Sunday, April 23, 2017

"How Carl Sagan Ruined Science"

Via Twitter:  I am a Carl Sagan fan from way back. His 1980 TV miniseries “Cosmos” hit me at just the right age and inflamed a lifelong love of science. But we’ve had nearly 40 years to assess the long-term effects and see how Sagan unwittingly contributed to a trend that muddled public understanding of science. This weekend’s so-called “March for Science” is a perfect example of what went wrong.

All you really need to know about the “March for Science” is that it is scheduled for Earth Day. The organizers may say the march is nonpartisan and has a variety of goals, but it’s mostly just about global warming. It’s not just about whether global warming is actually happening, or whether it is caused by human activity, but about a specific political program for dealing with global warming.

To be sure, there are other goals involved in the march and some contention, even among the organizers, about the extent to which the march should embrace causes like “diversity.” So the goals run the gamut from the left to the far-left. And that’s the problem. The “March for Science” is an attempt to equate the Left’s political goals with Science Itself, claiming the intellectual and moral authority of science for the Left’s agenda.

You can see why they would want to do that. The Left’s latest worker’s paradise—this time in Venezuela—is finishing up the usual devolution into mass poverty, starvation, dictatorship, chaos, and gang warfare. Given this ongoing track record of destruction, the Left has to seize on the illusion of moral authority however it can.

This is an old campaign—the Communists used to claim that they represented “scientific socialism”—but its modern form was largely shaped by Sagan, by way of “Cosmos.” He is remembered as a great popularizer of science, explaining the achievements of physics, mathematics, and astronomy in glowing, inspirational terms. But he faced the basic problem of all such popularizers.

Science has its own unique language and methods: the language of mathematics and a method of systematic observation and experimentation. The reason science tends to be opaque to the public is because it ultimately requires that they understand its language and learn to use its methods. But how do you communicate the history and meaning of science to those who don’t yet speak its language? You turn science into something they can understand. You make it into a narrative, a story.

Sagan mostly turned it into a story about brave and honest scientific pioneers fighting against the forces of superstition and obscurantism. He made it into a narrative of good guys versus bad guys, of the forces of light and progress against closed-minded reactionaries. This was sometimes oversimplified, but it wasn’t entirely wrong; the religious authorities who persecuted Galileo definitely weren’t the good guys. But Sagan fell into the temptation to make this narrative about science fit just a little too closely with the agenda of conventional late-twentieth-century liberalism, so he used “Cosmos” as a platform for the Cold War-era moral equivalence of the “anti-nuclear” movement and homilies about environmentalism.

“Cosmos” is an interesting intellectual time capsule, because it was broadcast just at the point when predictions of global environmental catastrophe were tipping between global cooling and global warming. So he presented the two as equally likely scenarios that required further study (and, of course, massive government funding).

But he dropped his guard at this point, forgot his own admonitions about following the evidence wherever it leads, and indulged the conceit that science would just happen to line up neatly with his own political preferences. What he didn’t do was entertain the possibility that human beings aren’t destroying the planet or cruising toward planetary catastrophe. He did not even consider this null hypothesis as a possibility.

It was a glaring hole in scientific objectivity, and it set the path for the popularizers of science who would follow in his footsteps. He had fixed the narrative in place, and they followed it.

(Link to more)


ndspinelli said...

Sagan always struck me as a child molester.

chickelit said...

Sagan was a bit of a fraud. His "best known work" was supposedly in abiogenesis (according to two dubious references in his Wiki bio). This work appears wholly derivative of the classic work by Miller and Urey a decade earlier. The latter synthesized amino acids from the chemical elements and sparks. Note that Urey -- who personally knew Sagan -- came out against Sagan when he came up for tenure review at Harvard. That was a rare move on Urey's part.

I never looked up to Sagan. Men like Linus Pauling and, before him, the long-forgotten Fredrick Soddy were true pioneer scientists turned social warrior.

I think a major problem today in science education is that kids are taught the overarching social goals before being encouraged to foster curiosity and doubt.

edutcher said...

