Sunday, December 06, 2009


Damned If You Do

A thought:

In many ways, [Stephen Jay] Gould's brilliance and success made him a target for fools and creationists, and turned him from merely a paleontologist into a media celebrity on par with Carl Sagan and Steven Hawking. Like Hollywood celebrities and other high-profile figures, Gould did not have as much privacy as he would have liked, dealt with the constant distraction of people demanding his time and attention, and everything he said or did was scrutinized. Shermer1 analyzes some of the criticisms of Gould, and dissects his prodigious volume of writing about his favorite topics, and even the elements of his writing style. Much of the criticism stems from scientific jealousy and the complaint that Gould's writing was too popular (the so-called "Sagan Effect"). As Raup2 noted, Carl Sagan was denied many honors (such as election to the National Academy of Sciences) in his field and dismissed as more a popularizer of science than a research scientist. However, Shermer debunks this myth by showing that Sagan continued to publish peer-reviewed articles at the same pace, even as he worked on "Cosmos" and wrote trade books. Gould actually published more peer-reviewed science than he did books or essays for the general public. Indeed, Gould's productivity in every category (peer-reviewed articles, books, popular essays, book reviews, and the like) outstrips all the prominent scientists of his era, including Carl Sagan, Ernst Mayr, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Hawking, and Jared Diamond. Gould was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and became one of the most respected scientists in America. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Paleontological Society, and the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). Gould received dozens of honorary degrees, and won nearly every award he was eligible for, including the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius award." As a true measure of his fame across the culture, Gould was portrayed by a cartoon of himself (providing his own voice) on The Simpsons. Another episode of the same show that aired the week he died was dedicated to his memory.

Ironically, now people complain that the problem with science literacy in this country is that there are too few popularizers, and too few scientists who step out of their ivory towers to convey the importance of science for the general public. These critics include marine biologist Randy Olson, who made a documentary about creationism and scientific arrogance entitled "Flock of Dodos", or Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, authors of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. It seems you can't win. You can become a Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould and have your professional peers snipe at you out of jealousy for your popularity, or you can retreat to your lab and let the culture critics complain that scientists are too aloof.

- Donald Prothero, "Stephen Jay Gould: Did He Bring Paleontology To The 'High Table'?," Philosophy & Theory in Biology


1 Shermer, MB. 2002. This view of science: Stephen Jay Gould as historian of science and scientific historian, popular scientist and scientific popularizer. Social Studies of Science 32(4): 489-525.

2 Raup, DM. 1986. The Nemesis Affair: The Story of the Death of the Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science. WW Norton.

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