Monday, November 09, 2009

Remembering Carl Sagan...

Carl Sagan would have been 75 years old today. Practically every skeptical blog and website has put up some kind of tribute to him, and deservedly so: Sagan was one of the greatest popularizers of science ever. That being said, I was only fourteen when Carl Sagan died, and in all honesty I'd never really heard of him until a couple of years after that, so it almost seems weird to sing his praises. After all, shouldn't that be left to people who knew him? Well, I may not have known Carl Sagan, but his writings have had a profoundly positive impact on my life. In fact, it's not much of a stretch to say that without Carl Sagan, there wouldn't be a Skippy the Skeptic...there'd just be some kind of weird Skippy the X-Files-Loving-UFO-Nutjob.

As is alluded to in my profile, in my misspent youth I was a UFO True BelieverTM and a budding conspiracy kook. I eventually learned the critical thinking tools to reason my way out of the rabbit hole, and while numerous circumstances contributed to this turn of events, I owe a lot of my skeptical transformation to Carl Sagan. You see, one of my brothers gave me a copy of Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, and (pardon the eye-rolling cliche) it changed my life by planting a small, but priceless, seed of thoughtful doubt in my mind.

It was chapter 10 that did the deed. "The Dragon in My Garage" ought to be required reading in every critical thinking class because it so elegantly lays bare the utter vacuity and uselessness of an unfalsifiable claim. It seems so elementary now, but as a youth ideas such as a burden of proof commensurate with the novelty of a claim and the difference between evidence and anecdote were new to me. As you might suspect, it took a long time and whole lot of additional reading for these ideas to gel in the mind of a dedicated amateur UFOlogist, but eventually my thinking toolkit began to expand and I grew to appreciate the value and wonder of science as a way of knowing about the world.

To put it simply, the debt I owe to Carl Sagan is a huge, and I can only hope that one day this blog may have even 1/1,000,000th the effect on some young person that Demon-Haunted World had on me.

Thank you Carl, and happy birthday.

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