Carl Sagan: Astronomer, Novelist, Conspiracy Theorist?

Sagan's musings in his penultimate book may well have placed him under the umbrella term "conspiracy theorist" today

Sagan’s musings in his penultimate book may well have placed him under the umbrella term “conspiracy theorist” today

Carl Sagan is often revered as an American national treasure. Those who remember him, remember his charismatic teachings in critical thinking, and his popularization of science with the immensely successful Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The TV show was watched by millions; the book read by thousands. All in all, Carl Sagan was a pretty gifted individual – who had not only worked on dozens of NASA missions, but also wrote the novel Contact – which again probably had more viewers (it was adapted in to a motion picture) than readers.

But was Carl Sagan a conspiracy theorist? Certainly not. The title of this blog was a con to entice the reader! But he does say things in is penultimate book –The Demon Haunted World- that if you or me were to say on the BBC or CNN today, could be regarded as a “wacky” viewpoint or the sign of a “paranoid” mind.

Carl Sagan has a specific chapter in his book, also with contributions by his widow Ann Druyan, called ‘Science and Witchcraft’ which, at the tail-end of the book, enters a more political tone than a scientific one. First he talks about the dangers of the so-called liberal media which is almost entirely controlled by a handful of parent companies and individuals. “How confident are we that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always reside in the responsible hands?” Sagan says, and then he makes examples to Stalin’s re-writing of Soviet history and the Nazi propaganda machine. He makes special mention to the increasingly effective use of technology to manipulate or fabricate video and photography to make a point – and he also gives a special mention to how quickly the media transmogrified Saddam Hussein from a near-ally in 1990-91 to a “slavering monster menacing the world” in the American consciousness. He is warning the reader of the power of a controlling media, which can force public opinion in whichever direction it wants.

What I argue is, if one were to reiterate these thoughts on national TV, or in the tabloids, or perhaps even amongst friends, one would likely be subject to criticism akin to that of “you are a conspiracy theorist.” Does this make Carl Sagan a conspiracy theorist, too? Or is he just, as his scientific mind dictated him, a critical thinker who always asked the questions? It is healthy to question everything – that is the method of science. It is also imperative for the success of humanity. Some conspiracy theorists may sound crazy -some more than others-, but that doesn’t mean they are all tin-foil wearing recluses in their parents’ basement. Just because something is unlikely it doesn’t mean it can’t, or isn’t, happening.

Critical thinking must become more prominent in Western society, and that is the ultimate conclusion of Sagan’s book.

Sagan, Carl; The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996); Random House, Inc – USA (pages 413, 414 & 415).

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