My Sagan Obsession

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.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

11 thoughts on “My Sagan Obsession”

  1. I’ve long found Nuclear Winter to be a load of polemical hooey and very much a testing of the waters for current Global Warming dogma, but I’m not sure what your gripe with the Drake Equation is. Do you not consider it a logical collection of the variables involved in estimating the extent of intelligent life? The lack of firm bases for estimating those variables is another matter entirely, as is the political baggage associated with the last variable — lifespan of a technological civilization, often discussed in terms of the likelihood of a technological civilization destroying itself via war, pollution, overpopulation, or other cause for activist handwringing.

    (My wife is a Johnnie, by the way, and having attended some seminars at Annapolis I consider myself sort of an honorary one).

    1. Look at it this way: if the Drake Equation was only presented as the idle speculation it most definitely is, then no one would ever have heard of it.

      Yet, its proponents don’t say: Here, we’ve taken a crack at identifying the theoretical variables needed to say how common intelligent life is in the universe – of course, it’s all meaningless until we find some other non-Terran intelligent life so that we can put some realish numbers on those variables, at which point, with real alien intelligences to think about, no one will be interested in some silly equation – um, never mind.

      No, instead, they – Sagan first among them – say: Look! the universe is positively lousy with intelligent species! Our equation here PROVES it no matter what entirely baseless positive non-zero values we use for the variables! Pay no attention to Fermi and his totally inconvenient yet hard to dispute ‘paradox’.

      Bottom line: there’s no probability of a second occurrence of a unique event – you need multiple occurrences to establish anyt probability at all. To pretend otherwise is scientifically disgraceful.

  2. Carl Sagan was a hophead in the same vein as Timothy Leary… Just try to watch any Cosmos with out hearing “Far out, Man” in the back of your mind. It puts me to sleep.

  3. “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.”

    This may be your personal belief, but I think actual climate scientists would disagree–as far as I know, all the recent attempts to model a nuclear winter scenario with climate models have shown drops in temperature that would be disastrous for human civilization. See the “consequences” and “recent modeling” sections of wikipedia’s nuclear winter article for details.

  4. I’ve thought of his unique viewpoints as a wake up call to those who had not been exposed to science at all.
    The first person to show you a new piece of beauty should be honored for that act. To worship them is perhaps a childlike step on the way to greater understanding?

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