Looking Back: Carl Sagan Talks with Charlie Rose about Government, Religion, Biblical Literalists, and Science and Technology

Carl_Sagan_Planetary_Society - CopySubmitted by Elaine Magliaro, Weekend Contributor

I thought this Carl Sagan interview would be a good follow-up to “Cosmos” Host Neil deGrasse Tyson Speaks Out about the News Media, Flat Earthers, Science Deniers, Climate Change Skeptics, Religion, and Dogma–which I posted earlier today.

Charlie Rose talked with Carl Sagan on the Charlie Rose Show back in May of 1996. At that time, Sagan warned about the dangers of people being ignorant about science while living in a society that is based on science and technology. Sagan talked about the “combustible mix” of ignorance and power in our society that would—at some point—blow up in our faces. He questioned who’d run science and technology in a democracy if the people didn’t know anything about it. Sagan also noted that science is more than a body of knowledge. He said it was a way of thinking.

52 thoughts on “Looking Back: Carl Sagan Talks with Charlie Rose about Government, Religion, Biblical Literalists, and Science and Technology”

  1. Someone just learned “eristic” and they are using it every chance. You know someone has hit a nerve when the compulsive links start coming in rapid fire.

  2. david,
    thank you for the faulty discussion of faith. I will stick to what the Benedictines taught. How in the heck can anyone prove spirits? That is all part of the faith of believing things you cannot see.

  3. Elaine,
    There you go again. Bringing facts into a perfectly good intelligent design discussion! 🙂

  4. Science, Evolution, and Intelligent Design
    Union of Concerned Scientists

    Section 4: Why Intelligent Design is not Science

    The intelligent design movement is exceptionally good at creating false controversies and misconceptions. Yet their basic claims are easily debunked.

    – There is scientific controversy over evolution: There is no debate about evolution among the vast majority of scientists, and no credible alternative scientific theory exists. Debates within the community are about specific mechanisms within evolution, not whether evolution occurred.

    – Structures found in nature are too complex to have evolved step-by-step through natural selection [the concept of “irreducible complexity”1]: Natural selection does not require that all structures have the same function or even need to be functional at each step in the development of an organism.

    – Intelligent design is a scientific theory2: A scientific theory is supported by extensive research and repeated experimentation and observation in the natural world. Unlike a true scientific theory, the existence of an “intelligent” agent can not be tested, nor is it falsifiable.

    – Intelligent design is based on the scientific method3: Intelligent design might base its ideas on observations in the natural world, but it does not test them in the natural world, or attempt to develop mechanisms (such as natural selection) to explain their observations4.

    – Most scientists are atheists5 and believe only in the material world: Such accusations are neither fair nor true. The scientific method is limited to using evidence from the natural world to explain phenomena. It does not preclude the existence of God or other spiritual beliefs and only states that they are not part of science. Belief in a higher being is a personal, not a scientific, question.

  5. Absolutely not, David. I would be very interested in seeing evidence, if you have any, of an intelligent design. If it’s valid, I’d be more than willing to accept it, too. Mind you, I will be skeptical, but I’m sure you would expect no less.

    It’s curious that you would conclude that I would dismiss your publication out of hand. I recall that when I recommended Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, you dismissed because A) It only covered a thirty year period of economic development, and B) She’s Canadian. That’s the type of critical thinking we’ve come to expect from you, Dave.

    One would think that anyone who had spent nine years in college would appreciate the concise, focused study of a subject, like “Shock Doctrine”, rather than having to page through an entire history of capitalism. For example, if you try and learn about the Populist movement by reading most of the history books on American history or politics, all you get is a few pages at best. More often, the topic is limited to few paragraphs.

    The “Shock Doctrine” should provide an excellent example of a thoroughly documented, well researched study for you to base your own work on. Most significantly, she did not self-publish her work, and no one has filed any lawsuits against her or her publisher, despite her highly critical revelations. Another book I’d recommend, more on point here, is “Climate Wars and the Hockey Stick”, by Dr. Michael Mann, a climatologist at the forefront of climate research. I believe that whatever funding he’s received in the form of grants has not compensated for the heavy toll of all the personal attacks he’s been subjected to. And when I say I’d recommend it, I know that even if you did read it, you wouldn’t accept a single conclusion in it; you won’t believe in climate change until the archangels come down and grab you by the scruff of the neck.

    Incidentally, where gradualism isn’t supported in the fossil record, science must look to other sources of data, like the contemporary phenomena of changes occurring in bird beaks and plant life. That’s science.

