Nov 09 2010

Carl Sagan Day

Today, November 9th, would have been the 76th birthday of Carl Sagan. We lost him in 1996 at the age of 62 – way too early. But by that time he had already established himself as an influential science popularizer. Many of the current generation of science enthusiasts, myself included, look to Sagan as a significant source of inspiration.

For me the television series Cosmos was the transition from science enthusiast to scientific skeptic. In one episode Sagan explains why the evidence for alien visitation is not compelling. It is the first skepticism regarding UFOs that I remember being exposed to, and it was a revelation. For the first time I fully realized that I could not trust and believe every “science” documentary I saw on TV.

I have loved science as long as I can remember, and I watched just about every science show on TV that came to my attention. However – when I was younger I could not distinguish real science documentaries from pseudoscientific imitators. To me, a show about UFOs or ESP was just as authoritative as ones about astronomy or paleontology. It was all fascinating and fantastic. There was no mainstream skepticism regarding these topics, at least if there were it was obscure enough that I never ran across it. And so I watched In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy and believed all of it – Spock wouldn’t lie to me.

The only pseudoscience I was aware of at this time (basically my teenage years) was creationism, which I thought of as a lone aberration. Sagan was my introduction to the broader concept of pseudoscience and I credit him with the realization that I had to apply rigorous scientific principles to all claims. Following Cosmos I began to apply Sagan’s approach to evidence to everything I previously thought of as science, and beliefs started to fall one-by-one.

Sagan did much more, of course. He had the gift of exuding enthusiasm for the awesomeness of science and the view of the universe that it provides. He had the ability to step all the way back, to an outside vantage point, and then look in at the human condition and human beliefs and put them into a “cosmic” perspective. This has the effect of making even controversial topics sound less personal, the logic unavoidable. He could destroy an unscientific position, but not leave believers feeling as if they lost something – but rather that they have gained a new perspective and appreciation for the natural world and our ability to understand it.

If you have never watched Cosmos – watch it. It is a bit dated, but most of the content is still relevant. I also recommend all of Sagan’s books – better yet, listen to the audio versions where Sagan is reading.

I know that many within the skeptical community become uncomfortable with what seems like excessive praise bordering on hero-worship. That’s a healthy reaction. But it is OK to have role models, even intellectual heroes. We know they are human and imperfect. In fact, Sagan himself emphasized that science is a human endeavor – it is something that flawed and biased people do. Carl Sagan is definitely one of my role models as a science promoter, and I will always remember the important role he played in my personal voyage.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Carl Sagan Day”

  1. strubieon 09 Nov 2010 at 9:14 am

    Nicely said, Steve. Almost all of what you wrote applies to me and my views about Sagan’s contributions. The difference is that I actually believed creationism and it was Sagan (in one of the Cosmos episodes) who influenced my critical examination of evolution. That examination had to be the most important lesson I learned on using scientific evidence as a foundation for evaluating a scientific claim. I count both the TV program and book as *the* most influential writing on my life and world view. Today, I’m a physics teacher, mostly because of Carl Sagan. The Demon Haunted World has been most influential on the way I teach science and how seriously I take the job. I have Pale Blue Dot on audio (read by Sagan) and I listen to it for inspiration. I miss him terribly. Thanks for the great post.

  2. tmac57on 09 Nov 2010 at 9:28 am

    Sagan was one of my favorite people.I relished each episode of ‘Cosmos’,and gathered with my friends to watch them.

    By the way Steve, didn’t you watch NOVA back then? :

    Case of the Bermuda Triangle (The) Original broadcast date: 06/27/76

    Case Of The Ancient Astronauts (The) Original broadcast date: 03/08/78

    Case Of The UFOs (The) Original broadcast date: 10/12/82

    These are some of the first skeptical programs that I remember.

  3. eeanon 09 Nov 2010 at 9:44 am

    I had a similar experience when I watched Cosmos from library VHS tapes.

    Your blog is missing some links though.

    If you are an American:
    or if you are a American Netflix subscriber:

  4. Steven Novellaon 09 Nov 2010 at 9:45 am

    tmac57 – who can say, it was so long ago.

    But don’t spoil my nice story with pesky facts. 🙂

  5. sowellfanon 09 Nov 2010 at 9:49 am

    Good post, Steven. I’m still hoping for the day when you can select “Carl Sagan Voice” on any audio book that you happen to buy.

