The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Popular & Pilloried:
A Tribute to Carl Sagan

Gregory Benford

Greg Benford is a professor of Physics, U.C. Irvine and the author of Timescape and many other books.

In the early 1990s the national academy of Sciences held its annual election to membership. Richard Feynman had already become so exasperated that he resigned his membership, saying that he saw no point in belonging to an organization that spent most of its time deciding who to let in.

But this time the best known astronomer in the world was nominated. Each section of the Academy votes separately on all candidates, and the astronomy division voted the fellow in. But there were negative votes from other divisions, notably the particle physicists. They disliked his public persona, some said. They complained that he was arrogant and an egomaniac, and said he was really not up to caliber, despite his fame. Clearly, envy played some role. Rumors flew.

Rarely is a candidate turned down, but it happened that time. So it is that Carl Sagan was … not a fellow of our National Academy.

World famous, principally for Cosmos, he had done solid work on planetary atmospheres since the early 1960s. After the National Academy rebuff he increasingly spent his time taking science to the greater world.

Many scientists don’t think much of such endeavors. But the opposite of popularized science, in the long run, is unpopular science.

We see that daily, in the scare-’em-with-science strategies of Hollywood movies, doomcryer personal liability lawyers, environmentalist Chicken Littles, and the many political tribes who seek new threats in every fresh technology. (I make these comments as a member of about half a dozen environmental groups, too.) All these groups have legitimate issues, but the scary aspects of science are played to the hilt — because it works. Metaphorically, I suppose one could say that once we were a nation of Robert Heinlein fans, and now we’re a country of Stephen King readers.

We Americans, once the embodiment of Yankee ingenuity, have a national schizophrenia about science. We love its wonders, hate its threats, dread its manifest power.

Much of this comes from a public that simply doesn’t know much science, or even how scientists think. Films and TV routinely get away with mammoth plot boners. Radiation can create giant insects, or it will make you grow an extra head. Viruses spread instantaneously, even through hard vacuum. Spaceships bank and rumble like fighter planes. Mutations cause super powers — the list goes on.

If only the low levels of media were affected, fine. But we have an administration that just vetoed funding for stem cell research, and a notorious Kansas school board that wants Intelligent Design taught alongside evolution. Codes written by politically-influenced lawyers set contamination standards higher than the purity of rainwater, so nature itself is “polluting” Lake Michigan. Dollars get wasted on absurd safety requirements, while elsewhere people die of want. Politicians consult horoscopes.

What can scientists do about this? Patiently try to get through to the broad public with the truth. Sagan fought this battle well. He provided a step-by-step hypothetical reasoning primer called “the baloney detection kit” that readers could use to evaluate questionable claims. Pseudoscientific concepts such as astrology, crystal healing, and alien abduction were, in Sagan’s view, ultimately mind-numbing appeals to authority. Believe this without evidence; hey, it will make you feel better.

In one of his last books, Sagan resurrected the Enlightenment metaphor of reason as a candle shining into the darkness of the universe, empowering individual human beings to think freely and take control of their own destinies.

But the National Academy insult stung. Carl is gone, but we scientists are left with the problem. Who has replaced him? No major interpreter of astronomy has taken his place. Indeed, there is no widely recognized scientist in our popular discourse. At least we have many good writers about science — E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, John McPhee, Neil Tyson, Stephen Weinberg, Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, others. Note they are mostly biologists and field theory folk, two recently geewhiz subjects. They’re mostly men, too.

But few of these undertake major TV productions, testify before Congress or draw a crowd the way an even minor rock star or politico does. Why?

Partly it’s about skills. Few possess good media savvy. Few invest the time to cultivate those in the media culture. Not many rub shoulders with the culture that equates “intellectual” with “humanism.”

Then there lurks the upper level of science itself, a fairly snooty club mostly based in the east coast. As a graduate student I asked Jacob Bronowski how his television series, The Ascent of Man, had been received at our university, UCSD. “I have the feeling they’d rather I hadn’t,” he said rather crisply. When I asked a prominent particle physicist what would happen if Sagan were alive and came up for an Academy vote again, he said, “The same.”

Unless the culture of research science realizes that it may be a major stumbling block to its own popularity, we’ll remain part of the problem, too.

This article can be found in
Skeptic volume 13 number 1

volume 13 number 1
The Legacy of Carl Sagan

this issue includes: An Interview with Ann Druyan; Science, Religion & Human Purpose; An excerpt from Conversations with Carl; Tributes to Carl Sagan…
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