    1. RTC wrote: “where gradualism isn’t supported… science must look to other sources of data…”

      Typical Darwinist response. A comprehensive theory of origins should not ignore any data, and that is exactly the problem with selling Darwinism. The answer for Darwinists is along the lines of wait, give us more time, ignore these facts and look at these other facts over here, and eventually we will figure it out. Well, I say it is time to build a comprehensive theory of understanding of all facts that we have at present rather than dogmatically claiming we know the truth without the facts.

      For what it is worth, I never dismissed “Shock Doctrine” but critically asked your opinion about what some reviewers wrote about it. I took time to look at the work and read some reviews. You should take time to read some of the 1 star reviews about the book on Amazon and offer some kind of rebuttal. Based upon my read of these reviews, Klein’s opinions are somewhat superficial and one sided. Your response further turned me off from making time to read it because you falsely claimed that I refused to read it. You have now repeated that several times in this forum as if it were against my religion to read it. As with most people, my time is limited and I don’t plop down money to read books just because an anonymous person on the internet recommends it. If you really wanted to pique my interest in reading it, you would at least share something interesting from the book that would make me want to read more.

  6. Ann Druyan Talks About Science, Religion, Wonder, Awe . . . and Carl Sagan
    Ann Druyan
    Volume 27.6, November / December 2003

    There was only one problem. These very special beings for whom the universe was created had a holiday called Easter and they wanted to be able to celebrate it on the same day at the same time. But in this geocentric universe that they blissfully inhabited, there was no way to create a workable calendar that was coherent. At this time, there was a phrase to describe what science was. It is suffused with disarming candor and not a bit of self-consciousness at all. It was called saving the appearances. That was the task of science: To save the appearances. Figure out a way to take the reported appearances of the stars and the planets in the sky and predict with some reliability where they would be in the future. It’s almost as if they knew they were living a cosmic lie. To call it saving the appearances is wonderful.

    So the Lateran Council of 1514 was convened, and one of its main goals was to figure out a calendar that everybody could use so that they won’t be celebrating Easter on different days. A man named Nicolas Copernicus, who was a very religious guy, whose lifelong career was in the church, had already figured out what the problem was. He was invited to present this information at the Council, but he declined because he knew how dangerous it would be to puncture this cosmological illusion. Even though the pope at that moment was not actually terribly exercised about this idea, Copernicus’s fears were not baseless. Even sixty years later, a man named Giordano Bruno was burned alive for one reason: he would not utter the phrase, “There are no other worlds.”

    I’ve thought about this a lot. How could you have the guts to be willing to be burned alive? Bruno had no community of peers to egg him on. He wasn’t even a scientist, he didn’t really have any scientific evidence, but he chose this horrible death because he refused to say this phrase: “There are no other worlds.” It’s a magnificent thing, it’s a wondrous mystery to me, and I don’t think I completely understand how it was possible.

    Copernicus did find the courage to publish his idea when he was comfortably near a natural death. When in 1543, On The Revolutions of Celestial Spheres was published, something unprecedented happened: a trauma from which we have never recovered. Up until that time, the sacred and the scientific had been one. Priests and scientists had been one in the same. It is true that two millennia before Copernicus there had been the pre-Socratic philosophers, who really were the inventors of science and the democratic values of our society. These ancient Greeks could imagine a universe and a world without God. But they were very much the exception, flourishing too briefly before being almost completely extirpated philosophically by the Platonists. Many of their books were destroyed. Plato loathed their materialism and egalitarian ideals. So there really wasn’t a vibrant school of thought with a continuous tradition that survived down through the ages, daring to explain the wonder of nature without resorting to the God hypothesis.

    It was actually initiated by a group of uncommonly religious men like Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, and (much later) even Darwin, who catalyzed that separation between our knowledge of nature and what we held in our hearts. All four of them either had religious careers or were contemplating such a profession. They were brilliant questioners, and they used the sharpest tools they had to search for what was holy. They had enough confidence in the reality of the sacred to be willing to look at it as deeply as humanly possible. This unflinching search led to our greatest spiritual awakening-the modern scientific revolution. It was a spiritual breakthrough, and I think that it is our failure to recognize it as such that explains so much of the loneliness and madness in our civilization, so much of the conflict and self-hatred. At that time, the public and their religious institutions, of course, rejected out of hand their most profound insights into nature. It was several hundred years before the public really thought about this, and took seriously what Copernicus was saying. The last four centuries of disconnect between what our elders told us and what we knew was true has been costly for our civilization.

    I think we still have an acute case of post-Copernican-stress syndrome. We have not resolved the trauma of losing our infantile sense of centrality in the universe. And so as a society we lie to our children. We tell them a palliative story, almost to ensure that they will be infantile for all of their lives. Why? Is the notion that we die so unacceptable? Is the notion that we are tiny and the universe is vast too much of a blow to our shaky self-esteem?

