Friday, January 6, 2017

Wonder and Skepticism

Last night I suddenly wanted to listen to Carl Sagan's last address to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation for Claims of the Paranormal (now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).   I needed to hear Sagan's voice, his particular blend of awe, humor, and bracing rationality.   In this particular speech he shares his introduction to science, particularly astronomy, comments on its value (practical and personal), and reflects on how the values of skepticism might be communicated more broadly, warning against an attitude of arrogance on the part of those who consider themselves rationalists.

"I'm always amazed that there is another area that I'd never thought of -- crop.circles.  Aliens have come and made perfect circles and mathematical wheat!. Who would have thought it? Or they've come and eviscerated cows -- on a large scale, systemically. Farmers are furious. I'm just always impressed by the depths of inventiveness that the new stories that are debunked in Skeptical Inquirer reveal...but then on more sober reflection, it seems to me the stories are fantastically unimaginative. That compared to the stunning, unexpected stories of science across the board, they have a kind of dreariness to them, a lack of imagination, a human chauvinism to them.   That's all they can imagine extraterrestrials doing? Making circles in hay?"

"...the last way for skeptics to get the attention of those people is to belittle, or condescend, or to show arrogance toward their beliefs. They are not stupid; it is a problem of society more than anything else. If we bear in mind human frailty and fallibility, we will have compassion for them. [....]  The one deficiency which I see in the skeptical movement is an us-versus-them [attitude]...a sense that We have a monopoly on the truth, all these other people who believe in these stupid doctrines are morons or worse -- that's it, if you'll listen to us, if not, to hell with you -- that is nonconstructive. That does not get our message across. That condemns us to permanent minority status. "


  1. i much regret his untimely demise: a world changer, things would be different now if he'd lived... what a sane human being...

  2. From the time I was a child Carl Sagan has inspired my curiosity and my skepticism.

    As your quote illustrates, If he was a live today I think that he would add a lot to the worldwide conversation on rationality, religion and science which to some extent has become hostile and harsh. We could use more skeptics who reach out to believers.