Log in

No account? Create an account

Journal of No. 118

December 20th, 2006

Carlathon @ 09:53 am

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'.
Share  |  |


[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 20th, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC)

separating scince and pseudo-science

Sagan? Satan? Santa? A christmas coincidence? Or deeper plot...

Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to "disprove" quackery because it doesn't base itself on any arguable statements. Science, of course, (as opposed to pseudo-science) has the virtue of being disproveable, but if you try to explain this to the people who listen to crackpots in the first place, the distinction is usually lost.

Often there are problems of mathematical intuition, as well. Non-mathematical people will have a hard time differentiating between a "one-in-a-million" event and a "one-in-the-lifetime-of-the-universe" event. So you can put up a completely valid, accurate, reasonable disproof of some pseudo-scientific claim, and still fail to convince people.

Usually, I suspect, the mind simply balks at trying to condense the enormity of available evidence into arguments convincing to someone who has previously failed to understand said facts. Like, "well, if thousands of examples and scientists can't convince you of the validity of evolutionary theory, and the relative improbability of 'creation-science,' then I don't know how I could improve the situation." And really, even when such people challenge legitimate scientists to debate, I don't think they're really looking for information, so much as a platform. Ditto with the audience. Do we really believe people are going to go in a Velikovskyite and come out an astronomer?
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 20th, 2006 06:26 pm (UTC)
Sagan faces a problem that we still face today: the scientific community viewed him as a "popularizer" and considered him more interested in getting media time than in doing research.

Unfortunately, to make a complicated scientific concept comprehensible, it's often necessary to simplify it. Many, many scientists believe it is better to leave people ignorant than to let them have incomplete or not-technically-exactly-correct knowledge. Unfortunately, public outreach/public engagement is a ful-time job, and scientists who choose to engage in it make a tremendous personal sacrifice that they, themselves, see their own research lag. Rather than acknowledging this sacrifice, many, many scientists look down on those who make this choice as inferior.

Any time any one group of people adopts an attitude of superiority, resentment and derision result, in both directions.

Many people I know knew Carl Sagan personally, and many of them disliked him for personal reasons. But I think we must celebrate his work, not whether or not he was someone we would have wanted to have over for dinner. His work did wonders for getting people interested in learning more about science, which is something we desperately need today.

So, I think I'm speaking for all the Science Education/Outreach workers out there when I say "Hooray for Sagan!"

[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 20th, 2006 07:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, the way 'popularizers' are viewed by the science establishment can be a sticky business, as when Sagan failed to get into the NAS, though I understand that (as you mention) personalities also came into play.

I certainly share your Hooray, though.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 20th, 2006 06:29 pm (UTC)
And on a completely unrelated note, when the Spitzer Space Telescope was launched, it hadn't been named yet (and was known only as "the space infrared telescope facility"). We held a public naming contest to select its final name, but the results weren't allowed to be announced until the mission was confirmed to be operational. So, we had a few months when those of us who were doing the education and outreach knew what the new name would be, but weren't allowed to say anything.

Well, to have some fun with my coworkers, I produced a bunch of logos, letterhead, etc. that said "Sagan Space Telescope" and "forgot" to collect them from the shared printers.

I understand a few Sagan-haters were getting their resumes in order before the joke was exposed. :)
Date:December 21st, 2006 08:29 am (UTC)
Somewhat related note:

I recently got some crap bulletins in Myspace, one of which was this article about a tiger mum who lost her cubs being placated in her depression with pigs wrapped in tiger skin (pigs behind that link).

The link goes to Snopes, however (first place I checked), which says "Photos real, story inaccurate."

I told Myspace friend about this, and she replied with a LOL something to the effect of: "I don't care it's not real, I like the idea of it being real." (emphasis mine)

Which is why the power of story, of urban legend and rumor and gossip and crappy television holds iron rule over the masses; they would rather believe in something cool than know something dull or, worse, complicated.

Of course, since I muck around in lies and fictions as a vocation, I support stories. I just wish they weren't so stridently revered.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 21st, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC)
Yeah, at the very first beginning-of-the-year assembly at Notre Dame Academy, the nun-principal unloaded this Mel Gibson legend on the impressionable girls.
I talked to her about it later and although I hardly expected her to call a new assembly to reveal the truth, she still seemed singularly uninterested in the truth. The truth had no instructional value, but the bullshit was heartwarming and inspiring.
Less than a week into the school year and I began to suspect what a mistake I'd made.

Journal of No. 118