No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118


Joel Schlosberg announced a Carl Sagan blogathon in memory of this tenth anniversary of Sagan's death.
Dr. Sagan had a varied career that was simultaneously wide and deep. He became a cultural icon with Cosmos in 1980. His face was as well-known as any rock star's, and though he seemed to enjoy the limelight, I'm sure he would have preferred that people remembered the science and wonder he was presenting rather than his hairdo and jacket. For an 11-year-old nerd like me, Cosmos may not have introduced me to physics and astronomy, but it certainly helped to cement that interest.
Apart from the fame of television, Sagan also popularized science through his many books.
Apart from popular science, he was also, of course, a first-rate and productive scientist, particularly in planetary science.
Apart from science, he also dabbled in science fiction with Contact.
Apart from science fiction, he also dabbled in science fraud, and that's the avenue I'll pursue here.

In 1976, Sagan was one of the founding members of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (which has very recently shortened its name to CSI: Miami. Er, CSI: the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). Sagan is commonly credited with the saying "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," which is true no less in science than in any other walk of life, including the tangled nest of the paranormal.
Two years before CSICOP, however, Sagan was involved in inviting Immanuel Velikovsky to address the AAAS meeting in San Francisco, 1974. Now, I probably have to set the stage here a little bit.
Dr. Velikovsky is most famous for having written the book Worlds in Collision in 1950 as well as developing the theory presented within it. WIC is truly an amazing book. The solar system is a bustling hive of activity with actual collisions of planets and Venus being born in the form of a comet out of Jupiter. Biblical and other mythical sources are used as evidence, yet the book is not some sort of Young Earth Creationist-style defense of the literal truth of the Bible. Almost the contrary, it is a sort of quasi-scientific explanation for myths recorded by ignorant peoples. But is it real science? No. It is crazy pseudoscience. (ok, my journalistic neutrality has been shattered.)
But Velikovsky sold a lot of books, gathered a lot of followers and sold a lot more books. The astronomical community ignored him as a crackpot. Sagan (among others) thought that the theory should be debated at the AAAS. As organizer Owen Gingerich (who wrote a book I favorably reviewed) noted: “I remember two reasons for organizing it. First the Velikovsky supporters were arguing that scientists were close-minded and unwilling to listen to their good arguments, and we felt something should be done to defuse this claim by giving them a public platform. Secondly, and for me more important, my students were hearing a lot of pro-Velikovsky news, and no respectable astronomers were willing to take the time of day to explain to the general public why they didn’t take his scenario seriously.”

Now this, to my mind, is science and skepticism done right. If some sort of pseudoscience is gaining ground, one cannot sit in the ivory tower and ignore it. Although some feared that Velikovsky would gain prestige by his theories being seriously addressed at a scientific conference (and there is some validity to these fears), I think the use of open and honest debate and confrontation are more than worthwhile. Scientists must always avoid the appearance of being cloistered monks or priests, regurgitating dogma and ignoring or fearing challenge. If fact and observation are on the side of science, then why not demonstrate it? If fact and observation are not on the side of current scientific theory, then the only way to progress is to examine the discrepancy.

At any rate, a symposium was arranged with seven speakers, including Velikovsky and Sagan. The symposium was by far the most popular event at the conference: nearly 1500 people showed up. Science Fiction author Jerry Pournelle's website quotes David Morrison's recollections of the event and criticism of some of Sagan's points. (Morrison himself is a winner of the Sagan Medal). Lynne E Rose has provided a transcript of the symposium (excluding the published papers themselves).

Now what was the upshot? Sagan was popularly regarded as having vanquished Velikovsky, though there is little doubt that Sagan played to the audience (particularly the media) somewhat shamelessly. But unlike a slain dragon, Velikovsky did not go away. Morrison says that Velikovsky's followers grew even more fervent (perhaps somewhat in the manner described by When Prophecy Fails, a classic read BTW). Velikovsky died in 1979. And yet, there are still plenty of Velikovskians. Perhaps tellingly, the name 'Sagan' will provoke an almost bloodthirsty response in most of them. And many have endlessly rehashed the 1974 meeting decades later, seeking to depict Velikovsky as the winner and Sagan as Satan.
So was the conference a failure after all? I don't think so. Velikovsky has descended into the world of crankery. Crankery is immortal. One cannot beat it, but one must face it. Stephen Jay Gould took biologists to task for not facing creationism, and (although creationism has an obvious source of popular appeal that Velikovsky didn't have) creationism continues to be a source of debate and conflict at the highest levels of government and society. Science cannot hope to 'beat' creationism and make it vanish, but direct confrontation could send it into the lunatic fringe, where it can no longer affect our schoolboards. To quote Gingerich again: "I don’t think there was any effort to convert the hard-core Velikovskyites, but simply to make arguments available to a broad general public."

But I'll let Carl have the last few words:

"Science is still one of my chief joys. The popularization of science that Isaac Asimov did so well-the communication not just of the findings but of the methods of science-seems to me as natural as breathing. After all, when you're in love, you want to tell the world. The idea that scientists shouldn't talk about their science to the public seems to me bizarre."

"A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable."

"Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense."

"There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That's perfectly all right; they're the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny."

Thanks, Carl, for 'all that is or ever was or ever will be'.
Tags: blog, science, skepticism

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