Carl Sagan on Scientific Thinking

"Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility."

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Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and lecturer. A large part of his life's work was to spread scientific knowledge to regular people. Here are excerpts from a 1996 interview with Sagan on "Charlie Rose." It was his last interview.

On the Need for Scientific Thinking in Democratic Thinking:

It’s not that pseudoscience and superstition and new-age, so called, beliefs and fundamentalist zealotry are something new. They’ve been with us for as long as we’ve been human. But we live in an age based on science and technology with formidable technological powers. And if we don’t understand it, by ‘we’ I mean the general public, if it’s something that, ‘Oh, I’m not good at that, I don’t know anything about it,’ then who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in?

We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that 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.

It is a thing that Jefferson laid great stress on. It wasn’t enough he said to enshrine some rights in a constitution or bill of rights. The people had to be educated, and they had to practice their skepticism and their education. Otherwise, we don’t run the government. The government runs us.

You see, people read the stock market quotations and financial pages. Look how complex that is. People are able to look at sports statistics. Look how many people can do that. Understanding science is not more difficult than that. It doesn’t involve greater intellectual activities. But the thing about science is, first of all, it’s after what the universe really is and not what makes us feel better. And a lot of the competing doctrines are after what feels good and not what’s true.

Carl Sagan on the "Arrogance" of Believing One Can Ever Have Absolute Knowledge:

What is faith? It is belief in the absence of evidence. Now, I don’t propose to tell anybody what to believe, but for me, believing when there is no compelling evidence is a mistake. The idea is to hold belief until there is compelling evidence. And if the universe does not comply with our predispositions — okay, now we have the wrenching obligation to accommodate to the way the universe is. So who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us? Or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind all the fallibility of the human beings involved in the writing of this book.

Charlie Rose Questions Sagan on the Possibility of the Unknown:

You convinced me a long time ago that it was arrogant for me or anyone else to believe there wasn’t life outside of our —
— Charlie Rose
— To exclude the possible.
— Carl Sagan
— To exclude the possibility was an arrogance of intellect. That we should not —
— Charlie Rose
— Be exclusive.
— Carl Sagan
You couldn’t prove it. You didn’t know it was there. But the arrogance —
— Charlie Rose
— Right. We don’t know if He is there, we don’t know if He is not there. Let’s look.
— Carl Sagan
And if you take that, why can’t you say there is a lot we don’t know?
— Charlie Rose
I say that. Watch. There is a lot we don’t know. That’s what I believe. But that does not mean that every fraudulent claim has to be accepted. We demand the most rigorous standards of evidence, especially on what is important to us. So if some guy comes up to me, a channel or medium, ‘I can put you in touch with your parents,’ well because I want so terribly to believe that, I know I have to reach in for added reserve of skepticism because I’m likely to be fooled.
— Carl Sagan

On Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) and Sagan's Appreciation for Life:

But one thing that it has done is to enhance my sense of appreciation for the beauty of life — and of the universe and the sheer joy of being alive. Every moment, every inanimate object, and to say nothing about the exquisite complexity of living beings. You imagine missing it all and suddenly it is so much more precious.

It takes courage to apply scientific thinking to our daily lives; because it's not after "what makes us feel better," it's after what "really is." But to engage in any activity correctly, we must know it accurately. Not how we want to know it, but how it really is. And if we don't, we're liable to bend to the whim of any persuasive authority.

What's different from the days of slaves and peasants to now is our ability to think for ourselves — to reason critically. Why is this important? Because we began to question. A seismic shift that replaced magic and mysticism, when we did not question, and accepted everything as is. Accepted the lack of freedom as is. Without scientific thinking, we lose all autonomy. We may want to believe we have autonomy, but that's "belief in the absence of evidence."

Carl Sagan died several months after this interview . . . but his work lives on.

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