The Skepticism of Carl Sagan

January 5, 2010

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly known as CSICOP – the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) had a long association with founding member Carl Sagan , the world-famous astronomer and host of the series COSMOS.

Over the years, until his death in 1996, Sagan had several articles in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer , and more articles about him and his scientific worldview were published. This new collection of 18 publications, free online at the CSI website , offers deep insights into the heart and mind of one of America’s greatest advocates of sound skepticism. 

Just a year before he died, he wrote an article on "Wonder and Skepticism" which eloquently expresses the "soul" of scientific skepticism. An except from its conclusion:

"Science involves a seemingly self-contradictory mix of attitudes: On the one hand, it requires an almost complete openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre and weird they sound, a propensity to wonder. As I walk along, my time slows down; I shrink in the direction of motion, and I get more massive. That’s crazy! On the scale of the very small, the molecule can be in this position, in that position, but it is prohibited from being in any intermediate position. That’s wild! But the first is a statement of special relativity, and the second is a consequence of quantum mechanics. Like it or not, that’s the way the world is. If you insist that it’s ridiculous, you will be forever closed to the major findings of science. But at the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way you can distinguish the right from the wrong, the wheat from the chaff, is by critical experiment and analysis. Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea, and hypothesis—which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism—especially rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested—and you’re not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science. A judicious mix is what we need."