    It has only been through science that we have been able to pierce this infantile, dysfunctional need to be the center of the universe, the only love object of its creator. Science has made it possible to reconstruct our distant past without the need to idealize it, like some adult unable to deal with the abuse of childhood. We’ve been able to view our tiny little home as it is. Our conception of our surroundings need not remain the disproportionate view of the still-small child. Science has brought us to the threshold of acceptance of the vastness. It has carried us to the gateway of the universe. However, we are spiritually and culturally paralyzed and unable to move forward; to embrace the vastness, to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature. That we even do science is hopeful evidence for our mental health. It’s a breakthrough. However, it’s not enough to allow these insights; we must take them to heart.

    What happened four or five hundred years ago? During this period there was a great bifurcation. We made a kind of settlement with ourselves. We said, okay, so much of what we believed and what our parents and our ancestors taught us has been rendered untenable. The Bible says that the Earth is flat. The Bible says that we were created separately from the rest of life. If you look at it honestly, you have to give up these basic ideas, you have to admit that the Bible is not infallible, it’s not the gospel truth of the creator of the universe. So what did we do? We made a corrupt treaty that resulted in a troubled peace: We built a wall inside ourselves.

  7. Blah-blah-blah. Still making your tiny eristic arguments. Why is it you dismiss the vast body of solid scientific data supporting evolution out of hand, yet you insist on the existence of Intelligent Design, even though nothing your ID cult has offered up is able to stand up to peer review.

    Golly gee, if only we could all agree on an empirical clock that would magically prove how amazingly accurate the bible actually is.

    ID is unproven and unprovable, and if it there were an intelligent designer, it would not look favorably upon your infatuation with religious texts

    1. RTC wrote: “Why is it you dismiss the vast body of solid scientific data supporting evolution out of hand, yet you insist on the existence of Intelligent Design, even though nothing your ID cult has offered up is able to stand up to peer review.”

      First, the process of evolution is a fact, so it is misdirection to claim that creationists deny evolution as a process and the empirical data associated with that. The question of origins concerns Darwin’s grand theory of the origin of species by means of Natural Selection. This is a model of gradualism, which every paleontologist and biologist worth his salt knows is not supported by the fossil record.

      Second, it is ignorance to claim that evidence of creationist theories has not been published in peer reviewed journals. I’ve previously posted references to Science, Nature, and other journals. The problem is the paucity of such studies since the mid 1980’s when the AAAS proclaimed war against creationists. As has been well documented, bigotry from the Enlightenment bias hinders such publications, forcing such researchers underground, meaning they must be silent about the creationist interpretation of the data and hope the reviewers don’t see the implications. Or it forces them to have to create their own peer reviewed science journals, which then promptly gets categorized as religion (therefore not science), despite the emphasis on the scientific method and scientific data.

      Third, it is not MY ID cult. I am a scientist who has published in traditional science journals. I have never published in ID journals. I have attended typical science conferences and presented my science papers there. I have never attended an ID seminar and presented results there. I simply understand that science can understand the Creator through studying the empirical world, and this bias against acknowledging the Creator is political and philosophical rather than scientific.

      I’m working on a book titled, “A Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design.” I’m sure when I publish it, you will throw it in the rubbish bin because it does not go along with your own views. Such is the modern book burning methodology of modern readers afraid of alternative analysis.

  8. Evolutionism? That was a neologism coined in the 1800s by creationists in an attempt to frame the scientific study of evolution as a kind of religion, thus giving religion equal footing with scientific investigation.

    An organization calling itself The Institute for Creation Research, currently uses the word “evolutionism” as a Frank Luntz type of propaganda word. Somewhat similar to atheism, fascism, humanism and occultism. The neologism is commonly used to describe the consensus of mainstream science and the scientists subscribing to it. This is a backdoor way of implying through language that evolution is a matter of religious belief. The goal of the neologism is to equate the validity of the science of evolution with the pseudoscience of so-called “Intelligent Design.”

    1. Charlton S. Stanley, PhD, ABPP wrote: “This is a backdoor way of implying through language that evolution is a matter of religious belief.”

      Not necessarily “religious” belief, but it certainly is a term meant to highlight unproven assumptions by those who dismiss Intelligent Design models for some anti-Intelligent Design model. By definition, the modern Enlightenment scientists who study evolution and origins do not allow for any models that might consider a creator. They have a “belief” in their “dogma” and “doctrine” that there was no creator, and so this is how it must have happened, despite the evidence not lining up the way they had hoped it would. The entire evolutionary discipline is rife with confirmation bias. There is no room to test evolutionary theory by attempting to falsify it. It is accepted without evidence. The evolutionary concept is simply accepted by edict of those in authority, and it is not to be questioned, hence the use of neologisms such as “pseudoscience” and “science deniers.”

