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Day December 20, 2006

Sagan on Science and Democracy

One final thought today, moving from pure science to some of the lessons Carl Sagan had for us as citizens.  Though Sagan’s reputation seems to crystallize as a science educator, especially as we gain some distance from his life and activities, today I want to remember him in his chosen role as a fierce and eloquent defender of our country’s Enlightenment heritage. 

Woven deeply into the fabric of his exploration of modern science is a tale of political and moral philosophy.  Sagan begins and ends the Cosmos series with reflections on the relationship between knowledge, freedom of conscience (and inquiry), and its relationship to power — in the story of the Library of Alexandria and the martyrdom of Hypatia, a female scientist who worked at the Library, at the hands of fanatical religious mobs in the 5th century A.D.  The destruction of the Library and the vigilante violence which resulted in Hypatia’s death was likely sanctioned by the local Patriarch, and thus represents an early example of conflict between religion and science, augmented by religious control over state power.

Throughout the series, we encounter scientists, especially early European scientists such as Kepler, Brahe, Da Vinci, Herschel, and Newton, as heroes of freedom and progress, fighting against the forces of reaction and entrenched power.  Those of a culturally conservative persuasion might tell a different story, but I have always found Sagan’s tale of the linkage between science and freedom compelling.  In his words:

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable.  Science and democracy began — in their civilized incarnations — in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.  Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it (although too many have been systematically prevented from doing so).  Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy.  Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions.  Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate.  Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty.  Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge.  It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being.  If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to.  It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.

— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 38.

Sagan’s words speak for themselves.  I would only add that we ought to recognize the 17th and 18th centuries as critical periods, perhaps even more so than the ancient Greeks, as crucibles for the dual development of science and democracy.  Both ideas, as the Greeks knew each of these concepts, remained dormant for approximately a millennium, despite flirtation with both during the Renaissance.   Intriguingly, both science and democracy (more properly, the notion of popular sovereignty and limited government) took root again at approximately the same time:  following the Reformation, and in England, following the Civil War.  Acceptance of religious diversity, in the form of the Reformation, soon led to acceptance of ideological diversity concerning government and society.  This led to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the Royal Society, and eventually to the "Democratic Revolutions" of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The synchronicity of both revolutions is not surprising given that both science and democracy thrive on the free exchange of ideas.  One imagines that this factor also accounts for their coupled appearance in ancient Greek times as well — a point Sagan stresses in several episodes of the series.  In Europe, conditions were simply not ripe for the consequence-free exchange of ideas until the late 1600’s in much of northern and western Europe, and even later on much of the Continent.  Recognition of religious freedom seems to have created "space" in English, Dutch, and certain German kingdoms for other ideas to flourish, and with them we see the early flowering of modernity. 

Cosmos thus stands not just as a tribute to a great science educator and popularizer.  Carl Sagan was also a strong thinker and advocate concerning the relationship between science, openness, and the ability of societies to maintain the virtues of liberal democracy.  For those reading who may not be that interested in physics, astronomy, or biology, but are interested in society, law, philosophy, and their relation to culture, I still recommend Sagan as one of our generation’s most ardent defenders of the two great "revolutions" that make up the European Enlightenment — the Scientific and Democratic Revolutions.  Stripped of the details of physics, astronomy, and biology, Cosmos tells the story of our own awakening to the power of unfettered inquiry and discussion to give us freedom from those traditions and beliefs which limited our potential as individuals and citizens.

Sagan, Again: A Pale Blue Dot

thesilverseer put together this tribute to Sagan, framing his words in Pale Blue Dot concerning our fragility and uniqueness in a big, empty universe. 

And the quote: 

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Culture and “parenthood”: Thoughts on the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s passing

Today is the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, and some folks have organized a “blogathon” to honor Sagan, his accomplishments, and his significance to several generations of students and scholars. Sagan was, and remains, a major influence for me, and so I thought I’d take a few minutes on this day and talk a bit about his impact on my life.

I first encountered Carl Sagan in 1980, when the Cosmos series played for the first time on public television. At the time, I was 14 years old, and I was pretty obsessive about being home each evening a new episode was broadcast. I don’t quite know how I got the rest of the family to cede control over the TV to me for that hour each week, but I suspect that a great deal of whining and possibly bribery may have been involved. The series was a revelation. Not in terms of the science, since I’d been science-nerdy ever since kindergarten (a story for another day), but one finished each episode of Cosmos with an amazing feeling of inspiration: here was someone who so obviously loved science and history and could communicate its results, its processes, and the habits of thought it required with eloquence and with (at the time) great special effects.

In those pre-Tivo, and for us pre-VCR days, once Cosmos ended I had only the book to remind me of Sagan’s inspiration and impact. Later, I videotaped the 1986 “Cosmos: A special edition,” and eventually bought the VHS and then DVD boxed sets of the remastered series. Even today, I occasionally pop in a disc and kick back for a delightful combination of edification, entertainment, and inspiration. The series is still well worth watching, even if its chief effects seem campy to modern eyes jaded by the inexorable march of Moore’s Law.

As an anthropologist, I study formal models of how culture is transmitted and evolves. Elaborating on this is a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that this subject constantly reminds me that we each possess many “parents” — those individuals from whom we learn our personal and unique combination of inclinations, attitudes, values, and skills. For most of us, our biological parents are also cultural parents — especially during our early childhood we use mothers and fathers, and to some extent older siblings, as role models not just for language but behavior, skills, and values. That process does not stop as we get older, although “parents” become rarer and “peers” predominate in the process. Increasingly, we become role models and cultural parents for others, in addition to continuing to learn and change ourselves. The process becomes much more complex and rich, while at the same time building upon the more fundamental, and often hard to change, early acquisitions from a select group of “parents.”

I was lucky as a child. My biological parents were also quite good in their role as cultural parents. They encouraged many good habits in me, not the least of which has been a lifelong obsession with books, education, and learning. And in doing so, they set me up to include my best teachers and several scientists as important cultural “parents” along the way.

Among the most important of these, though I never met him, was Carl Sagan. The impact which Cosmos and Sagan himself had upon an impressionable science-obsessed 14 year old nerd child simply cannot be overstated. I see echoes of him in later cultural parents, down to graduate school advisors and role models. And thus, when I watch an episode of the series, most particularly the opening 10 minutes of episode #1, it’s less like watching TV than exploring the archaeology of my childhood, reveling again in one of the experiences that make me most deeply who I am today. Or perhaps more accurately, who I hope to become.

Thank you, Dr. Sagan, for your life and works, and for being a role model to a generation of folks like me. We miss you.