The Strange Resentment of Popular Scientists

Question: Why do some colleagues disapprove of you “popularizing” biotech?

Lee Silver: Carl Sagan, the great “popularizer” of astronomy, was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences and many people think that is because the other astrophysicists and astronomers didn't like the fact that he was popularizing their field, and they thought that he shouldn't do this but he was cheapening the field. This attitude is expanded in many ways in biotechnology; it's even much worse than what Carl Sagan had to deal with. And the reason is that in graduate school we are told—never explicitly but it's implicit—that, first of all, if you’re in biomedical sciences never speculate about the future or about where your research might go in the future because you don't want to give people false hopes. And unlike astronomy, biomedical science is geared very often to curing diseases. So if you [have] a breakthrough, it's possible that it might affect diabetes in the future, you know because you've watched your thesis advisor and other professors, you know that you say, okay we have made this advance but, this is far from a cure for diabetes, a cure for diabetes may never happen so don't think that we are ever going to get there. And the idea, and it's really a subconscious idea, don't give false hope to people. So that's one thing. So don't speculate, and don't give false hope.

The second thing is, don't scare people. Biotechnology is really a powerful technology and if you scare people with the kinds of things it could do then they're going to shut us down. We are doing great research that we are doing things that are going to help humanity and because of you speculating, you are scaring people and they'll reject the whole thing. You know, you tell people about human cloning, just bring it up, and they want to shut down our research on cells. So don't talk about that.

So those are very strong kinds of feelings that other people have and I've gotten e-mails from many people, many scientists over the years condemning me for doing both of those things, speculating about the future, and also talking about biotechnology in a very broad sense that could be used for this purpose and that purpose.

The third thing is that in a field like biology, it's very difficult to bring it to a lay understanding without simplification and so you have exemplified you want people to understand it. And I think that it requires a scientist who has a much deeper knowledge to do this simplification because you know what you can simplify and what you can't. And that's what I try to do. But it means that I'm not 100% accurate. If I say that every cell in my body has the same DNA, I’ll get attacked for saying; no there are cells in the immune system where the DNA is a little bit different. And my response will be, well, if we get into all the details, you lose the bigger picture. So, there are a lot of scientists who say, “You’re not being accurate, you’re misleading people”—they’re very narrow.

And then the final problem is that some people are jealous. You know, this guy’s on TV, how does he have the right to be on TV? And I’m not even talking just about my own work, I’m talking about other people’s work. How dare I do that? The other people should be presenting their work. But the other people can’t. Different people have an ability or not to be able to present things at a lay level. So I think that sort of summarizes what’s going on.

Recorded on: September 11, 2009

Molecular Biologist Lee Silver defends his role as both a specialist in and a "popularizer" of an advanced scientific field as a vital one for educating and inspiring the public, and speculates about why people oppose him for it.

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