navy.

The article is about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR) planned trip this July to try to located the remains of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. I’ve written before about TIGHAR and their efforts to find enough evidence to conclude that Earhart landed, and later died on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. According to some of the commenters finding out what happened to Earhart isn’t worth the effort. Some say because she was an idiot flying when she did and some say it isn’t worth it because of the money. Many of the commenters are up in arms that the Navy is “backing” the project on the grounds that the economy is still down and this is a stupid thing to spend money on.
I was surprised to see the Telegraph headline, “US Navy prepares mission to solve riddle of Amelia Earhart’s death” knowing that the TIGHAR expedition to find the plane was planned for this summer. When you read the Telegraph’s article, you can see that the expedition they are talking about is the one by TIGHAR. Now, TIGHAR is funded by contributions not federal money. It is not getting your tax payer dollars. I know this, because I googled. Having written about them before I went back to the TIGHAR website to see what they had to say about their alleged joint mission with the Navy.
This is what I found (pulled directly from their website) bolding is mine:

“As with previous TIGHAR expeditions, funding for this search is being raise entirely through contributions from private citizens, foundations and corporations. Lockheed Marting is leaidng a growing family of corporate sponsors. TIGHAR’s long-time sponsor FedEx is aboard with a major contribution in shipping services, and we are proud to announce that in addition to helping sponsor our expedition, Discovery Channel is producing a television special to air later this year documenting the search.

Underwater operations will be conducted for TIGHAR by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy’s primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. We’ll sail from Honolulu July 2nd – the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. TIGHAR is deeply appreciative of the expressions of support voiced by Secretary Clinton, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Lambourne, Assistant Secretary Campbell, and Dr. Ballard.”

The U.S. Navy is not paying for TIGHAR’s expedition to try to locate Earhart’s plane. They say it themselves on their website, they are funded by private and corporate donations. The announcement by the State Department that they support and are backing the expedition is just that – a statement. The terms “support” and “backing” automatically make one think money. I thought money when I read the Telegraph’s headline and article. But in this case “support” and “backing” comes in the form of verbal acknowledgement and a few nice press pictures, not oodles of taxpayer dollars. It also probably helped get Phoenix International onboard to do the actual mapping/search, but they are going to be paid out of TIGHAR’s coffers.

Still, Earhart is just a stupid woman got herself killed by taking off on a poorly planned trip right? Even if all those commenters up in arms about their money going to something they think is silly have been mislead by the article there are still those that think Earhart doesn’t matter. I like the idea of going out there to try to figure out what really happened to Earhart because there is historic and social value to knowing how her story ended. She is an important figure in aviation history, women’s history, and United States history. She mattered. She mattered in her time, and for girls like me who read about her in books and start to believe that they can truly do anything with their life she still matters.
It isn’t a secret that I find Earhart inspiring. I’ve posted about her twice before this. Seeing her called dumb and foolish for trying to fly around the world annoys me. She took a risk, and she paid for it with her life. You mean to tell me no man has ever done that? She knew she could fail in her journey. She took off anyway. Was it a good choice? No. She made a bad choice, but the key word there is choice. She was a female aviator in the 1930’s who took her own life in her hands, she made choices. I admire Earhart because she lived her life in a way that gave her the ability to choose for herself. So I do support TIGHAR’s effort to find the plane and some conclusive evidence about what happened to her. I’m glad the State Department supports it too. I’m also glad that the funding is private, I think that is how it should be. Shame on the Telegraph for printing something so misleading.
If all I had to do was go to the TIGHAR website to find out how the State Department and Navy were involved in the expedition, there is no reason the Telegraph shouldn’t have done the same. Rather than making this a story about Earhart, the Telegraph article made this a story about government spending and waste. That isn’t the story at all. I would much rather have seen some real coverage of Earhart – the good and the bad – leading up to the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.

Lessons From Neil deGrasse Tyson

On the day I attended the last college class of my higher education experience, I also attended a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For me, it was my commencement. I’ve made the decision not to walk at graduation for a number of reasons chief among them that none of my colleagues are walking and it didn’t make sense to me to do it alone. So I won’t be getting the cap, gown, prominent speaker send off typical for most people who complete a Master’s degree. Still, the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave me a great parting gift. The opportunity to sit at my favorite place on campus surrounded by other students on a gorgeous day and listen to a person whom I have admired for years talk about the future is the best goodbye I could have asked for.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist (please don’t ask me to explain astrophysics further than saying it is physics in space) at the American Museum of Natural History but he is also an author, speaker, host, and even a meme. You might have seen him on the Colbert Report or the Daily Show throwing down some truth and clarity. He is eloquent, funny and honestly one of the people I admire most in the field of science communication. He pulls no punches, while still being extremely passionate about space and all the other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

The talk, which took place 5/10/12 on the Terrace here at UW-Madison, started with Tyson talking about the role science plays (or lack thereof) in our culture. He used the example of money, by asking us which scientists appear on U.S. currency. The answer is none. You can make the argument that Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, but his experiments are not what is highlighted on the $100 bill. He is there for his political achievements. This is just an example of the way as a culture we have not placed a strong emphasis on science.

