20 years ago today a brilliant science communicator died.
Over the last few months I’ve been seeing Carl Sagan’s words in my tiny corner of the internet, particularly his warnings of where we’d go if we ignorance and pseudo-science reigns.
Sagan was a scientist, an author and a presenter. He was a huge figure in science communication, perhaps best known for the documentary Cosmos based on his book of the same title.
He was a great advocate of skepticism. True skepticism, that is. The term has been pirated by so-called ‘denialists’ — people opposing one or other well-established scientific result or science-based practice, such as anthropocentric* climate change or vaccination.
The quotes I’m seeing in my Facebook stream and on Twitter are from his writing encouraging strong skepticism.
Not unexpectedly sharing them has been fueled by statements by Trump and his increasingly odd selection of administrators.
They’re also useful guards against more ordinary, everyday challenges. Health claims on products, for example.
Sagan is very quotable. At GoodReads, there are over 30 pages of Sagan quotes (admittedly with some duplication). Here are a few from the first ten pages for your thoughts. The first I’ve yet to see in my online feeds. I’ve marked those from his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark with an asterisk at the end of the quote.
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially [in] a kind of celebration of ignorance”*
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”*
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”*
“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
“The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”*
“But, Jefferson worried that the people – and the argument goes back to Thucydides and Aristotle – are easily misled. He also stressed, passionately and repeatedly, that it was essential for the people to understand the risks and benefits of government, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in the political process.
Without that, he said, the wolves will take over.”*
On skeptical thinking –
“Keeping an open mind is a virtue—but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out.”*
“I don’t want to believe. I want to know.”
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
“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.”
“There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”*
“I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world’s birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: ‘What did you expect the Moon to be, square?’ Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that we don’t know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile?”*
“In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”*
“You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep seated need to believe”
“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.
If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.
On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.”
“There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.”
On science –
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes–an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”*
“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”
“I don’t think science is hard to teach because humans aren’t ready for it, or because it arose only through a fluke, or because, by and large, we don’t have the brainpower to grapple with it. Instead, the enormous zest for science that I see in first-graders and the lesson from the remnant hunter-gatherers both speak eloquently: A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places, and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future.”*
“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”
“My wonder button is being pushed all the time.”
“Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists – although heavy on the wonder side and light on scepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question’.
But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts’. By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little scepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers.”
On life in general, because I thought these were fun –
“It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, there’s a couple lying naked in bed reading Encyclopediea Brittannica to each other, and arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more ‘numinous’ than the Ressurection. Do they know how to have a good time, or don’t they?”
“You are worth about 3 dollars worth in chemicals.” (That you’ll have to adjust for currency and inflation! And changing market values.)
“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of magic.”
“Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.” (Resonant for a traveller. Friends will know.)
I’ve left out the Cosmos quotes, although I know many are fond of them. Me too, but my focus here is on more current affairs. Let me make just one exception a real favourite: “We are all star stuff.”
I’ve also left out the quotes related to religion.
Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. (I’m in Cyprus at the moment, so I’m looking to the northern hemisphere.) That Sagan died on a notable day in the astronomical calendar seems appropriate.
There’s a lovely memoir by his daughter, Sasha, at the New York Times, Lessons in Mortality and Immortality From My Father, Carl Sagan.
* Usually, and more correctly, anthropogenic, but I’m leaving it — see this comment, below, and my reply.
The feature image is the Butterfly Nebula, nebula NGC 6302. The ‘wings’ are gas clouds at 20,000˚C exploding at more than 950 000 kilometres per hour. The explosion has been going for about 2200 years, reaching over 2 light years in width. More about this image and the nebula can be read on the Hubble Space Telescope website. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team