Sagan joins the fray

The NYT has a nice article on Carl Sagan's new posthumous book—it was put together by his widow, Ann Druyan, and she makes a few good points:

In the wake of Sept. 11 and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in this country, she said, a tacit truce between science and religion that has existed since the time of Galileo started breaking down. "A lot of scientists were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore," Ms. Druyan said over lunch recently.

I'll say. It was a stupid truce, anyway, entirely to the benefit of the old guardians of mythology.

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"It was a stupid truce, anyway, entirely to the benefit of the old guardians of mythology."

Its only stupid now, as the "guardians of mythology" have waned in their political power. From the time of Galileo until at least the Enlightenment (if not after) scientists could still be burned at the stake for heresy. Even after that ended, they could still make life miserable for a scientist who didn't show enough deference to their "leadership".

I'm mildly surprised we've had to wait this long for a big-time Mainstream Spaghetti Monster (MSM) article on Sagan's posthumous book You'd think with all the Dawkins kerfluffle, a book on science and religion by one of TwenCen's premier science communicators would be, well, noticed.

Truce is too strong a word, scientists simply ignored the ignorant. All the while, an emotional backlash against intellectualism has been building in this country-- the backwoods preachers of the '30's, the evils of science/ and scientists of the '50's, the rebellion against nearly everything 'formalized' in the '60's, etc. AND we (as educators over the years) have allowed standards to go lax. Last evenings' local news featured a 'Ph.D' in homeopathic veterinary medicine in a serious interview, while this mornings' local (PBS) news featured a 'Ph.D." in 'Relaxation and Leisure' explain how Global warming will decimate Montana's skiing industry. Gee whiz, maybe after earing a Ph.D. in entomology (specifically insect systematics/taxonomy) with minors in Zoology and Botany, maybe I could be 'retrained' to live in our modern vegetable based society.

The truce may seem stupid now, in a pluralistic society whose government began as a secular compact two centuries ago. North Americans, no matter what their private religious beliefs, are unlikely to embrace theocracy.

Yet, creationism and other anti-science movements are on the rise globally, as Numbers has documented, especially in the Islamic world, which does not have the democratic tradition of the West. In fact, the latter is often regarded as a weakness, a prompting of the Great Satan, etc.

So in the political realm, at least, it seems prudent to me to cultivate such alliances as we can muster. You and I can sharply differ as to the value of religion, but we must acknowledge that the freedom to agree or disagree is a shared core value, and (hopefully) still a value of the society we share. That's one of the reasons I frequent Pharyngula, frankly.....SH

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 13 Feb 2007 #permalink

Lately, I have noticed myself becoming increasingly skeptical about this "New Atheism" label. After all, the Dawkinsites are no more critical of organized religion than Voltaire, no more eager to point out religious illogic than Bertrand Russell, no more strident in saying that the evidence rules out traditional gods than Democritus. Asimov, Feynman, Sagan and Lucretius have all delivered much the same message, with slight variations of tone which I'm not sure are any greater than the differing viewpoints we see in "New Atheism" today. (For example, in The Demon-Haunted World Sagan wrote that mainstream religions are insulated from scientific disproof on most critical tenets of faith, such as reincarnation in Buddhism. He does, however, give a long litany of religious claims for which people have suffered and died — from the necessity of human sacrifice to the doctrine of transubstantiation — which are all amenable to scientific inquiry. We cannot tell how insulated a religious belief is against empirical inquiry without doing the empirical spadework first. After reading The Varieties of Scientific Experience, it's much harder to find refuge in Sagan's politic even-handedness. . . .)

The world up and changed on the quiet scholars. Now it's not just a matter of Alan Sokal writing in an academic paper, "The modern scientific worldview, if one is to be honest about it, leads naturally to atheism — or at the very least to an innocuous deism or pan-spiritualism that is incompatible with the tenets of all traditional religions". The difference between the New Atheism and the Old lies principally in the fact that now people are buying the books.

Okay. I've done Dennett and Dawkins. Time for Stenger and Sagan!

I'm sorry, but the following in the article made me chuckle:

She and Dr. Sagan had planned to use his Gifford lectures as the basis for a new television show called "Ethos," a sequel to "Cosmos," about the spiritual implications of the scientific revolution. . . .

But "Ethos" never happened, and the lectures disappeared.

About a year ago, Ms. Druyan went looking for Dr. Sagan's lectures, eventually finding them filed under "Ethos" in his archive at Cornell, . . .

Well, where else would they be?

Shouldn't they have been filed under "Gifford" instead? :-)

I mean, if the Sagan archive is anywhere near as voluminous as the Isaac Asimov papers they've got collected at Boston University (the catalog alone is four volumes long), I'm not surprised they were hard to find.

The NYTimes article was light on substance, but mostly positive. That's a nice change from the vicious reception given to most recent atheist books.

I have the Sagan book, and it is nearing the top of the stack.

Ahcuah:

You must be very organized. When I look for something where it is supposed to be filed, and I find it there, I am deeply shocked....

'Dr. Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent knowledge of the wider universe that "He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is" allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on the Moon in such a way that they would not be discovered until now, à la the slab in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?'

Thanks, Dr. Sagan. I always say if god wanted me to believe in him he would have done something that forces me to believe. The Ten Commandments on the Moon would have done it.

Thanks, Dr. Sagan. I always say if god wanted me to believe in him he would have done something that forces me to believe. The Ten Commandments on the Moon would have done it.

Nah. Too easy for aliens/time travellers to plant. Those were probably among the other "various hypotheses" that Sagan alluded to.

"our modern vegetable based society"

. . . I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

I always say if god wanted me to believe in him he would have done something that forces me to believe. The Ten Commandments on the Moon would have done it.

Now, me, if all the residents of our massive personal pet cemetery in the backyard clambered up out of their graves and spoke, saying, "Hey, moron! God exists!" is pretty much all it would take.

Just one pet, even. Is that so much to ask? Apparently...

By Chinchillazilla (not verified) on 13 Feb 2007 #permalink

I got Sagans book at Christmas and thoroughly enjoyed it. The best part to me was the questions at the back. The man speaks amazingly well off the cuf, and while he is polite and suffers fools well, he is always on topic and never backs down.

By impatientpatient (not verified) on 13 Feb 2007 #permalink

I miss Sagan so much. I took his undergrad class at Cornell, and he was not just a wonderful lecturer but a devoted teacher. He made time to meet with all of his hundreds of students individually - i remember waiting on line for my meeting behind a reporter from the AP and in front of some other important person.

I knew teachers with twenty students who couldn't manage to meet with their students individually, so this really impressed me.

btw, the first few rows of Sagan's huge auditorium classroom were filled with women - just like your classes, right PZ? :-)

By Dawn O'Day (not verified) on 14 Feb 2007 #permalink

I made that suggestion in my genetics class the other day, when I noted that 70% of the class was female -- hey, maybe they were all drawn in by my animal magnetism! Then we did a chi square comparison with the expected distribution given the enrollment figures for the university, and discovered that the numbers were well within the range of chance.

All the students already knew that, of course.

It is remarkable that we still hear from our departed friend today and honour his memory by learning and discussing and improving.

Comparing Carl to Lucretius is very apt - except that Lucretius, for all his wonder, was not an originator of ideas.

You raise an interesting point about Lucretius, and more generally about what counts as "originating an idea". At the very least, one might argue (perhaps sophistically) that Lucretius originated the idea of science popularization. The people before him thought about atoms but didn't think of building a poem upon the atomist world view. Given that Carl labored long and hard to make the popular exposition of science a respectable task, I think this is a point we should not let slip lightly by.