Today is the 10-year anniversary of Carl Sagan's death, and many science-minded sorts in the blogosphere are marking the occasion by posting tributes to the late, great host of Cosmos and ardent debunker of pseudoscience. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy and the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach (Achenblog) are just two whose tributes are worth perusing. (Achenbach, author of Captured by Aliens, among his many other tomes, was one of the last people to interview Sagan while he was still alive.) No doubt there will be hundreds of others throughout the day. I never had the honor of meeting Sagan, and never saw a single episode of Cosmos. Nonetheless, he touched my life in a profound way.
I've mentioned my fundamentalist Christian upbringing before. Forget Cosmos, we listened to The 700 Club every morning over breakfast;
my childhood is filled with memories of Pat Robertson's smugly
confident doomsday pronouncements. It doomed me to being chronically uncool: for instance, I didn't discover the bulk of secular rock music until I got to
college, having been limited to contemporary Christian fare all through
high school. (One of my more embarrassing utterances, at the ripe old age of 22: "I just discovered this great band -- they're called The Who!") And it put me at a decided disadvatage when it came to skeptical thought. Let's just say that while my parents were strong proponents of a good education as a means of advancement in the world -- my father was the first member of his family to earn a college degree (in civil engineering), attending Tufts courtesy of the GI bill -- this often conflicted with their religious beliefs and practices. What was accepted in the context of a science classroom didn't always fly within the walls of our nice suburban home. There, superstition tended to outweigh scientific fact.
Speaking in tongues (glossalalia), being slain in the spirit, book burnings, bible studies, and the certainty of an unseen world filled with demons and angels, battling it out for the souls of men, were accepted "realities" in my house. When I was 13, my cousin (who was living with us at the time) became convinced there was a demon in her bedroom, prompting a gathering of the church elders one evening to perform an exorcism. Even back then, I had my doubts as to the veracity of her claim. It's not like her head was spinning around or anything, she just kept seeing things in the dark whenever she tried to go to sleep. Normal people would chalk it up to nightmares and a vivid imagination. My own childish imagination conjured up werewolves lurking in the shadows of my own bedroom. These "visions" were rightly dismissed as nonsense and the product of an over-active imagination after watching a (forbidden) late-night horror movie. Werewolves didn't exist. But an invisible demon that only my cousin could see? Now that had the ring of truth to it!
Given that context, it's rather a miracle that I ended up becoming a science writer, isn't it? The metamorphosis didn't happen overnight. My salvation lay in the fact that I was a voracious reader. My reading exposed me to all kinds of dangerous new ideas that contradicted the things I'd been told by church elders, which is probably why I began to question the assumptions of my religious upbringing early on... although I wisely kept my doubts to myself at the time. (Those who would call me a coward have no concept of the kind of pressure brought to bear on doubters and blasphemers in devoutly fundamentalist circles, all in the name of saving your soul. A shy, timid high schooler had little chance of withstanding it.)
Those doubts solidified into outright skepticism in college, leading to an eventual renunciation of my former religious beliefs. But I didn't have anything meaningful with which to replace that lost faux-faith, something to help me make sense of the world without resorting to invisible demons and angels. By a stroke of luck, I stumbled into science writing and discovered a new way of looking at the world -- or rather, rediscovered it, since I'd always done well in science; there had just been a profound disconnect between classroom science and the "real" world because of my bizarre upbringing (and some less than stellar science teachers). Somewhere along the road of my intellectual development, I read The Demon-Haunted World, and suddenly all these disparate threads crystallized into a coherent whole. Sagan entered my consciousness much later than most, but his impact was no less profound.
Sagan has left a bit of a mixed legacy, I think. The good news is that his example inspired countless others to try and follow in his footsteps, so there are that many more voices crying out in the wilderness, vigorously denouncing superstition and pseudoscience. The bad news is, all those voices don't seem to have made much of a dent in the overall level of willful ignorance. Far too many members of the general public persist in clinging to their unscientific beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming factual evidence to the contrary. You don't have to look much farther than the never-ending Creationism/Intelligent design debate to see that. Why is this? Why was Sagan so successful and beloved by the public, when many others seeking to do the same are resented and vilified?
I think it's because Sagan never lost his sense of wonder; he was much more excited about sharing that aspect than about simply poking holes in pseudoscience. My favorite chapter in The Demon-Haunted World was titled, "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder," where Sagan writes about how science needs to maintain an essential balance between a ruthless scrutiny of all ideas (old and new) and an openness to new ideas. Skepticism is the means by which science winnows the wheat from the chaff; "The vast majority of ideas are simply wrong," Sagan admits. But time dilation and length contraction in special relativity, quantum tunneling, and (more recently) the discovery that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating are all bizarre, counter-intuitive notions in science that turned out to be right (based on accumulated evidence to date). His key insight:
"If you're only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries at the borderlines of science are rare, experiences will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you're too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you're going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way, you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere skepticism is not enough."
Science has its own internal "demons," you see; its practitioners can be just as narrow-minded and resistant to change as any other human being -- and as mean-spirited. I appreciate a good debunking as much as the next person, but too often, people think slapping the headline "Bad Science!" on a piece of snide, condescending finger-pointing is all that's required. It can be entertaining in the short term, especially if the author is clever, but it's basically little more than a cheap shot. No wonder it's not very effective as a communication tool in the longer term. Nobody likes being treated like a recalcitrant canine: "No! Drop it, Caesar! Bad Dog!" People just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and dismiss those cranky, arrogant science types out of hand. And the would-be debunkers find themselves merely preaching to the converted.
Sagan never took cheap shots; he didn't indulge in public ridicule or name-calling, and was gracious in the face of criticism directed his way -- without ever being weak, mind you. His debunking was thoughtful, thorough, carefully worded, and he offered the wonders of real science in place of the silly pseudostuff. People responded accordingly. That's what made him the best loved (thus far) public face of science, and why even ten years later, he is sorely missed, by both scientists and the general public alike.