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.


Lance said...

The suggestion that Sagan controlled the entire scientific world is unfortunate hyperbole. it may comfort you, if UFO's are your religion, but it certainly isn't true.

Any number of real scientists would have jumped at the chance to outdo Sagan. But none of them would ever consider UFO's as ripe territory. It offers nothing to anyone with an understanding of what constitutes evidence.

There isn't a conspiracy to keep anyone from researching UFO's. There just isn't anything to research (except perhaps a study of human gullibility). The evidence is just so much piffle.

That said, I love the blog! :)

Lance Moody

Lance said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
purrlgurrl said...

Sagan certainly had charisma. After all, he was a TV star and best-selling author. But I remember reading that in the serious scientific community (that is, among those who didn't court the cameras and still devoted their time to actual research rather than developing entertainment industry projects) his work wasn't very highly regarded. He was more media darling than scientist for the greater part of his career. He seemed charming and magnetic at the time (I was in awe of him), but after re-watching the old, original Cosmos series now, he seems supercilious and a little full of himself. I guess age brings the ability to better discern our idols' feet of clay. Now, when someone cites Sagan in an argument, it carries little or no weight for me. Sagan said what would get him coverage and ensure he kept getting invited on newscasts to give the "expert" opinion. I'm afraid de Grasse Tyson has chosen that same road.

Terry the Censor said...

Yeah, Mark, you are overdoing it, making Sagan seem like a powerful wizard who single-handedly suppressed UFO research. You musn't fall so easily into the special pleading of the UFO buff: they whine that the lack of UFO evidence is never the fault of those looking for aliens, it's always the fault of those who aren't looking for aliens. It makes no sense.

But, like PG, I don't really get the Sagan idolatry in the skeptical community either. And I don't like Dawkins, for that matter. I am more comfortable with skeptical philosophers, I guess. They are funnier.

Mark UFO'Connell said...

Nice to see the comments, but Lance now I'm always going to wonder what you deleted!

Perhaps I shouldn't have characterized Sagan's power as being so absolute, but I've read and watched a lot of Sagan material for my Hynek book, and what I always see is a relentless need in him to shut down anyone who has anything sensible or authentic about UFOs, and to do so in the meanest, most callous way possible. And when he's sparring with Hynek, it's not hard to see the dollar signs behind his reasoning... It must have galled Sagan that the University of Colorado got that 6-figure grant for the Condon Committee project when it could have been put to better use on Sagan's work!

Mark UFO'Connell said...

Someone oh Facebook mentioned to me that Sagan's name is 'nagas' backwards, and that maybe he was a reptoid disinformation agent... It would explain a lot.

Lance said...

Hi Mark,

I somehow posted the same message twice.

And even as precious as my golden words are, I thought it best to delete the copy.