Cosmos 2.0

I expect that by now we’ve all learned to be a little wary of X 2.0, just like we wonder what’s being oversimplified when we see “the New X” or, worse yet, “X is the new Y.” We know that anything 2.0 should be approached with curiosity, skepticism and a sense of humor. Such is the spirit I would like to evoke for the following post, which I’m recycling from this Memoirs of a Skepchick comment.

The subject was brought back to my attention, oddly enough, by the Time Magazine list of most hoopla-ed people about which I already ranted. In addition to bashing my head against my desk thanks to the Dawkins profile, I happened to check Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s write-up (authored by Michael Lemonick). I could only think that Lemonick exaggerates Tyson’s name-recognition factor and meme-market capitalization. He fits Tyson neatly into the “next Carl Sagan” slot, but in my humble (cough, cough) estimation, Tyson has a fair way to go. As I mentioned a few days ago, the subject of “science superstars” came up during my breakfast chat with PZ Myers. Not long after I arrived, before the others showed up, we got to talking about how one invents a scientist persona for the mass media. Adam Bly, Seed Magazine’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, appears to be taking Sagan as his archetype. Notice that we’re all still looking for “the next Carl Sagan,” not somebody who is “bigger and badder and sexier than Neil deGrasse Tyson.” In other words, I wish Tyson were as famous as Lemonick makes him out to be.

(I was also a trifle irked by Lemonick’s statement that Sagan guest-starred on Johnny Carson’s show while Tyson trades jokes with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Apples and tangerines! Three decades ago, was satire the only channel of intellect TV provided?)

Anyway, what follows is the comment I left over in Skepchick territory when the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death rolled around and we were all in a contemplative mood. I’ve edited it somewhat from the original.

I picked up The Varieties of Scientific Experience at the Cambridgeside Galleria because I thought it would make a nice Christmas gift. Of course, I read it myself first and loved it. My only complaint is that it is too short. I kept finding places where Sagan raised a topic — say, the ability of chemicals to induce spiritual experiences — and I wanted more! It’s easy enough to find stuff written on all these topics, of course, but who could deny the appeal of hearing them discussed in Carl Sagan’s voice?

We could perhaps contact the professional psychics and ask for a channeled audience with Dr. Sagan. After all, these people are professionals, so they should know their job: if anyone can connect us with our teacher’s wandering shade, it must be Sylvia Browne.

No, on further reflection, that would not be money well spent.

Richard Feynman liked to declare, “What one fool can do, another can.” It may be incredibly galling to hear a person of Feynman’s intellectual power calling himself a “fool”, but this is still an important message. Neither science nor critical thought is the property of a superbrain elite. Sagan did what he loved, and he did it very well, but his was an act which demands others to follow. One finds it hard to name a scientist today who could honestly be called “the next Carl Sagan”. For that matter, didn’t Carl himself ask, in The Demon-Haunted World, where the ten thousand modern Thomas Jeffersons are living? I suspect that searching for such a fellow — a man or woman who looks dashing in a turtleneck and speaks with the occasional plosive B — blinds us to an important development.

If our generation had only one new Carl Sagan, we would have every reason to feel bitter disappointment. And perhaps the world has not yet produced that single, superlatively brilliant communicator. We live every day wishing for Mozart — but, aha! In the absence of genius, we mediocrities are learning how to shine. We may not have Mozart, but we are slowly learning that we live amongst a civilization of Salieris.

Time magazine recently named “you” the person of the year. In a dazzling display of irony, a blogger named William Beutler predicted this two months earlier, even giving us a front cover for his predicted magazine. Much remains to be done, of course, and key tools have yet to be invented, but I’m willing to consider this a hopeful sign. What the magazine does is not so important; we should be much more concerned with the fact that the amateur did just as good a job as the professionals! The Internet, it seems, is at least dreaming of becoming a network not of machines, but of citizens.

I got to thinking about this during a Thanksgiving-week blog war over at, the nastiest and most invective-packed such event to date. Of course, nothing I say can stop bloggers from warring, and I’d be a fool to expect otherwise. That’s part of the point. In a sentence, that point is the following.

CITOKATE: criticism is the only known antidote to error.

Forgive me if I am incapable of seeing such quarrels over attitudes and tactics as a “front” in a “two-front war”, something comparable to invading Russia in wintertime while simultaneously driving tanks into France. Perhaps one is right to indulge the puerile fantasies of the reptile brain by applying the congratulatory word warfare to the quest for good science education; maybe this is the moral equivalent of war we need to tell ourselves we’re fighting until our civilization needs war no longer.

