Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Defense of Carl Sagan

Jasmine’s post raises a number of issues in the argument Penley develops against the scientific establishment and Carl Sagan in the first few pages of NASA/TREK. I’d like to add to that by explaining why I think Penley’s criticism of Sagan is, as a whole, unjustified.

Penley’s criticism of Sagan begins with the claim that Sagan believes that “Entertainment… is the opposite of enlightenment,” in the realm of science, and points out that “such a view contrasts sharply with that of … physicist Stephen Hawking”. As Jasmine points out, Penley’s attribution of this view to Sagan is simply wrong, given Sagan’s SF publications. Indeed, no contrast of the sort that Penley claims can be found between the views of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking: Sagan is committed to the popularization of science as long as it is accurately represented, which Stephen Hawking, being a practicing physicist himself, would surely have done in “A Brief History of Time”. Sagan only objects to popular science writing when it is grounded in a misunderstanding of modern science and misrepresents scientific facts, a caveat which Penley overlooks when she accuses Sagan of being anti-populist.

Penley also characterizes Sagan as insisting that “our pleasure in science… should only emerge through identification with the righteous joy of his skeptical debunking of nonscience”, but this characterization is clearly inaccurate. Sagan does not debunk pseudoscience because he derives pleasure from showing off his superior scientific knowledge, as Penley makes him out to be, but rather because he is concerned about the impact pseudoscience may have on the public, who may not be able to distinguish science fiction from fact. Given a choice, Sagan would certainly prefer to engage in writing his own works of popular science to spending time disproving scientific myths, making it difficult to see how he would derive any pleasure from being forced to debunk pseudoscience, much less expect others to derive enjoyment from such a debunking. Thus Penley’s characterization as Sagan as being some sort of holier-than-thou scientific elitist is simply wrong.

Subsequently, Penley rejects Sagan’s criticism of the X-Files, as she argues that the X-Files “does not eschew skepticism”, instead turning skepticism “towards the complicity of establishment science and the government”. Yet even her own characterization of Sagan’s argument shows that Sagan is not interested in skepticism in this sense. Rather, Sagan is criticizing the X-Files for its lack of empirical skepticism, or its preference for explaining unusual phenomena by means of alien involvement, rather than through scientifically plausible methods. Thus even if it is true that the X-Files is “fully skeptical” in the antiestablishment sense, Penley’s point is hardly a relevant response to Sagan’s criticism.

Finally, Penley accuses Sagan of being unable to “appreciate the levels of irony and humor in the X-Files”, and of underestimating “the degree of critical reflection fans are capable of”. In the process, she also makes another ad hominem jab at Sagan, again suggesting that his motivations for debunking pseudoscience are elitist. It may be true that by analysing the X-Files from a solely scientific viewpoint and focusing on its failings with regards to empirical skepticism, Sagan may be missing out on the various other themes of the show which make it so enjoyable, such as the issues of government accountability and gender which it addresses. But this is irrelevant to Sagan’s criticism, for the extent to which the X-Files makes insightful social and political commentary has no bearing on the extent to which it represents scientific facts accurately, and so again Penley’s supposed response to Sagan is inadequate. Given this and the other flaws in Penley’s argument I have outlined above, I consider Penley’s criticism of Sagan to be unjustified.


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