  6. tmac57on 09 Nov 2010 at 10:12 am

    Sorry Steve.I just wanted to get in a mention for what inspired me toward skepticism.Forget I ever mentioned it.Oh wait, you already did! 😉

  7. RenegadeSynapseon 09 Nov 2010 at 11:22 am

    The Demon Haunted World is, and likely always will be, one of my favorite books. I recommend it to anyone I think may be willing to read it, because it is profoundly powerful and approachable.

    I think it should be required reading at some point in the educational timeline, but alas, that’s probably a dream.

  8. Novagirlon 09 Nov 2010 at 11:23 am


    You are my Carl Sagan.

    I am so thankful for all the Skeptics Guides and blog posts I listen to and read, as well as my introduction to: the other Rogues (I love them), what psudoscience is, Phil Plaitt, The Amazing Randi, Richard Dawkins (love), Simon Singh, Mark Crislip, Dr. Stephen Barrett, Brian Dunning, conspiracy theory nutbars, athiest podcasts and many other things I’ve learned from you.

    I try to share what I can, when I can, with as many as I can. In fact, I’ve converted a homeopathy user at a party on the weekend who “just didn’t know”. Yay.

  9. Enzoon 09 Nov 2010 at 11:32 am

    Happy Carl Sagan Day!

    We obviously celebrate with autotuned Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Obviously.

    Glorious Dawn:

  10. spliceron 09 Nov 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I read The Demon Haunted World last Nov. after you recommended it. A great book for science and skepticism.
    I have often thought that it would be nice to see a book review here now and again or on the SGU. I’m not trying to give you homework!
    I’ve got Cosmos on my Netflix streaming Queue so I think I’ll go watch one right now.

  11. CivilUnreston 09 Nov 2010 at 4:28 pm

    “One of life’s little ironies is that, over the long run, people who are
    willing to admit they could be wrong turn out to be wrong a lot less
    often than people who aren’t”

    -Nate Silver

  12. HHCon 09 Nov 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Let us not forget to thank PBS for the elaborate and intelligent production of Cosmos and Nova. Back then the top twenty tv shows that the networks could offer included Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas, and CHiPs.

  13. ozzy1248on 09 Nov 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of Sagan at the time of his death. But a few years later I was thumbing the remote late one night and came across this man speaking about the advances of science and the achievements of mankind over the past 10…0 years with such enthusiasm and fervor I’ve never heard before outside of a church. I’ll never forget how he challenged my perspective when he referred to our many cultures, arts, and sciences as “some of the things that molecules do given 4 billion years of evolution”. It always amazes me how much his talks instill such passion, wonder, and awe about our universe. I always leave feeling an elation that I’m sure borders on a ‘religious’ experience. He opened me up (and many, many others) to a world of science, skepticism, and critical thinking. Just one more candle lit in our demon haunted world.

    Happy 76th Birthday! One of the most influential and inspirational congregates of star stuff this cosmos has ever known. We miss you Carl…

  14. petrucioon 09 Nov 2010 at 11:04 pm

    I second everything said about Sagan here, he’s my greatest intellectual mentor.

    But I’d also like to take this moment to thank you Steven, you are also one of my greatest mentors. Every blog post you write is well thought out, relevant, and has no fillers – something I find important, having little time to actually read everyone I’d like to read. I’m not much of a commenter (that time thingy again), but you are one of only two people that for years I read every single blog post, and it never gets old.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

  15. bluedevilRAon 09 Nov 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Following up on what petrucio said, I think this blog is a wonderful thing. My morning ritual for the last 2 years has been to check this, SBM and RI every day. So thank you Dr. Novella and the many others within the skeptical community for continuing to champion science and critical thinking as Carl Sagan did.

    I only had vague recollections of Carl Sagan from when I was younger. I thought of him as that quirky, turtle-neck shirt wearing guy that was obsessed with stars. When you posted last year about the Demon Haunted World, I went out and bought a copy. It is an amazing book–a truly enlightening experience.

    I see nothing wrong with celebrating intellectual hereos like Sagan. He represented science and skepticism so well. I regret not knowing more about him when he was alive, but I think we are lucky that so much of him lives on through his many works.

  16. Michael Meadonon 10 Nov 2010 at 7:31 am

    It’s often said that premature death is good for one’s reputation, and I suspect the same is true of Sagan. While Sagan certainly has tremendous virtues, were he still alive today he wouldn’t be as venerated.

