Carl Sagan and the “High-Water Mark”

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world….There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Today is the eleventh anniversary of Carl Sagan’s passing, and like last year many people are writing today to commemorate Sagan and contribute to the second annual Carl Sagan Blog-a-Thon. This is the first of several from me, and one that I’ve been thinking about for awhile.

Not too long ago a friend asked why I still was enamored of the old Cosmos episodes, and periodically went back to watch them. I had to think about it a great deal, because ultimately my friend was right: they’re outdated, and even in their depiction of history are occasionally inaccurate. I keep coming back to an answer, however, which makes me think about Hunter S. Thompson and the quote above.

At least for me, Carl Sagan and his work with Cosmos and planetary exploration represent the “high-water mark” for American scientific culture. Cosmos is redolent with the sense of knowing that we lived in a time when science and democracy and rationalism were winning out over superstition and fear. As Thompson says, not in any military sense, but simply that a particular sensibility would ultimately prevail.

It has not. Not long after Sagan completed the Cosmos series, the Moral Majority (and its descendants, the modern Religious Right) became a major force in American politics, and so-called “postmodernism” became a major force in American scholarship. Today, less than 30 years later, the prestige of science and rationalism are at their lowest in my lifetime. Watching Cosmos, and reading Sagan’s writings are the equivalent, in my view, of seeing the “high water mark” — the place where the wave of mid-20th century secular rationalism finally broke and rolled back.

This isn’t entirely a bad thing. A bit of skepticism is always a good thing. Feyerabend and Arthur Fine bring to the philosophy of science a needed skepticism about the uniqueness of “scientific method” and most of us now view science as a socially conditioned process. But still one whose essential feature is self-correction across the efforts of many. We may have no solid ground to claim that anything we learn is really true, in any ultimate sense, but Popperian falsification still seems to work: we can know when we’re wrong.

But the skepticism of the postmodern critique of “scientism” has crept into policy-making and politics. The shameless manipulation of science and expert testimony under recent (and especially the current) Administration is shocking, and it’s not clear how to reverse this trend. A whole generation of Americans is growing up without much significant training in math and science, which are increasingly viewed as specialities which it’s OK for most people to skip because they’re “not interested in that sort of thing.”

The elevation of personal choice as the sole arbiter of value is a difficult topic in a capitalist democracy (see Michael Sandel on this topic, among other political philosophers), but one thing is clear: we face choices as a country that virtually require us to understand the issues. And it is far from clear that the electorate does understand the evidence on global warming, or peak oil, or biodiversity, or genetic research, to name just a few topics.

So to some extent, I continue to remember Sagan and watch Cosmos as a reminder of what we need to regain, of what we’ve lost in the past 30 years.


2 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Michael,

    Periodically, I will google Dr. Thompson’s quote about the “high water mark” after reading some news item that makes me shake my head with disgust. I really enjoy when I can find the quote used to illustrate a broader point. However, I don’t think I have ever seen the quote used so appropriately and intelligently. Your statement that “The elevation of personal choice as the sole arbiter of value is a difficult topic in a capitalist democracy…” is one of the more profound statements I’ve read in quite a while. I look forward to reading Michael Sandel’s take on the topic, if I can find it. Once again, thank you for a truly outstanding, well-written article.

  2. Kris,

    Interesting article Mark … if somewhat depressing. During our discussion on New Year’s day about the possible short and long -range effects of the mainstreaming of education you forced me to think back on our years with Dunnell at the UW. In your new Hedonism Handbook” you’ll see me cited under “never look back.” For the most part I’m successful at this but I have to say – “Thanks to the Cosmos” for friends who force me to look around at our society and feel nervous, uncomfortable, and full of questions. Keep it up!