Promoting science: where is the next Asimov, Sagan and Gardner?

With the 2012 Presidential campaigns moving into high gear, we find that science is once again under attack. There are a few voices out there making attempts to defend science. There are people calling the Republican candidates anti-science, and the Republican party the party of anti-science. But science is not Republican or Democrat. Science policy might need defending, but science is science. As I see it, two things are needed in our current political environment:

  1. Science needs vigorous promotion
  2. Pseudoscience needs vigorous denouncing

For many decades we had three champions of science here in the United States:

Isaac Asimov is well-known as a science fiction writer. He was also a professor of biochemistry and from the early 1950s to his death in 1992, he wrote hundreds of book and thousands of essay on science. He made all kinds of appearances in support of science and science eduction. And several of his books and many of his essays vigorously denounced pseudoscience. He made science easy for anyone to understand (including me) and made a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience. He loved the former and would not tolerate the latter.

Carl Sagan was perhaps the most recognizable astronomer in the second half of the Twentieth century. He wrote some extraordinary books on science including Cosmos, on which the TV series was based, and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Dragons of Eden. He also wrote books debunking pseudoscience like his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

Martin Gardner wrote the Mathematical Recreations column for Scientific American for 25 years. He also wrote numerous books shining a light onto pseudoscience and exposing its follies.

These were the biggest promoters of science that I was aware in my lifetime. Asimov died in 1992, Sagan in 1996, and Gardner in 2010. I don’t believe they have been replaced, at least in terms of their ability to popularize and promote science, and denounce and challenge pseudoscience. I don’t know why this is, but I believe that these are the types of champions that science needs to promote its cause. Politicians can’t do the job. Even if they could their effect would be muted because of politics. Scientific institutions don’t seem to do nearly enough promotion to permeate the awareness of the average American. Sure, there are other outlets, magazines like Scientific American, where Michael Shermer has a monthly “Skeptic” column; or New Scientist which has on occasional editorial on anti-science. But these magazines are read by people who are already interested in science. What about the vast majority who are at best agnostic to science? Where are our heavy-hitters?

Among the science fiction community are many writers who are also scientists: David Brin, Gregory Benford, Geoffrey Landis, Catherine Asaro, and many others. Many of these scientist writers are very good at promoting science, but their audiences are, unfortunately, limited. What science needs is promotion on the kind of scale that Carl Sagan could bring to it. Science needs another scientist who is a household name, someone who people see on the evening news, distinguishing fact from fiction. Science needs scientists who can help the average person understand the difference between astronomy and astrology and why that difference is important.

When we urge our kids to go into science, when science catches fire with a youngster, it is often with the thought of making some kind of breakthrough discovery. Many scientists, I am sure, are ultimately disappointed. While they do good science, they never make an exciting breakthrough. I think we should encourage another important avenue: that of popularizing and promoting science and making it accessible to everyone. A single scientist might not make an earth-shattering discovery; but a single scientist can encourage and influence hundreds or even thousands of would-be scientists, and perhaps one of those scientists will make a critical breakthrough.

So what do you think? Who will be our next Asimov? Sagan? Gardner?

I have no clue, but I am hopeful that they are out there right now. We desperately need them.


    1. I don’t know how I could have forgotten about Tyson. I love his book, Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. I agree, I think he’s about the closest thing we have to Sagan at this point.

  1. You know, this post of yours is something I’ve worried about for many years. It’s amazing how often we think alike.

    As Paul noted, I tend to think of Tyson as being the next Sagan. When the new Cosmos comes out, that’ll be even more evident.

    As for an Asimov and a Gardner, we really need some writers who are as popular as they were. And that’s a hard thing to find. Perhaps Mary Roach could be convinced to take on the Asimov role…

  2. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, and Bill Nye satisfy your basic need. Tyson and Kaku are in mainstream media more than Sagan ever was, and Tyson is a personality powerhouse. Nye has been fighting the good fight for two decades now and his position with The Planetary Society gives him even more exposure.

    James Randi’s been around forever (and sadly probably for not much longer). He, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking–they are all active and their work reaches a diverse, global audience.

    And don’t underestimate the reach of writers and/or bloggers. People like Ben Goldacre, Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, and Phil Plait have a persistent presence on the web. Their general science articles as well as their denouncements of pseudoscience stories that become popular are frequently linked to from mainstream news sites.

    There are plenty of science fiction writers out there popularizing science (like you are right now). It would be tough for one or two to stand out. The problem is that there are about a thousand times more of them now than there were when Asimov was getting going. If you can call that a problem.

    1. Mike, I almost put Randi on the list, too. He definitely belongs there for debunking pseudoscience, but I just don’t see him as a popularizer. He is preaching to the choir, much the same, I suspect, as Richard Dawkins. I suppose that at times, Asimov and Sagan were like this, too, but they seemed to have appeal to a more varied audience.

      I’ve read only one or two of Kaku’s writings, but I’ve seen him a lot on TV–shows like The Universe. I get the idea that he sometimes tries to over-simplify concepts, but that may be just my misperception.

  3. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He may not write science fiction (at least, I don’t think he does), but he is as close to Carl Sagan as you can get without being Sagan himself. He even has a cool podcast about the intersection of science and popular culture (among other related subjects) and has frequently appeared on talk shows (The Daily Show, Bill Maher, at least once on all the major news networks, and so on and so forth).

    And he’s brilliant and vibrant and exciting.

    Otherwise, you have Michio Kaku. And I’m sure there are wonderful women involved too, but I can’t think of any. Symphony of Science should clear this up for me. *goes*

    1. Clearly, I left off Tyson and that was a mistake. I will say that he doesn’t seem as prolific as Sagan was, but I’ve enjoyed his books.

      I thought about adding Stephen Jay Gould to the list, but I haven’t read nearly as much of his stuff as I have the other three.

  4. I think Dick Dawkins currently has the mantle of the top science popularizer. Well before making a pile of cash with his God bothering, Dr. D. was making documentaries on science and education for U.K. TV as well as popping up on the lecture circuit. Your two cirteria (1.Science needs vigorous promotion & 2.Pseudoscience needs vigorous denouncing) is pretty much a synopsis of Richard Dawkins’ standard speech.


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