From pages 332-333 of Sagan’s superb novel Contact, as spoken by protagonist Ellie Arroway:
“This planet is run by crazy people. Remember what they have to do to get where they are. Their perspective is so narrow, so… brief. A few years. In the best of them a few decades. They care only about the time they are in power.”
I greatly admire Carl Sagan, though his politico-economic analysis is usually rather naive. This time, he nails it.
Academic scientists often look down on Carl Sagan because he spent so much time on popular-level projects, like the Cosmos television series. The man even wrote a novel. Heaven forbid.
Ask many of those same scientists who got them interested in the subject in the first place. What sparked their fascination? Who is ultimately responsible for giving them the gall to advance scientific frontiers? They’ll probably say it was Carl Sagan, or someone like him.
This tension between academics and popularizers goes back centuries. I’m on a Voltaire kick at the moment, so do indulge. Referring to Diderot’s massive, expensive Encyclopedie (to which Voltaire contributed), he wrote:
“Twenty folio volumes will never start a revolution; it’s the pocket books at thirty sous that represent the real threat. If the Gospels had cost 1,200 [Roman] sestertia, the Christian religion would never have established itself.”
Roger Pearson, Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, p. 298.
Not a bad point. Ideas originate with academics, and they’ll play with them for some time in the journals. But popularizers usually find a way to sneak ideas down to the masses eventually; Sagan and Bastiat and all that. Think of it as division of labor. Some create, others disperse.
The process works much faster in the Internet age. The primary obstacle now is IQ, not access. But it still holds. The point is that there is a role for both ivory tower academics and popularizers.
Given the disdain that each side holds for the other, it’s probably best that they be kept separate. But as someone who straddles the line between the two, I humbly propose that both sides find a way to get along. After all, when it comes to the pursuit of knowledge and a better life for all, we’re all friends. Let’s act like it.
Wisdom and humility from Carl Sagan:
Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science – by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude.
We will always be mired in error.
-Carl Sagan, Demon-Haunted World, location 627 in the Kindle edition.
For my own thoughts on this kind of capital-C Certainty, see here, here, here, and here.
I’m a bit late on this, but Carl Sagan would have turned 75 on November 9. The Skeptic Society’s Michael Shermer has set up a nice tribute to him.
The thing I admire most about Carl Sagan isn’t his academic credentials, impressive though they were. It’s that he wasn’t afraid to be a popularizer. In fact, he embraced it. He has been an inspiration for what I hope to accomplish in my own professional life.
Will Durant’s book The Story of Philosophy is credited with introducing more people to its subject than any other book. What Will Durant did for philosophy (and later, with his wife Ariel Durant, history), Carl Sagan did for astronomy.
Some pointy-nosed academics looked down on Sagan for pandering to the masses. But Sagan did more in his too-short life to actually educate people than the lot of them combined. How many of those same disdainful academics were inspired to forge a career in science because of Carl Sagan? For a subject as esoteric as cosmology, this is no small achievement.
People who work in economics or public policy would do well to pay attention not just to what Carl Sagan did, but to how he did it. Intellectuals from all disciplines should follow the sterling example set by Carl Sagan.
Posted in education, Great Thinkers, History, Philosophy
Tagged ariel durant, astronomy, carl sagan, cosmology, education, michael shermer, pedagogy, popularization, popularizer, will durant