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Carl Sagan and the Dangers of Skepticism

May. 19, 2015 by | Comments (16)

This is an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50 (published in 2014 inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 19, No. 1), which is a ten-page biography of Sagan emphasizing his work in scientific skepticism. A different short excerpt of another section of this story appeared previously in Skepticblog.

Junior Skeptic is written for (older) children, and does not include endnotes, though I often call out important sources in sidebars or the text of the story itself. However, I’ve included some relevant citations here for your interest:


Cover of Junior Skeptic 50, inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 19, No. 1. (Illustration by Daniel Loxton.)

Carl Sagan cared a lot about kooky, far out, pseudoscientific topics. He knew this was quite unusual. He introduced a book section on these fringe science topics by saying, “The attention given to borderline science may seem curious to some readers. … The usual practice of scientists is to ignore them, hoping they will go away.”1 He wished other scientists would care more, and that they were more willing to share their criticisms in public:

I believe that scientists should spend more time in discussing these issues…. There are many cases where the belief system is so absurd that scientists dismiss it instantly but never commit their arguments to print. I believe this is a mistake.2

So you might imagine Sagan was delighted in the mid-1970s when scientists, philosophers, magicians, and journalists began to come together to study and critique paranormal claims. And indeed, he did embrace this new development—but not without concerns, and not right away.

“Organized” skepticism brought together people who had already been doing skeptical work on their own. Sagan joined forces with Martin Gardner (whose book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science had so influenced Sagan in high school3), magician James Randi (already a thorn in the side of fake psychics) and many others. Skeptics found that their interests went together naturally, because paranormal claims are often similar in many ways. But this did not mean that these skeptics all had the same approach to those related topics!

The Promise and Problems of Organized Skepticism

Organized skepticism’s first project was a statement called “Objections to Astrology.” It was published4 in a magazine in 1975 and mailed to newspapers all over the country. Written by an astronomer Sagan admired, the statement said “there is no scientific foundation” for the idea that the positions of the planets influence our personalities or destiny. Almost two hundred scientists signed the statement, endorsing its blunt conclusion: “We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.” Some of the scientists who signed were Nobel-prizewinners; some were Sagan’s personal friends. Sagan was asked to add his name, too. But he didn’t.

Why not? “I struggled with his wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign,” Sagan reflected, “not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian.” In Sagan’s opinion, the statement didn’t really explain what was wrong with astrology. Instead, it boiled down to a “stuffy dismissal by a gaggle of scientists” who sneered at anyone foolish enough to believe such superstitious nonsense. “What I would have signed,” Sagan said, “is a statement describing and refuting the principal tenets of astrological belief. Such a statement would have been far more persuasive than what was actually circulated and published.”5

Whatever its flaws, “Objections to Astrology” led in 1976 to a conference about skepticism,6 and from that to the creation of North America’s first modern skeptical organization (called CSICOP—the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). With Gardner and Randi and others, Sagan became a founding member. He promoted the group in his books and articles, and he promoted many individual skeptics as well—even if he didn’t always agree with how they went about things.

Sagan believed skeptics “are performing a courageous and essential social service for the rest of us.”7 But he never lost his concern about how skeptics did that work. Skeptics sometimes cut corners in the quality of their research, he warned: “Sometimes it looks as if the skeptical conclusion came…before, not after, the evidence was examined.”8 He also cautioned skeptics strongly against an “us and them” attitude:

You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. This is a potential social danger of an organization like CSICOP. We have to guard carefully against it.9

Sagan considered it not only unhelpful but also unfair when skeptics act “superior and contemptuous.” He added, “I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice.”10 I’ve often wondered if Sagan had a specific occasion in mind as an example. Some skeptics and others have argued that Sagan was not careful enough in his research when he criticized the pseudoscientific theories of Immanuel Velikovsky.11 Some also felt that Sagan was unkind in his 1974 debate with the elderly Velikovsky. Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle said “Sagan wisecracked through the whole ‘debate’…using his verbal skills to ridicule the old man. It was as shameful a thing as I ever saw Carl do.”12 (See Junior Skeptic 49 for the story of Velikovsky’s life.)

Two decades after his debate with Velikovsky, near the end of his life, Sagan called again for kindness. Skepticism can be “heroic,” he said. But we must always remember that:

supporters of superstitions and pseudoscience are human beings with real beliefs, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. … 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.13

  1. Carl Sagan. Broca’s Brain. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.) p. xii
  2. Carl Sagan. “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense At the Edge of Science.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 10., No. 3. Spring, 1986. pp. 224–225 [Excerpted from Broca’s Brain]
  3. See Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World. (New York: Random House, 1996.) pp. 66–69 for Sagan’s description of his first eye-opening exposure to the skeptical literature—Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science—and the impact this had upon his view of the world.
  4. Bok et al. “Objections to Astrology.” The Humanist, Volume XXXV No. 5, September/October, 1975. pp. 4–6
  5. Sagan (1996.) pp. 302–304
  6. The 1976 annual American Humanist Association conference, titled “The New Irrationalisms: Antiscience and Pseudoscience.” It took place in Buffalo, New York, April 30–May 1, 1976. For details, see Kendrick Frazier. “From the Editor’s Seat: Thoughts on Science and Skepticism in the Twenty-First Century (Part One).” Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 25, No. 3. May/June, 2001. pp. 46–47. See also Kendrick Frazier’s 1996 history of CSICOP, which was published originally in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, edited by Gordon Stein (Amherst, New York: Prometheus books, 1996).
  7. Carl Sagan. “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” Parade, February 1, 1987. pp. 10–11
  8. Sagan (1996.) p. 297
  9. Carl Sagan. “The Burden of Skepticism.” Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 12.1, Fall 1987. pp. 41–42
  10. Sagan (1996.) p. 297
  11. See for example Philip Plait. Bad Astronomy. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.) pp. 184–185
  12. Jerry Pournelle. “The Velikovsky Affair and Other Musings.” (Accessed May 18, 2015)
  13. Sagan (1996.) p. 298
Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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