Sagan was a big nucular winter, global warming type and a professional atheist, to boot.

ndspinelli said...

Wasn't Sagan a gay?

Evi L. Bloggerlady said...

Rumors was he was very, very gay...

ndspinelli said...

LOL! Evi, you consistently have some of the funniest links. You have a great sense of humor.

Chip Ahoy said...

I loved that show and bought the book (rather crap compared to the show). Watched the show multiple times. Know it by heart.

How I loved it so.

Back then.

But I always wondered throughout why Carl Sagan wasn't merely atheist through the show, not just not religious, but actually anti-religion. Sagan attacks religion throughout the series. He makes an analogy at the beginning about believers conceiving the universe as giant clockwork. The universe viewed as a mechanical clock implies a clockmaker. But what would happen if you took away the clock maker and settled on having just the clock? And besides, the universe is not a clock.

Religious thought and religious characters are the villains through the series. We get it, we get it, we get it, Carl Sagan does not like religion. To Sagan religion is anti-science and it's simple as that.

While in the series Carl Sagan adapts the forms and the propaganda methods of organized religion and he does that very obviously.

His Ship of the Imagination (what a fantastic contrivance), a dandelion puff ball that he blows off its stalk, rather TARDIS-like by being larger inside than outside, is a time and space ship with cathedral dimensions and unreasonably large porthole windows in copy of stained glass windows and the ship, although entirely white inside, looks like a church with a pulpit for pilot controls and its own altar and altar art, its oversized view-screen.

The theory of evolution is reeled off beautifully with animation and serves as the church's catechism, read to rising crescendo accompanied by spiritually inspiring new age electronic music.

See, Carl Sagan is against the church while copying the ways of the church while initiating his own little church of the religion of science.

Picked up decades later by a weaker, phonier and less capable shadow of Carl Sagan, acolyte Neil deGrasse Tyson. Overpaid. Overly regarded. And exceedingly unnecessarily antagonistic. So he gets punched back. A lot. Because he's dumb.

(Reinforcing my point about Sagan turning science into religion by adopting the surfaces of religion, looking for spelling of deGrasse I landed on USA Today: New series is the spiritual and intellectual successor to Carl Sagan's PBS original.

It's spiritual and intellectual. It's the religion of science.

If you cannot beat them, join them.

"Make me one with everything."

And he does!

That's the whole point of the first Cosmos. "You are made of star stuff. You are the children of the universe."

ampersand said...

Quite a bit of blowback with the comments at the link, but they seem to be confirming the article's arguments.

ndspinelli said...

I saw Michael Crichton give a superb speech about how environmentalism is secular progressive's religion. Went point by point comparing and contrasting.

Leland said...

State of Fear is a better story about modern Progressive/Socialist than Cosmos.

Methadras said...

ndspinelli said...
I saw Michael Crichton give a superb speech about how environmentalism is secular progressive's religion. Went point by point comparing and contrasting.

And now he's dead. COINCIDENCE?!!?!?!?!!

Methadras said...

Well, I'll put it to you like this. I love watching popsci shows about astrophysics, physics, cosmology, etc. However, the usual players that get trotted out like Michio Kaku, Brian Cox, Tyson, et al. have become celebrities in the science sphere. These people don't really contribute to science much anymore. They don't do actual science anymore and are busy making money on the lecture circuit and TV appearances. This is what mass media has done to science in general. It's reduced it down to showcasing smart people vs. the dumb people and these are the priests of the dogma. Nevermind the fact that actual real science is being done every single day without an of these people getting credit or recognition in the face of the usual popsci celebrities glory-hogging it all.

Amartel said...

On the one hand, the internet makes it easier to refute the TV talking heads, in real time. On the other hand, their celebrity (based on their personas rather than their ideas) has largely immunized them from criticism.

Amartel said...

Michael Crichton did a lot to squash AGW alarmism.
The bit about the cannibals eating the sanctimonious Hollywood AGW holy roller was PURE GOLD.

Amartel said...

Was that book ever made into a movie? If not, is it, pretty much, the only one of his books that wasn't?