High Strangeness: The Problematic Carl Sagan

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Problematic Carl Sagan

The other night I had dinner with a bunch of writer, filmmaker, actor and otherwise creative friends, and I was talking about my J. Allen Hynek book project with Cxxx, a documentary filmmaker. I mentioned that I was trying to track down a video copy of the November 8, 1973 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, but wasn't having any luck so far...

The episode of this classic American TV talk show is important to my book research because it brought together Dr. Hynek, Dr. Carl Sagan, best-selling author and creator of the PBS TV series "Cosmos," recent UFO abductee Charles Hickson, recent UFO witness and helicopter pilot Army Capt. Lawrence Coyne and UFO witness and NASA astronaut James McDivitt to talk about the "flap" of UFO sightings that had been sweeping the nation for months. The program is perhaps most notable for bringing Hynek and Sagan together, as Hynek had become known as a proponent of serious UFO research and Sagan had become known as a proponent of serious UFO skepticism.

Sagan had been systematically picking holes in Capt. Coyne's account of how a UFO had pulled his Army helicopter up nearly 2,000 feet in altitude during his encounter, and Dr. Hynek came to Coyne's defense, saying "Altimeters don't hallucinate." To which Dr. Sagan replied, "I don't mean to attack Captain Coyne, but people who read altimeters hallucinate."

Ouch... That had to have left a mark.

So at dinner, my friend Cxxx asked what TV network the show had appeared on. Turns out that in his work making documentary films, he frequently requests archival footage from TV networks, and they happily oblige. So he's offered to approach ABC and request access to this episode of The Dick Cavett Show... which is just amazing. Thank you, Cxxx!

My best idea up to that point had been to write to Dr. Sagan's widow and ask if she had a copy of the show that she could give me access to, but that was a tricky letter. How could I explain that I wanted to see the video so I could write in my book what a knob her husband had been to everyone on the show? Clearly that wasn't going to work, so I just wrote her a very bland, generic letter. I think Cxxx's approach is better.
Why is Carl Sagan smiling? Maybe because he thinks he knows exactly when extraterrestrial civilizations have visited the earth.
So, yeah, I'm conflicted. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for both Dr. Hynek and Dr. Sagan, and I hate to see them fight. But here's why Sagan's disdain for the UFO experience is so problematic. He believed that life almost certainly must exist elsewhere in the universe. And he believed that at least some life on other planets must be technologically advanced and capable of interstellar travel. And he believed that some of those civilizations could very well have visited earth in the distant past. But he ridiculed people who believed that they were still visiting the earth in 1973...

His logic was that the time and distance between our world and theirs must be so great that they would only visit us every couple hundred thousand years or so. But it seems to me that he was making some very big assumptions there, and engaging in what Dr. Hynek was fond of describing as "temporal provincialism," or the belief that an alien race would have to be locked into the same developmental timeline as we are.

I love you Carl, but I think you blew it on this one. I don't mean to attack you, but people who accuse people of reading altimeters of hallucinating hallucinate.

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