Tyson then went into talking about the history of the U.S. interest in space exploration. He said that historically there are three reasons why people invest a lot of money in a risky exploration: fear of death, promise of economic return, and praise for royalty and deities. If you look at the U.S. push to get to the moon we were acting under #1 fear of death. Our investment in NASA and the space program had everything to do with the Russians and the Cold War. When the communist threat was gone, the space program started to decline. I think Tyson really drove home this point when he said that if the Chinese decided to declare that they were building military bases on Mars the U.S. would get ourselves on Mars within 10 months. We could if we wanted to, we just don’t invest in the necessary programs. We need to feel threatened before we actually do anything, how very American of us.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

After going through the history of the space program, Tyson started talking about the economy and why investment in space and science overall can help. People in general seem to have this impression that NASA gets a big chunk of the federal budget, but Tyson pointed out that if NASA actually got what people think it gets NASA would be rolling in it. The perception of the budget is pretty skewed. What I love most about Tyson is that he says things that just make sense. When talking about innovation he said that the way you keep jobs in the U.S. is by making things that no one else can. Well, duh. But then where is the big push to invest in innovation? We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not trying to invent. Perhaps my favorite line from his talk (which was full of quotable one-liners) was “If the dinosaurs had had a space program, you can bet they would have used it” basically about how to save us from ourselves.

Seeing a speaker like Neil deGrasse Tyson meant a lot to me. He lived up to the hype. I was impressed with the caliber of his ideas in addition to his stage presence and the great dynamic he developed with the audience. All of us sitting there, the sea of students strewn on the concrete in front of the stage, get to walk away from this year at UW-Madison having heard from a man who is without a doubt one of the biggest bad asses in science communication. I mean he paused at one point to tweet his own talk (@neiltyson) that takes some cojones and an awesome sense of humor. It was a great experience, and I can’t wait to read Tyson’s new book!

Am I Science?

Scientists don’t really wear white lab coats. They usually don’t stand in front of old cabinets full of glass jars and beakers containing a rainbow of colored liquids. Unless someone has had an unfortunate bunsen burner accident it is unlikely that there is smoke wafting through the lab, or beakers bubbling over with a frothy white foam. If these images are what come to mind when you think of scientist, you need an update. It isn’t your fault, either.

Taking pictures or video to accompany my stories, I’ve had to ask myself how can I make a shot look more…sciencey? In the media we do a great disservice to scientists every time we stick them in the white coat peering into a microscope. Not that scientists don’t peer into microscopes, they do. But the stereotype has been allowed to run roughshod over every scientific discipline to the point where people barely recognize scientists who don’t fit the stereotype. Most scientists don’t fit the stereotype. But I’ve still dragged interviewees around a building until I find a suitable science looking backdrop. We all do it, and we need to stop.

Could you name a scientist? Seriously, do you know one? Heard of one? A single one? Can you name anyone actively engaged in research in the United States or around the globe? Do you realize that billions of your tax dollars pay for research, and you may very well not be able to name a single scientist other than your local meteorologist, or if you’re lucky (and a child of my generation) Bill Nye the Science Guy? I’m not trying to scold anyone here. I’m also not playing high and mighty. I can’t really name any importance finance and economic people, and they are important. So please don’t take this as me preaching. All of us could stand to be a little more aware of the fields we don’t work in directly. I’m plugging science and scientists here because, well, thats what I do. If someone wants to school me in finance, please do. I could use the lessons.

Anyway, I realize that not everyone loves science, but a huge chunk of money is devoted to research each year, don’t you want to know who gets it? The name Francis Collins should mean something to you. It may or may not, but for those who don’t know he is the Director of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the largest research funding organization in the United States. It has a fiscal year 2012 budget of more than $31 billion. But the people that are actually getting this money are largely out of the public eye. Why is that? I don’t have an answer exactly, but I can promise you it isn’t because scientists are boring.

We need to change the way we think about scientists. This is already happening in the science community itself where there are a lot of scientists who don’t want to be seen as lame. Even Collins has participated in some stereotype busting by posing for a magazine spread with Joe Perry from the band Aerosmith a few years back (Collins does play guitar himself) for a project called Rock Stars of Science. But even the best intentioned stereotype busting isn’t going to go anywhere if the only people paying attention to it are other scientists, science writers, and members of the public who already like science. We need to get the message to the people who still picture Doc Brown from Back to the Future when they think of a scientist. That being said, there are a lot of people involved with and working on correcting the stereotype. I wanted to take a moment to bring your attention to just one example, called I Am Science.

I Am Science started as a hashtag on Twitter (#iamscience). First suggested by marine biologist and science writer Kevin Zelnio, the hashtag was used to mark stories shared by scientists about the path they took to attaining their careers. It became obvious immediately that scientists are a wonderfully diverse group, finding their passion by any number of different paths. Scientists are people too. People with different backgrounds, and different interests. Sometimes wildly different interests, doing very different things but all of it is still science. They are all science.

I like I Am Science because it started with a Tweet, because it reflects the desire for scientists to try to share who they are failures and struggles included, and because it shatters the crazy mad scientist stereotype. To learn more about I Am Science read this wonderful post by Zelnio on Deep Sea News, check out the Tumblr he created to store all the tweets, if you are so inclined support I Am Science on Kickstarter (they’ve reached their goal, but can still use donations!) and watch this video.

The video was created by Mindy Weisberger and uses the song “Wicked Twisted Road” by Reckless Kelly. I hope all of this has inspired you to learn more about scientists. Look up people researching in the areas you find most interesting. Read their books. Attend their speeches or talks. Bust some stereotypes.