Carl Sagan died 17 years ago today: December 20, 1996. This is a small clip of his last interview, with Charlie Rose.
Sagan is clearly, as Hitchens said in his last speech, “not as I was.” (At the beginning of the third part of the full interview, below, he avers belief that he’s cured of myelodysplasia.) Nevertheless, he’s eloquent, with that rich voice emanating from a wasting frame, and his warning about American leaders’ ignorance of science is more timely than ever:
Here’s the whole interview:
17 thoughts on “Carl Sagan’s last interview”
Damn, 17 years already? I do really miss Carl Sagan. Kind, gentle, but firm when appropriate, learned and wise. And of course his voice and manner of speech were captivating.
There’s a whole bunch of cosmos episodes on youtube for those interested.
Well what would an “as he was” Sagan have affirmed then?
He describes today’s world exactly in that interview. He was an amazing scientist and communicator. “Demon Haunted World” and “Pale Blue Dot…” were magnificent.
Billions and billions and billions…
He is greatly missed.
I tend to think of “The Demon Haunted-World” as the first skeptic type book that I read, but seeing that it was published as late as 1995, that can’t be true. Still, it put in one place everything that I believed, so it resonated pretty powerfully with me.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on TV and his book, The Dragons of Eden were some of the first science media I was exposed to as a kid. We need him now more than ever but thankfully he did pave the way for the popularization of science, and took some licks for it too.
Pale Blue Dot was one of the books which had the biggest impact on my lost of faith.
Greatly missed. Like Krauss, Weinberg, Hitchens, and Dawkins, Sagan was a great orator for science and exploring beyond where we have been. Ironically, Hitchens was not a scientist, but he gives me as much daily inspiration at the lab as anyone else.
Several years ago I loaned my copy of The Demon-Hounted World to a neighbor. A few days later she returned it to me and said she couldn’t read it. The “demon” in the title hinted at Satanism. I pointed out that the “demon” in the title was talking about ignorance and not some religious subject. She still would not read the book.
And yes, Sagan is greatly missed.
I once mentioned Martin Gardner’s book, “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener,” to someone of a similar religioso mindset. Simply on account of the title, he responded, “That book has nothing to say to me.”
Ignorance and arrogance are a fearful combination. Gosh Martin Gardner is a wonderful intellectual.
Paying attention to Sagan’s words:
“We live in an age based on science and technology…
This combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces…
Science is more than a body of knowledge, IT IS 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 rambling along…
(Quoting Jefferson)The people have to be EDUCATED and they have to PRACTICE THE SKEPTICISM IN THEIR EDUCATION practice the skepticism in their education, otherwise we don’t run the government, the government runs us.”
This is the major fact of our modern world and our modern “Weltanschauung” (worldview). We live in an age determined, structured, and conditioned by science and technology.
This was already the basic fact that led the German philosopher ARTHUR DREWS to write the famous book “The Christ Myth” in 1909 where he introduced the thesis that Jesus had never existed to the international conscience of the world. Judaism and Christianity are cultural FOSSILS in our modern age, dragging along obsolete superstitions of Antiquity that have no relevance in a world entirely refashioned after Descartes, Newton, Hume, Darwin, Einstein.
But critical thinking is not a given, nor a spontaneous propensity of the human brain. It is a discovered technique and skill that has to be taught through education, that people have to train by practicing skepticism in their education and their lives.
This is a very profound insight, that Daniel Kahneman developed in his recent book “Thinking fast and slow” (2011). Thinking fast is the natural reliance on beliefs and habits. And it is too true that “critical thinking” is slow, very slow, thinking. It is not a natural habit for the ordinary human mind, which prefers to be comfortable with beliefs imposed by family in childhood, and, later, by the immediate social environment.
That critical thinking and science emerged in Ancient Greece (Socrates being one of its well-known proponents) is one of the remarkable events of Western history, only to be stifled and eradicated by the sweep of Christian dogmatism in the Roman Empire. And its resurgence was the product of the immense intellectual battle, slowly but systematically waged by the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers to put all dogmas into question.
We now take critical thinking (slow thinking) as granted, as an obvious feature of our mental analytical powers. But it was not always so, and the Ancient Greeks, and Socrates, put it on the map. And, as Sagan observed, it is still far from being a universal aptitude. It is a mental skill that requires learning from competent teachers, training, and constant practice.
Critical thinking does require defeating lazy habits of thinking absorbed by osmosis in childhood and early adulthood, it requires appropriate education and intense training. It’s not automatically ingrained by schools. Most people in our modern US society don’t have this luxury to indulge in slow thinking, and simply go with the flow, with the majority.
A charlatan like Deepak Chopra has no difficulty preaching about distorted cultural and pseudo-scientific topics in this kind of poorly-educated social environment.
The great numbers are with the public, and publishers always welcome good controversies.
Without a wide spread of critical thinking, there’s no guarantee that we are entering safe territory.
“This combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces”. Remember the interview of Senator Mark Pryor by Bill Maher in his RELIGULOUS movie? “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though.” Sagan was justified to be worried about the future.
Sagan, Dawkins and Feynman changed my view of the world. Thanks to all of them.
Currently re-watching Cosmos for the multiple time. Sagan was such a wonderful communicator of science. His enthusiasm is infectious. Truly loved and missed.
He was, like Feynman and Dawkins, charming, truthful and contagious in his excitement about the world. Heroes all.