    Were he still alive, for example, he’d certainly have something to say about the accommodationism debate. And no matter what position he took that, it would be controversial. Were he to take an accommodationist stance, the likes of PZ and Coyne would tear into him (blog post title: “What happened to Carl Sagan?”). If he took an anti-accommodationist position, Mooney and Plait would criticize him (“Don’t be a dick, Carl!”).

    His reputation, in other words, is kept spotless because he can’t participate in current controversies. Since he is “safely dead” both sides of any skeptical argument can claim him…

    (It probably shows my bias that I suspect Sagan would’ve been an anti-accommodationist. He’s rather surprisingly critical of religion in The Demon-Haunted World).

  17. Michael Meadonon 10 Nov 2010 at 7:34 am

    Sorry for the typos…

    Also: I’m NOT saying Sagan wasn’t awesome. He was. It’s just that he wouldn’t be hero-worshiped today were he still alive. I can imagine in full detail the posts from people saying how “disappointed” they are in Sagan were he still alive and taking sides in current controversies.

    (“Carl Sagan is one of my heroes, and Cosmos was wonderful… But lately he’s been saying mean/nice things about religion, and I think he is WRONG WRONG WRONG about this!!!!”)

  18. Enzoon 10 Nov 2010 at 11:56 am

    @Michael Meadon

    …Do you hate puppies too?

  19. EvanPon 11 Nov 2010 at 5:20 am

    As so many people have already stated on this post. I was born in 1989, too young to have heard of Sagan before he died. You were my first skeptical influence, you were to me and so many others what Carl was to you. You write so concisely, to the point and always respectful. You are such a wonderful role model with your careful analysis of widely varied events. Best of all you change your opinions without fuss or pain.
    This year I was too poor to make it to TAM australia, but I will meet you one day and shake your hand.
    Thank you for all you do Steve, never stop.
    Evan Benn

  20. vci11on 16 Nov 2010 at 6:52 pm

    I was about 4th grade when I saw Cosmos for the first time. My uncle was watching it and he called me to the tv and there I saw the milky way galaxy with its stars slowly moving about. He explained to me everything that Carl was saying and from then on I was hooked on science and astronomy. I absolutely loved the series. From then on I gobbled up Carl’s books, and eventually the Demon Haunted World. I became exposed to skepticism. It was truly an eye opener. Carl was absolutely influential to me my whole life. Now I have a son named after him. Thanks Carl.

  21. mykevellion 18 Nov 2010 at 5:17 pm


    I’m in a similar situation. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I was 22 or 23 that I first really discovered skepticism. I had always been a big fan of science and scientific reasoning but I had never really taken that skepticism and used it to challenge the things that I had just heard about all my life growing up. ESP, UFOs, creationism, and even the the psuedo-medicine like ginko biloba were all things that I just assumed had to be true but SGU really opened up my eyes to.

    The last few years for me have been absolutely invigorating for me. I’m just now starting to “catch up” on Sagan, Dawkins, Plaitt and the likes. I like to think that I’ve been really sharing that with my close friend and have, by extension, been opening the door for them as well. It’s so empowering to be able to ask questions like “what is a soul, anyways, and why should we feel like there is more after death?” and not feel like you’re asking a dumb question.

    So 2 cheers for Carl Sagan but I’m with NovaGirl and I think you should be proud for being a Sagan to many others, Steve.

  22. zoe237on 04 Dec 2010 at 12:46 am

    Cosmos came out before I was born, but I have seen it, along with reading Demon Haunted World, Broca’s Brain, and others. I would also recommend his fiction work “Contact” along with the Jodie Foster movie for a fascinating look at science versus faith. The truth is that Sagan’s preoccupation with SETI did kind of border on pseudoscience (see Shermer Borderlands of Science for an excellent discussion on Sagan). That’s why I prefer him and older skeptics to many modern people on the internet, because it wasn’t black and white to him, and because he really did inspire a sense of wonder in BILLIONS AND BILLIONS, lol. I also think Dr. Novella does a very good job at striking this balance.

    Richard Dawkins wrote “Was Carl Sagan a religious man? He was so much more. he left behind the petty, parochial, medieval world of the conventionally religious, left the theologians, priests and mullahs wallowing in their small minded spritual poverty. he left them behind, because he had so much more to be religious about. They have their Bronze Age myths, medieval supersitions, and childish wishful thinking. He had the universe.”

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