Once in a while, I fantasize about writing a book called ‘Sagan: Demon in a Candle-lit World’.
Like most people who know who Carl is, I first ran across him through his Cosmos series. Right out of the chute, he lost me – as an enthusiastic amateur, I found that, contrary to the claims and awards, Cosmos was not trying in any sense to popularize science. Instead, through it Carl was attempting to popularize the mindless worship and herd-like acquiescence of us little people to whatever it is that the dude in the lab coat on wants to say. We were being taught to meekly worship Carl.
Don’t believe me? Try this experiment: watch any segment of Cosmos, and pick an item in it of at least moderate complexity that you already independently understand. Now, imagine that you don’t understand it, and are relying on Dr. Sagan to explain it to you.
Well? Could you actually understand it based on what Carl said if you didn’t already understand it? 30 years ago, I found myself yelling at the TV during every episode – what? Carl! You just glossed over all the fits and starts, all the arguments, all the uncertainties, all the caveats, all the insane math, and just presented relativity, say, or evolution, or any other fascinating, complex, difficult science as if it sprang Athena-like from the massive, throbbing, Zeus -like forehead of SCIENCE in the form of guys like you.
If you want to promote Science, what you’d need to discuss is all the tedious experiments, all the false starts, all the nasty math, all the former scientific ‘consensuses’ that were stone cold certainties at the time that just happened to be wrong. You’d have to touch on all the in-fighting, all the petty rivalries, all the egomania moments that make up the real history of science, and are alive and well today. Nope, Carl wasn’t interested in all *that* – for one thing, it’s really hard to make that kind of stuff popular, and Carl, above all, wanted to be popular.
I believe that, far from belittling science, knowing the gory details helps one appreciate just how wonderful science is. When what seems like a crazy theory – plate tectonics, say, or relativity, or the revolution of the earth on its axis – a theory that defies what seems to be obviously true – turns out to be demonstrated as true based on a growing mountain of observation, experiment and argument, and over the egos and back-stabbing and pettiness of the people involved – well, THAT’s a triumph to celebrate. But science as presented by Sagan – we enlightened few, harmoniously united by our pure love of the Truth, who for completely selfless reasons, and armed with nothing but argument and integrity, battle the execrable ignorance of the unwashed, superstitious Many, eventually leading them, however dull and imperfectly, to accept the Brave New World we scientists have, despite their opposition, created for them – gag me.
It gets worse. I’ve read more than once someone call Sagan a ‘great scientist’. You mean, like Einstein, Faraday, and Newton? Guys whose contributions to science reverberate to this day and are incorporated into technologies used daily around the world? THAT kind of ‘great scientist’? The dude was a college professor and tireless self promoter who, even according to his fans, made only trivial, work-a-day contributions to his field such as any competent college professor of astronomy might make. What’s more, and more telling, his name is attached to at least two very dubious bits of pseudoscience – SETI and Nuclear Winter. In the first case, he championed the Drake Equation – a hopeless bit of fantasy masquerading as science, and in the second, he championed conclusions which the science itself hardly supported. At best, Nuclear Winter is an alarming theory that *might* happen IF a huge number of unknowns were determined to simultaneously fall toward the worse-case end of the spectrum. In both cases, Carl championed causes that not only did not improve our scientific understanding but concretely set the standard for using smoke and mirrors to promote political agendas.
But these projects sure did raise Sagan’s public profile.
All this should be enough to thoroughly discredit the guy among people with any understanding of the topic at all, but there’s more: Sagan also consistently and willfully misrepresented history to further his aims. The history snippets one gets in Cosmos and Demon-Haunted World are, to say the least, not unbiased. Bluntly, Sagan, through both omission and commission, lies like a rug. The way he tells the stories of Hypatia and Galileo are perhaps the most egregious example, but a pall of unreality hangs over his story-telling – scientists are pure and good, Christians are tainted and evil. Christians must own up to and be whipped for every witch-burner, every conquistador, every moment of failure. Scientists get a pass for Galileo’s mule-headed arrogance, Newton’s petty snobbery, Nazi and Soviet scientists’ many ‘contributions’ to the cause – no, no, see those guys acted on their own, they were victims of their age and political environments, they weren’t really scientists, etc.
On the contrary, the real glory in Religion and its child, Science, lies in how they each so often overcome the pettiness, jealousies, rages, greed, lusts and egomania of us fallen humans. The real story is always much more interesting and tragicomic than what Sagan and his spawn would like us to believe.