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carl sagan


Carl Sagan's future 'celebration of ignorance' prediction from 1995 was spookily spot on

"I have a foreboding of America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…"

Images courtesy of NASA and Amazon

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Cosmologist and science educator Carl Sagan made a name for himself in popular culture as the host of the TV show "Cosmos" and the author of more than a dozen books bridging the gap between the scientific complexities of the world and the people who live in it. Intelligent and eloquent, he had a way of making science palatable for the average person, always advocating healthy scepticism and the scientific method to seek answers to questions about our world.

But Sagan also possessed a keen understanding of the broad array of human experience, which was part of what made him such a beloved communicator. He wrote about peace and justice and kindness in addition to science. He did not shun spirituality, as some sceptics do, but said he found science to be "a profound source of spirituality." He acknowledged that there's so much we don't know but was adamant about defending what we do.

Now, a quote from Sagan's 1995 book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," has people talking about his uncanny ability to peek into the future. His predictions didn't come through supernatural means, of course, but rather through his powers of observation and his understanding of human nature. Still pretty spooky, though.

He wrote:

I have a foreboding of America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all of the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; with our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

And when the dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites now down to 10 seconds or less, lowest-common-denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

His words seem downright prophetic in an era where the least qualified people rise to the highest levels of power more and more often, people glom onto outlier voices that contradict broad scientific consensus on everything from climate change to public health, and social media sound bites fuel more and more extreme views devoid of nuance and complexity.

And the most frustrating part is that the people who get wrapped up in quacky conspiracy theories or take on radical stances based on illogical rhetoric don't see their own ignorance. They're told they're the ones thinking critically, they're the ones who are knowledgeable simply because they're questioning authority (as opposed to the "ability to…knowledgeably question those in authority" Sagan refers to, which is not the same thing).

“When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition," Sagan wrote. We watched this play out in the U.S. during the pandemic. We see it daily in our politics at either end of the spectrum. We witness it in social discourse, especially online. One thing Sagan didn't foresee was how ignorance, pseudoscience and superstition would be rewarded in today's world by algorithms that determine what we see in our social media feeds, creating a vicious cycle that can feel impossible to reverse sometimes.

However, Sagan also offered a hopeful reminder that people who fall prey to peddlers who push "alternative facts" for their own gain are simply human, with the same desire to understand our world that we all share. He warned against being critical without also being kind, to remember that being human doesn't come with an instruction manual or an innate understanding of how everything works.

“In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be," he wrote. "Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”

Discerning truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience isn't always simple, and neither is the challenge of educating a populace to hone that ability. Taking a cue from Sagan, we can approach education with rigorous scientific standards but also with curiosity and wonder as well as kindness and humility. If he was right about the direction the U.S. was heading 30 years ago, perhaps he was right about the need for understanding what led to that direction and the tools needed to right the ship.

You can find much more in Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" here.

A study published on Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy found that Venus' clouds contain phosphine which may be evidence of alien life.

Phosphone is an extremely flammable, corrosive gas also found on Earth that's produced by anaerobic bacteria and humans in labs.

The study's authors haven't verified the origins of the gas but the sources they've investigated haven't been able to explain the amount of gas they discovered.

"We really went through all possible pathways that could produce phosphine on a rocky planet," Janusz Petkowski, an author of the new study, told MIT News. "If this is not life, then our understanding of rocky planets is severely lacking."

Should the study reveal life it would be one of the most important discoveries in human history. It would also validate a hypothesis posited decades ago by astrophysicist and the original host of TV's, "Cosmos," Carl Sagan.

In the '60s he authored two scientific papers outlining the possibility of life on Venus. He wrote that the planet's surface was too hot to support life but, "while the surface conditions of Venus make the hypothesis of life there implausible, the clouds of Venus are a different story altogether."

In 1967, Sagan and Harold Morowitz, a molecular biophysicist at Yale, posited that there could be a livable layer in Venus' clouds.

Here's Sagan describing the possibility of life in Venus' cloud layer back in 1963.

Life on Venus by Carl Sagan (1963)www.youtube.com

"Measurements with radio telescopes show, that there is a region on Venus where temperatures are greater than 600 degrees Fahrenheit," Sagan says. "It is just possible, that the hot region exists at a high altitude, in the ionosphere of Venus."

"The surface temperature could then be, almost Earth-like and life as we know it could exist there," Sagan continues. "However, it is more likely that if there is life on Venus it is probably the type we cannot now imagine."

Upworthy readers may be familiar with another prediction Sagan made right before his death in 1996. On "Charlie Rose" he said that due to a lack of scientific skepticism America runs the risk of being taken over by a "charlatan" political leader

via PBS

Astronomer Carl Sagan was the original host of "Cosmos" back in 1980 and it became most watched show in public television history. Few science communicators have been able to match his talent for stoking wonder about the universe.

Shortly before his death in 1996, he appeared on "Charlie Rose" and made a dire warning about how the average Americans' lack of skeptical, scientific thinking could lead to disastrous consequences.

Today, we can see the problems that are happening due to America's anti-science streak whether it's anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theories or climate change deniers.

Sagan was right, America will suffer due to a lack a lack of scientific skepticism.

Carl Sagan and Government_ Charlie Rose.wmvwww.youtube.com

"We've arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces," he told Rose. "I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don't know anything about it?"

He then warned that our lack of critical thinking leaves us vulnerable to those who wish to exploit our ignorance.

"Science is more than a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking," he says. "If we are not able to ask skeptical questions to interrogate those who tell us something is true to be skeptical of those in authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan political or religious who comes ambling along."

Sagan believes that a democracy cannot function without an educated populace.

"It's a thing that Jefferson lay great stress on. It wasn't enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in the Constitution and the Bill or Rights, the people had to be educated and they have to practice their skepticism and their education," he says. "Otherwise, we don't run the government, the government runs us."

via YouTube

Over the past few years, there has been a growing number of people who believe the Earth is flat. A recent YouGov survey of more than 8,000 Americans found that as many as one in six are "not entirely certain the world is round."

Maybe there wouldn't be so much scientific illiteracy in this world if we still had Carl Sagan around.

Sagan hosted the original version of TV's "Cosmos" in 1980. It would be revived in 2014 with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm.

In the first episode of "Cosmos," Sagan easily proved the Earth was a sphere using a piece of cardboard, some sticks, and the work of an ancient Libyan-Greek scholar, Eratosthenes.

Carl Sagan explains how Eratostenes knows the earth is curvewww.youtube.com

"How could it be, that at the same moment, a stick in Syene would cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, 800 km to the north, would cast a very definite shadow? Sagan asked.

"The only answer was that the surface of the Earth is curved," he added. "Not only that but the greater the curvature, the bigger the difference in the length of the shadows."

Considering the distance between the two cities and the lengths of the shadows they produced, Eratosthenes was able to determine that the Earth had a seven-degree curve. He used that calculation to speculate the Earth was 25,000 miles in circumference.

These days we know that the earth is 24,860 in circumference, so Eratosthenes was 140 miles off, not bad for over 2,000 years ago.