Science Literacy, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter

Did you read the Op Ed in last week’s New York Times about how our society has become “ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science”? (Read Welcome to the Age of Denial by Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester.) It’s a scary read, but one worth reading and getting riled up about.

I’d like to address a couple of sentences in the article.

“During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today… The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us.”

I shared the article with a scientist friend and we had an interesting exchange about it on Facebook. Here it is.


Me: It’s funny, I had an astronomy class in 1983 or 84, and I remember asking my professor about Sagan and he was dismissive, too. Like it was a bad thing to be a popularizer!

Scientist Friend: Well it was because if you were popularizing you probably weren’t doing research yourself or publishing in scientific journals.

Me:  I suppose. But it seems like tunnel vision to dismiss him and his popularizing. But I guess this is the case in many fields, not just science.

SF: Yeah, I guess it’s analogous to making a Hollywood film or having a hit on the pop charts.

Me: That’s exactly what I was thinking. Suddenly, you’re not doing the “important” work, you’ve sold out, and you’ve lost the respect of your peers.

SF: Although now he’s seen as an inspiration. And I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is everybody’s hero.

Me: He is. One of the most vivid memories I have of interviewing Jill Tarter was when I asked her about Sagan. (They were colleagues.) She said, “Carl was SPEC-TACULAR!” I think NDT has filled that void a little bit. His passion really comes through.

This article also inspired an exchange between me and another friend, DL, who posted the link on his Facebook page.2+2=5

DL: “we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.” from the above link. Why? WHY? and as David Licata said, what to do about it? This is really eating at me.

Me: Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, some people started confusing science with faith. “Believe” in evolution? I fear mathematics is next. “2+2=4 for you, but I choose to believe 2+2=5, so there.” From there, it’s straight down the crapper.

DL: Yeah, if math goes it all goes. I think part of the problem is misunderstanding coverage in the press about the latest study and the trending hypothesis. These are confused with scientific “facts” and it creates the illusion that science is constantly being overturned, so in the long run nothing science tells us can really be trusted.

Me: I think you nailed it. And no one seems to be educating people about how science “works,” about the scientific method. Welcome to the Middle Ages!

Now if I may, I’d like to end this post on a more positive note and return to when I spoke to Jill Tarter about Carl Sagan.

I first met Carl at a really really special meeting one afternoon at the Lawrence Berkeley labs when Luis Alvarez and his son Walter talked about their results of finding a fine layer of iridium right at the boundary layer between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary geological periods where the dinosaur extinction happened. And their thesis that what had killed off the dinosaurs was an impact from a comet or an asteroid which has a richer, enrichment in iridium relative to terrestrial values. And that this had produced an cataclysmic explosion and a dark ages, a winter that had killed off the dinosaurs. And so that was the first time I ever met Carl, at that meeting, and it was the start of a wonderful scientific adventure story…

Carl Sagan was actually a member of the board of trustees of the SETI Institute at the time of his death and we talked to him about what it was like to do SETI. He was in a number of workshops with us on this question because if anybody was thinking about the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence Carl was always invited and we were, too. So it was a great opportunity to talk. And so he knew about the technologies we used. He knew about the look and feel. What it would be like. The kinds of signals that we were capable of detecting. And all of that went into the background for Contact. Which is why the science is so good in that novel.


And as we all know, Sagan based the Ellie Arroway character in Contact (Jodie Foster in the movie) loosely on Tarter.

What do you think? Is the world going to hell in a science-illiterate handbasket?