What I learned from Carl Sagan

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Dec 19, 2006
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Today marks the tenth anniversary of the day we lost Carl Sagan. He was a true skeptic; a man whose mind was open to possibilities, yet able to cut away the chaff of pseudoscience and blind alleys. Even when facing death -- a slow, painful, wasting death -- he was able to turn it into a series of lessons on science, medicine, and critical thinking. Many people, perhaps most people, would have clung to any idea, no matter how irrational, to make themselves feel better. Carl didn't do that. He couldn't. He not only relied on science, he reveled in it.

To celebrate the man, I am writing this essay as part of the Carl Sagan blogathon. I'm very interested and excited to see what others have written (Update: Joel Schlosberg has posted the list). Here's my submission.

I was contacted recently by a Chinese journalist. He's writing an article on the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death, focusing on Sagan's impact on science, skepticism, and public knowledge, and he wanted my input. The article will run soon, and I'll link to it if I can when it goes live (Update: here is the story (in Chinese, maybe you can get Rosie O'Donnell to translate) and here is a blurb on the journalist's blog). He decided to use an abbreviated quote by me, so I thought it might be nice to post my complete answers. His questions to me are in the blockquotes.

First, Dr. Sagan was an outspoken skeptic as you are. So what's the most valuable legacy that Dr. Sagan left to us who have a natural worldview, who do not believe paranormal claims and would like to examine them strictly?

Sagan made it very clear that we don't need to examine the Universe as a supernatural creation. It is enough -- more than enough -- to examine it naturally. The sense of awe, beauty, wonder, and joy we feel when we view a Hubble image of a distant galaxy is a natural product of our sense of discovery. It is more amazing, and ultimately more wonderful, to think about how all these incredible things came about due to the relatively simple laws of physics, rather than try to ascribe supernatural powers behind their creation.

Second, after ten years since Dr. Sagan passed away, the world seems changed a lot. So, I would like to know, what, do you think, is the most important, and valuable insights that Dr. Sagan left to this fragile world?

I don't think the world has changed much at all. We still have self-claimed psychics, conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and all manners of conmen whose only purpose is to confuse people about the real world. Many of these people honestly believe that what they are doing is right, but that does not make them right.

Sagan's insight, his gift to us, is the knowledge that we all have the ability to examine the Universe with all the power of human curiosity, and we need not retreat from the answers we find.

The language of the Universe, as far as we can tell, is science and math, and those remain -- and will probably always remain-- our best tools to understand it.