Three things about Carl Sagan

Today is the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death from myelodysplasia at the too-young age of 62. On this day, as part of the Carl Sagan Memorial Blogathon (more here), I'd like to explore three observations about Sagan.

First and foremost, Carl Sagan was brilliant at expressing the sense of wonder at the universe and how amazingly fortunate we are to be able to perceive it. Even as scientists, we often get lost in the nitty gritty and the details of what we are doing. It's all too easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees and forget about just how amazingly beautiful and complex the universe is. As a physician, in studying detailed mechanism or diseases or strategies of treating diseases, it's easy to loose sight of the wondrous complexity of biology and how the human body and mind function. All I have to think of is Carl Sagan and his lines in Cosmos about "billions and billions" of stars, and it brings a smile to my face and a reminder to me just how wondrous the world is and how amazingly complex life is. In this, I'm sure I'm not alone.

Second, Sagan emphasized something about skepticism that it is easy to forget. Indeed, I struggle with this from time to time. I'm referring to this quote:

The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them -- the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status. Whereas, an approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition, that recognizes that the society has arranged things so that skepticism is not well taught, might be much more widely accepted.

And he's right, at least to a point. It's very easy to fisk, even seductively so. It's easy to tear apart pseudoscience. Heck, I do it almost every day. And some forms of pseudoscience or misinformation deserve to be dissected mercilessly and slowly, without the least gentleness. Holocaust denial is one such example, because of the hateful ideology that motivates it. No quarter should be given. Certain dangerous forms of quackery are another example, because of the harm they cause desperate patients. But most other forms of pseudoscience do not have such a vile ideology as the main well from which they spring or cause such demonstrable harm to people as certain forms of quackery, and thus their adherents deserve to be treated respectfully, at least until by their behavior they demonstrate themselves unworthy of respect. At times, I wonder whether over the last two years I've let myself drift too far towards "Insolence" and away from the "Respectful" part of this blog's name (not to mention whether I enjoy doing Your Friday Dose of Woo so much because it lets me go wild with the insolence). It's something to think about as I contemplate what changes I might want to make in this, the third year of the existence of Respectful Insolence. Indeed, I need to be on guard against what Carl warned about:

Science involves a seemingly self-contradictory mix of attitudes: On the one hand it requires an almost complete openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre and weird they sound, a propensity to wonder. As I walk along, my time slows down; I shrink in the direction of motion, and I get more massive. That's crazy! On the scale of the very small, the molecule can be in this position, in that position, but it is prohibited from being in any intermediate position. That's wild! But the first is a statement of special relativity, and the second is a consequence of quantum mechanics. Like it or not, that's the way the world is. If you insist that it's ridiculous, you will be forever closed to the major findings of science. But at the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way you can distinguish the right from the wrong, the wheat from the chaff, is by critical experiment and analysis.

Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea, and hypothesis -- which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism -- especially_ ally rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested -- and you're not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science. A judicious mix is what we need.

And that is what I will strive for. I trust you, my readers, to let me know if I stray too far towards cynicism.

Finally, I want to close with an intentionally provocative observation. About a month ago there was a blowup around here among atheists, in which those who sought accommodation with moderate religious people in order to support the teaching of good science (in this specific case, evolution) were tarred with the insult, "Neville Chamberlain-style appeasers." It's a term I utterly loathe because I consider it a thinly veiled form of argumentum ad Nazi-ium. Indeed, I loathe it so much that I sicced the Hitler Zombie on Richard Dawkins and Larry Moran for using that term. Now, consider this quote from Carl Sagan from my favorite of his books, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Of course, many religions, devoted to reverence, awe, ethics, ritual, community, family, charity, and political and economic justice, are in no way challenged, but rather uplifted, by the findings of science. There is no necessary conflict between science and religion. On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, and each needs the other.

I submit to you that Carl Sagan, were he alive today, would probably been labeled a "Neville Chamberlain appeaser" by some. I would also submit that that is not a bad thing. Consider this further passage from Demon-Haunted World:

In theological discussion with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. When I put this question to the Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: in such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.

Even, I asked, if it's a really central tenet, like (I searched for an example) reincarnation?

Even then, he answered.

However, he added with a twinkle, it's going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.

Plainly, the Dalai Lama is right. Religious doctrine that is insulated from disproof has little reason to worry about the advance of science. The grand idea, common to many faiths, of a Creator of the Universe is one such doctrine - difficult alike to demonstrate or dismiss.

Towards religion that does not intrude itself into science and make claims that are clearly not true, like Sagan, I tend to take a "live and let live" attitude. However, note that Sagan's quote does not require one to roll over when fundamentalist religion launches assaults on science. Indeed, he is essentially stating that, when science conflicts with religion, it is religion, not science, that must change. Also, as Carl Sagan taught us, when it comes to superstition and pseudoscience, often far more can be accomplished with a velvet glove covering the iron fist of reason than can be accomplished with the iron fist alone, all without giving in to pseudoscience and irrationality. And the stakes are high, as Sagan himself stated:

I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that hss come before. It's perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth...How can we affect national policy--or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives--if we don't grasp the underlying issues?...Plainly, there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beaut¥ and power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain. strongly in our favor.

Indeed we have, although I despair that we'll ever convince the majority that this is true. To that end, we could use another Carl Sagan in these times.


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After reading The Varieties of Scientific Experience, I find it difficult to label Sagan a "Neville Chamberlain evolutionist" or an "appeaser". Eloquent, yes; learned, certainly; kind and considerate, without doubt. You are probably correct that someone drifting around the Interblog might likely call him an "appeaser", but that does not mean such a term is an accurate description of his philosophy.