      The truth is that religion has always practiced science. Our culture has simply undergone a multi-generational indoctrination by modern Enlightenment scientists that religion should not be allowed to practice science. It is their attempt to secure a scholastic monopoly that allows them to censor viewpoints they consider abhorrent.

  9. “Giovanna,

    Biblical events and creation have no place in science and history classes. Study of the Bible belongs in religion classes/courses. My daughter’s public high school provided a class on world religions for students as an elective. I recommended she take it her senior year–and she did.”

    The problem is, Creation is supported by what we observe in living things, universe, etc… Evolutionism, is not supported by what we can find in reality and to the contrary, is supported by faith.

    But you are saying learning about Creation is an elective. I bet the classes that is forcing the evolutionism belief on the children isn’t an elective. They have no choice but to be indoctrnated with that BS.

  10. david,
    with all due respect, I don’t think you or anyone can claim that Sagan was wrong in his definition of faith. I even think the good Benedictine sisters taught me that faith was belief without any evidence. They said it in different words maybe, but the gist of their definition was similar. Faith is felt not seen. Maybe the fox in the Little Prince, in one sense, was defining faith when he said what is essential is invisible to the eyes. (paraphrase)

    1. rafflaw – you use the Enlightenment scientist definition of evidence to mean only the five empirical senses of the flesh. Most religions believe in a sixth sense… that of the spirit. The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord. I don’t like to quote Scripture here, but you imply that the religious would not disagree with Sagan’s definition of faith. Hebrews 11:1 – “Faith is the SUBSTANCE of things hoped for, the EVIDENCE of things not seen.” Watch the video and you will see that faith for Carl Sagan was an absolutely useless idea. In contrast, faith for the Christian religion is one of the big three virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith is not just imagining something without evidence and choosing to believe or accept that imagined something. That would be the counterfeit called presumption. That’s what Carl Sagan defined: presumption. In contrast, faith is a conviction of a reality shown to somebody internally through the spirit. It is valued in Christianity because it is based in reality. Science led Carl Sagan to see faith as something not based in reality. Sagan saw faith as useless and foolish. In his eyes, a person of faith is a fool. For the Christian, the opposite is true. Read the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 for the Christian perspective of faith, and contrast that with Carl Sagan’s view as depicted in this video. The differences are like night and day.

  11. Giovanna,

    Einstein ‘God Letter’ Sold On eBay For Just Over $3 Million
    Posted: 10/24/2012

    The handwritten letter, sent to Jewish philosopher Erik Gutkind shortly before Einstein’s death, references several philosophical and theological themes including religion and tribalism. The letter also expresses Einstein’s belief that God does not exist.

    Here is a partial translation of Einstein’s letter (via Auction Cause):

    The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

  12. Elaine,
    The role that religion has in science, as I pointed out earlier, is:
    #1 the recognition of great scientists that were able to live and profess their faith and also make contributions to science. This continues today.
    #2 that philosophical beliefs, or belief in the divine go hand in hand with science–consider psychology, psychiatry, various therapies and medications developed for psyche purposes.
    #3 Ethics and moral insight must be part of science classes, research and development to protect and preserve life of mankind. If this is not taught and acquired, the results can be mad science.
    #4 World religions are part of history and should be taught to a certain extent in Social Studies and History classes.

    #5 Even if science and religion deal with different domains, science and religion can and must speak to each other. Albert Einstein already saw this when he made his now-famous remark: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Science and religion need each other and must work together. Pope John Paul II asserted this same fundamental point when he said: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” (Todeusz Pacholczyk, PhD).

  13. Elaine,
    you beat me to it in response to Giovanna. Religion is for private parochial schools and if they want to ignore science because of their religious beliefs, they have that right. However, creationism is not science. It is religious dogma.

  14. Elaine and Giovanna, comparative religion, world religions are fine as electives. I don’t see how presenting what could be myth as science. I know it takes faith to believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but a great deal of people are not Christians or believers. My children went to Sunday School and Vacation Bible school with friends, I didn’t make an effort to withhold Christian teachings, but they don’t have a role in science classes.

  15. Giovanna,

    Biblical events and creation have no place in science and history classes. Study of the Bible belongs in religion classes/courses. My daughter’s public high school provided a class on world religions for students as an elective. I recommended she take it her senior year–and she did.

  16. annieofwi–I apologize if I misunderstood your intent. However, many religions (and a teacher myself) are seeing biblical events and creation eliminated completely from social studies and science. Shouldn’t we teach or at least be able to express both views, then let the students’ critical thinking make up their own mind? The underlying argument being made here is to give science total liberty without question or debate, particularly from religious groups–and that is wrong.

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