But in a much more meaningful sense, this kind of schism — to use a theological turn of phrase — is not a war. It’s keeping each other honest. We are in the business of being our brothers’ keepers.

When anybody claims that the existence of morality in humans, say, is evidence for Almighty Jove, PZ Myers is there to call them out. If Myers or Dawkins ever sounds callous or forgetful of the human frailties which lead our fellow humans to seek solace in belief, well, a host of bloggers will point out the sin and let it stand in the historical record.

“If men were angels,” said James Madison, “no government would be necessary.” We have learned at some cost that no single human should be trusted to rule (an Enlightenment discovery summarized perfectly by Douglas Adams, bless his memory). Instead of asking “Who should rule the state?”, as they did in the ages of kings, we ask what combination of agencies can minimize the evil of those seeking power — what groupings of individuals can allow for reasonably efficient action while still preventing the rise of factions? Democratic government is an exercise in emergent properties: we seek to create a corpus more honest than its component cells can be.

The same holds true for science. Frauds, hoaxes and ordinary human sloppiness are weeded out through perpetual cross-criticism. Drives of ego and vanity — “What will you do to win the Nobel Prize?”, asks the admissions interviewer — are harnessed to benefit the scientific community and the species at large. The body has more wisdom and integrity than its component cells can display.

If science behaves in this way, it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise about science education. Don’t tell me that this is a war. It’s error correction. We are witnessing the price of vitality. These are not battles among men; they are the growing pains of a community. Think about it: if we scientists and humanists and skeptics were in truly dire straits, if the creationist cannons were outside our walls and all were almost lost, could we even take the time to argue? Nobel laureates who might quarrel volubly at scientific conferences formed a legion of Roman solidarity when Edwards v. Aguillard reached the Supreme Court.

Skepticism is a new thing! Thinkers have voiced ideas like ours all the way back to Democritus of Abdera and before, but how old is the notion of skepticism as a movement, with its own conferences, heroes and history? It is an interesting age when defenders of science, even those who are professional scientists themselves, are more famous for their educational work than any science they have done! (We know Einstein as a physicist but Sagan as a popularizer, with Dawkins and Gould perhaps somewhere in the middle.) Because we haven’t done this for very long, we are still figuring out how. We are learning from mistakes like the astronomers’ response to Velikovsky, and thanks to the Internet, we are slowly teaching ourselves the art of “flexible response”, replying to threats without making pseudoscience seem more credible by dignifying it with excessive attention.

We are learning! This process takes integrity and a willingness to swallow bitter medicine, neither of which are ever in copious supply, but nor are they completely absent. The Enlightenment is not a nation of clones. We’re all going to take our lumps ere we shuffle off this mortal coil, but at least we can take them like members of a civilization.

If scientists were angels, we would have no need for peer review, and if bloggers were angels, we would have no need for comments.

If we were angels, we would have no need for each other.

Who will be “the next Carl Sagan”? Perhaps our media-driven culture needs a face for science, every now and then, but we have to realize that a single protagonist is not the whole story. That very need for flexible response demands a different approach. Flexibility brings with it a requirement for complexity (the cybernetics people have formalized this notion as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety). One motto for the coming years, in addition to CITOKATE, must surely be the following: “Complex problems often require complex solutions.” Hero-worship, to the extent that it forces all actions through a common channel in order to emulate the figure we admire, robs us of that essential complexity which nourishes our flexibility.

Who follows in Sagan’s footsteps today? Why, it’s Rebecca, Evelyn and the rest of the Skepchicks. It’s Phil Plait and PZ Myers. It is all the citizens of our age who struggle to inform themselves, sharing what wisdom they can find with all the artistry they can muster. We do all we can, and then we do it again.

Carl, our teacher whom we mourn and honor today, once asked us all, “Who speaks for Earth?” His answer, we speak for Earth, stands as both a prophecy of our modern times and the path to realizing our future.

6 thoughts on “Cosmos 2.0”

  1. Very well said (: Unfortunately, your eloquence has driven everything but a hearty, “I concur!” from my mind :p

    …on an unrelated point, I have been unable to access Skepchicks for a couple of weeks, now. Has their service been down, or do I need to look for answers on my tube in the series?

  2. Odd numbered releases are better. DOS 3.1 was better than 3.2. Any of the DOS 3.* were better than DOS 4.*. Avoid DOS 6 altogether.

    COSMOS 95 was OK, and still available on DVD.

    Waiting for Web 3.1.

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