As Russell Blackford has pointed out, one big problem with NOMA and the various other attempts to "reconcile science and religion" is that they show science supports (or at least fails to conflict with) some type of belief system which is not what the Western world calls religion. It is no use, Blackford writes,

putting an argument that something quite different from the normal concept of religion can justifiably be called "religion", and then arguing that this is compatible with science. What a let down! Secondly, the argument for using the word "religion" in this way is appallingly weak. We might as well use the word "autocracy" to describe the study of government on the ground that, historically, most governments have been autocratic. The fact is that modern ethical philosophy is often non-religious or anti-religious, and it is insulting to thinkers such as Parfit or Peter Singer to adopt terminology that suggests they are really playing the religion game.

If we consider the pursuit of knowledge via reason, observation and criticism to be a spiritual duty, then science and religion become one and the same. Sagan's work is replete with statements supporting the spiritual value of scientific knowledge. Moreover, we could even call science an organized religion: the scientific community is certainly a large, semi-orderly collection of people bent on gaining knowledge, an act which we have deemed spiritual.

A Taoist might find this view entirely natural. However, the inescapable fact is that the predominant religions of Western civilization have quite a different mettle. The entire creationism saga is empirical evidence that science and faith do not join well together, the way many people choose to worship. Is the change from "old-time religion" to sophisticated theology as big and troubling a step as that from religion to atheism? I confess that I don't know. My suspicion, based on a childhood in Alabama and a lifetime of history books, is that quasi-Deism can be just as disturbing a notion as outright atheism.

(It is also lamentable that our organized religions have not done a thorough job of living up to their side of the bargain which Sagan described. How many churches teach the children of their parish that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a great man, but one to be emulated? How many preachers advocate following the example of Jesus and overturning the moneychangers' tables within the Temple? Again, I do not know for sure, but I suspect the answer is "Not enough.")

Carl Sagan taught that skepticism must be married to wonder, a lesson we would do well to remember. Nevertheless, after reading the coolly eloquent prose of Varieties, I cannot square Sagan's views with those who proclaim "There is no conflict!"

"All I have to think of is Carl Sagan and his lines in Cosmos about "billions and billions" of stars..."
It's my understanding that his good friend Johnny Carson is the one who actually said the phrase "billions and billions" as a way of poking fun at the way Carl Sagan pronounced the word "billion". Sagan did use the word billion quite a lot, which is why most people think he actually said this.

The phrase "billions upon billions" occurs once, exactly once, in all the episodes of Cosmos. "Billions and billions" didn't enter Sagan's lexicon until he wrote a book with that title, a book whose introduction lays out the blame on Johnny Carson.

Actually, Richard Feynman said "billions and billions" long before Carson put those words in Sagan's mouth.

I noticed this while watching the Messenger Lectures, which Feynman delivered at Cornell in 1964; they screen these each January at MIT, and various university libraries probably have copies (I can't find them online).

In the fifth lecture, Feynman discusses the reversibility of physical laws, the idea that at a basic level, physical interactions look equally valid when seen going forward and going in reverse. Record a movie, conceptually speaking, of two atoms colliding. The collision obeys several principles: momentum is conserved, total energy is conserved and so forth. Now, run the movie through the projector backwards and check the energy and momentum. Lo, the collision when seen in reverse obeys the same natural laws. This is not like our everyday experience, in which wind-up toys run down and people grow old, where a direction of time seems very well defined.

Exploring this question, Feynman raises the point that any familiar object is made of a staggeringly large number of fundamental pieces. A box full of gas contains "billions and billions" of gas atoms.

I checked in The Character of Physical Law, the book made from these Messenger Lectures, and sure enough, "billions and billions" appears just where it should in chapter 5.

sagan may not have said 'billions and billions', but he was certainly fond of the word 'billion' --as i can vouch for, having attended several of his lectures back in the heyday of the viking lander project.

then again, what astronomer would not be fond of the word? it's hard to convey the vastness of the cosmos without using the word 'billion'.
'hundreds' (or even 'millions') just does not convey the point, as gary larson (far side) understood

I think I can sum up your 3 points about Carl Sagan in two words:

Class Act.

Sagan was a 100% Class Act. To me, he was the Cary Grant of Science. Sagan was calm, cool, human, imaginative, relatable. Many people concentrate on one or two of his good traits, but forget that he was, basically, the Whole Package.

By DragonScholar (not verified) on 21 Dec 2006 #permalink

"There is no necessary conflict between science and religion."

On this subject, as so many others, Carl was sadly mistaken. Religion is inherently incompatible with science, and no matter how much rhetoric we expend on wooing the religious, the truth remains: there can be no compromise between faith and rationality, credulity and reason.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 21 Dec 2006 #permalink

The claims that religion is inherently irrational remind me of Robert Conquest's description of the literary world's reaction to science fiction:

'SF's no good,' they bellow till we're deaf.
'But this looks good.' -- 'Well then, it's not SF.'

Caledonian: "Religion is inherently incompatible with science."

Depends on whether you mean politically or epistomologically. Politically science can ally with secular theists well enough. Epistomologically I think its possible to rehabilitate the concept of non-overlapping magesteria, but it would involve religion conceeding a lot of ground, say all falsifiable claims regarding the physical world.

What's left probably wouldn't count as a religion by Western definitions, though it might according to Eastern traditions as they don't draw a distinction between philosophy and religion.