Popularization Matters

Academic scientists often look down on Carl Sagan because he spent so much time on popular-level projects, like the Cosmos television series. The man even wrote a novel. Heaven forbid.

Ask many of those same scientists who got them interested in the subject in the first place. What sparked their fascination? Who is ultimately responsible for giving them the gall to advance scientific frontiers? They’ll probably say it was Carl Sagan, or someone like him.

This tension between academics and popularizers goes back centuries. I’m on a Voltaire kick at the moment, so do indulge. Referring to Diderot’s massive, expensive Encyclopedie (to which Voltaire contributed), he wrote:

“Twenty folio volumes will never start a revolution; it’s the pocket books at thirty sous that represent the real threat. If the Gospels had cost 1,200 [Roman] sestertia, the Christian religion would never have established itself.”

Roger Pearson, Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, p. 298.

Not a bad point. Ideas originate with academics, and they’ll play with them for some time in the journals. But popularizers usually find a way to sneak ideas down to the masses eventually; Sagan and Bastiat and all that. Think of it as division of labor. Some create, others disperse.

The process works much faster in the Internet age. The primary obstacle now is IQ, not access. But it still holds. The point is that there is a role for both ivory tower academics and popularizers.

Given the disdain that each side holds for the other, it’s probably best that they be kept separate. But as someone who straddles the line between the two, I humbly propose that both sides find a way to get along. After all, when it comes to the pursuit of knowledge and a better life for all, we’re all friends. Let’s act like it.

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