Anti-vaxxers and the Sagan effect: A grim read for science communication hopefuls

It was hard not to be depressed after finishing the chapter entitled "Science, Drugs, and Rock'n'Roll." The chapter was a litany of all the ways the public can misperceive science, detailing how these misperceptions can take hold and the ramifications that come from denying science. Otto's most striking example chronicled the saga of the anti-vaccine movement – a movement that has diminished vaccination rates and caused thousands of preventable deaths.

The book club knows that Otto will eventually get to the "What We Can Do About It" part of the War on Science subtitle. But Shawn, if you're reading, next time you write a book please include nuggets of hope throughout the book and don't just save them for the grand finale? We can't read fast enough to quell our worries about science, our beloved. 

In these last two chapters, our book club found a clear theme: intergenerational resentment is nothing new. The anger many millennials feel towards their parents' generation lies parallel to the anger their parents' generation felt towards the generation before them*. This meeting was attended solely by millennials, but we hope we get some older folks engaged in our discussions, soon. Reading about generational disputes underlines the need for calm, rational intergenerational conversations. Scientists earned the distrust of the baby boomer generation through a series of shadowy events where the promises of scientists were rarely kept and the aftermath of scientific breakthroughs often overshadowed the intended benefits (DDT, asbestos, cigarettes, leaded gas, etc). Public perception is everything, and science has not yet earned back the public's trust. We, in Science Says, fully understand that scientists need the public's trust to help science succeed in their lofty goal of bettering humanity (and the Earth and the universe). That is why we work so hard to create a two-way conversation between science and the public. Our bright-eyed ideals of communicating science to advance science were a major reason this section was so tough to read: we learned about the "Sagan effect." Otto defines the Sagan effect as when "one's popularity with the general public [is] considered inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of one's scientific work." 

Sagan was a stellar scientist who published hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers. His success as a science-celebrity hurt his academic reputation because fellow academics could not see the value of an engaged public. And because they were flat-out jealous. Although partaking in science communication DOES NOT mean you are a bad scientist (data backs this up!), there is a perceived professional trade-off (linked paper claims no actual professional trade-off). However, graduate students often struggle to convince their advisors that community engagement and science communication is an effective use of their time. The Sagan effect gives a name our fears about pursuing science communication. Perceived or real, the Sagan effect still plays a role in a scientist's decision to engage with the public. 

Our meeting ended with a hopeful idea: hold scientists accountable to their broader impact statements on grant applications AND provide funding to scientists to complete their broader impacts. We think this will encourage scientists to engage more with the public and eventually lead to more public trust in science. Not every broader impact statement is about public engagement and not every scientist is willing/capable of effectively communicating with the public – but many scientists are! And these scientists need the financial support and encouragement to dedicate the time it takes to build a strong community.

#HoldBroaderImpactStatementsAccountable will soon be trending.

P.S. Other topics touched up by the meeting-goers include (but are not limited to): Nuclear threat v. global warming, public perception of GMOs, millennial's comfort with social media, the challenge of information overload when informing the public, scientists' discomfort with black-and-white answers, the public's discomfort with gray areas, the future's opinion of CRISPR, the overspecialization of our world, the language/jargon barriers within science itself, and the absolute wonder of chemists' creativity in the lab.

*There is a major difference between our generation's anger and the baby boomer generation's anger: they still have a much larger, more powerful voting block. They were boomers.

Written by Sam Tucci

Edited by Destiny Davis

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