High Strangeness: The Sagan Factor

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Sagan Factor

I've been reading Carl Sagan's book "The Demon-Haunted World" (1995, Random House), and it's been a mostly frustrating experience.

Because Sagan was Dr. J. Allen Hynek's colleague and adversary for so many years, I thought it would be a good idea to read the book in which Sagan really let loose on UFOs and other pseudosciences. I admit, it's very readable, and Sagan can tell a good story. I even admit that, on a certain level, I can respect his refusal to consider the reality of the UFO phenomenon due to the lack of indisputable physical evidence. I have been a Sagan fan for a long time and always will be.


At the same time I really have a hard time with his strident insistence that science can explain everything, and that anything that science can't explain isn't worth knowing because it simply isn't real. I also don't appreciate his condescending attitude towards anyone who believes something that can't be proven to his standards...

Why those rocks couldn't have come from space! It's preposterous!
Dr. Hynek had a favorite expression when he talked about the scientific establishment's refusal to entertain any new ideas. He would describe what he called "temporal provincialism," and remind scientists that there will be a scientific orthodoxy 100 years from now, 200 years from now, 500 years from now, and those future scientists will chuckle over the things that 20th & 21st century scientists dismissed as ridiculous and impossible... After all, he would remind his colleagues, the scientists of 200 years ago refused to believe that rocks fell out of the sky. The bodies that we now know as meteorites were thought back then to be "rocks struck by lightning."

Dr. Sagan should have taken the hint.

Then today I came a cross a link to a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson laying the smackdown on people who believe that UFOs are alien spaceships, and naturally he was every bit as annoying as his mentor Sagan (although he does have a funny -- and pretty fair -- line about saucer crashes: "Don't tell me you came across the galaxy and can't land on earth. Go home!")

It took me a while, but I finally realized what bothers me about Sagan's attitude... First he would say "I refuse to believe that UFOs are real until you give me solid proof," but then he would turn around and use his immense clout in the scientific world to make sure that no one could do any real scientific research of the phenomenon. By shaming any scientists who dared to consider doing any UFO research, and then strenuously lobbying against any funding being spent on UFO research if anyone in the scientific establishment ever did stand up to him, he all but ensured that the proof he demanded would never be found.

That's what annoys me about Carl Sagan.

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