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The Borderlands of Science: Excerpt

Chapter 10 — The Exquisite Balance:
Carl Sagan and the Difference Between Orthodoxy and
Heresy in Science

In his classic 1959 work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the philosopher of science Karl Popper identified what he called “the problem of demarcation,” that is “the problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as ‘metaphysical’ systems on the other.” Most scientists and philosophers use induction as the criterion of demarcation — if one reasons from particular observations or singular statements to universal theories or general conclusions, then one is doing empirical science. Popper’s thesis, presumably not derived through induction, is that induction does not actually provide empirical proof (“no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white”) and that, de facto, scientists actually reason deductively — from the universal and general to the singular and particular. But in rejecting induction as the preferred (by others) criterion of demarcation between science and nonscience, Popper was concerned that his emphasis on deduction would lead to an inevitable fuzziness of the boundary line. If a scientific theory can never actually be proven, then is science no different from other disciplines of knowledge?

Popper’s ultimate solution to the problem of demarcation was the criterion of falsifiability. Theories are “never empirically verifiable,” but if they are falsifiable then they belong in the domain of empirical science. “In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.”

The theory of evolution, for example, has been accused by creationists as being non-scientific because there is no way it can be ultimately proven to be true. No one was there to see it happen and biologists cannot observe it in the laboratory because it takes too long. But, in fact, by Popper’s criterium of falsifiability the theory of evolution would be doomed to the trash heap of bad science if, say, human fossil remains suddenly turned up in the same geological bedding planes as 505 million year old Burgess Shale fossils. No such falsification of evolution has ever been found, and although by Popper’s criterion this does not mean that the theory has been proven absolutely, it does mean that it has yet to be falsified, thus placing it firmly in the camp of solid empirical science, creationists notwithstanding. (Ironically, it was Karl Popper who mistakenly identified natural selection as a tautology — those who survive are most fit, those who are most fit will survive — a belief he later retracted. I own a copy of a 1971 anti-Darwinian book by an attorney named Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried, endorsed on the back jacket by Popper, who called it “a really important contribution to the debate … a truly valuable book.” Such misunderstandings will continue to be propagated as long as philosophers and scientists fail to recognize that the historical sciences are no less rigorous than the experimental sciences, even though their methodologies differ. See my book Denying History for a defense of this position.)

But Popper’s attempt to solve the problem of demarcation — similar to what I have been calling the boundary problem — between science and non-science begins to break down in the borderlands of knowledge. Consider the theory that extraterrestrial intelligent life exists somewhere in the cosmos. If we find one by making radio contact through the SETI program then the theory will have been proven absolutely (assuming the signal was verified to be truly of an extraterrestrial source, the signal was repeated, etc.). Physical contact would be even better, although this is far more unlikely, UFOlogists and alien abductees notwithstanding. But how could this theory ever be falsified? One might argue that it is falsified every day that SETI fails to find a signal, and critics of the SETI program make just that point. But the SETI folks remain undaunted for a very simple fact of nature: the cosmos is a very, very big place and we have only just begun our search. Our galaxy alone contains roughly 400 billion stars, and there may be as many as 400 billion galaxies in our universe, itself perhaps one of a near infinite number of bubble universes. How can the search through a few thousand stars be a criterion of falsifiability for this theory? Like Popper’s white swans analogy, at what point could one ever say that the ET theory has been falsified, short of searching every star in every galaxy in the entire cosmos?

Clearly there are statements and theories that are not quite science, not quite nonscience, and these I have called borderlands science. SETI is one such example that I wish to explore further in this chapter through the eyes of the man who nearly single-handedly put it on the map as a legitimate field of study for scientists — Carl Sagan. When Sagan began his studies in astronomy, the idea of searching for extraterrestrial life of any kind, intelligent or otherwise, was considered to be the province of fringe cranks. By the time of his death in 1996, however, Sagan’s heresy had become orthodoxy. In early 2000, for example, a book was published entitled Rare Earth. The authors, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, were featured in the New York Times as radicals for daring to challenge orthodox science that the cosmos is probably teaming with complex life: “Now, two prominent scientists say the conventional wisdom is wrong.” In three decades Sagan changed the theory from heresy to orthodoxy, even though there still exists not one iota of concrete evidence of any life, simple or complex, intelligent or not, anywhere beyond Earth.

How did this belief shift happen? More importantly, how is it that so much can be said and written about an as-yet-to-be-detected phenomenon? The short answer is that in the borderlands between science and non-science the mind fills in the gaps left by nature. The long answer is in understanding how scientists — or any of us for that matter — find that exquisite balance between heresy and orthodoxy, particularly when the evidence cannot lead us to a definitive conclusion. Why are some people more open to heretical ideas and others more inclined toward defending orthodoxy? The question is most relevant (and interesting) in the borderlands where definitive conclusions are not forthcoming. To find an answer we must turn to the social sciences, for it is here where we must take measure not of the phenomenon under question, but of the life doing the measuring.

The Measure of a Life

What is the measure of a life when it is gone? A newspaper obit? A magazine story? A potted television biography? How shall we capture the essence of that life? A list of accomplishments? Highlights and lowlights? Interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and critics? A womb-to-tomb narrative? And if that life was an epochal-shaping life, how is a contemporary biographer to put that life in perspective before the epoch is over?

What tools should we use? Oral history interviews? Demographic and statistical data? Document analysis? What fields should we consult? Psychology? Sociology? Cultural history? Does the measure of a life depend as much on who is doing the measuring as it does on the measured life itself? Can we even get to the true core of a person? Can there be a science of biography?

Humans are storytelling animals. Our greatest stories are about ourselves, our lives, and how they play out within the larger context of culture and history. From Moses to Michener, narrative has been the vehicle of biography for three millennia. Thus, my aim is not to tear down the citadel but to build upon it. In considering how narrative biographies are constructed I thought of Barbara Tuchman — one of our era’s most eloquent storytellers — and the frustration she experienced in facing the vast panorama of human variability and apparent contradictions in her attempt to generalize about the Middle Ages:

Contradictions, however, are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity. No aspect of society, no habit, custom, movement, development, is without cross-currents. Starving peasants in hovels live alongside prosperous peasants in featherbeds. Children are neglected and children are loved. Knights talk of honor and turn brigand. Amid depopulation and disaster, extravagance and splendor were never more extreme. No age is tidy or made of whole cloth, and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages.

No life is tidy or made of whole cloth, and few form a more checkered fabric than Carl Sagan’s. Nonetheless, this has not, nor will it, stop biographers from trying to capture that life in a comprehensive narrative biography. Less than three years after Carl’s death on December 20, 1996, two biographies hit the market — Keay Davidson’s Carl Sagan: A Life and William Poundstone’s Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos — with more on the way. Both Davidson and Poundstone did a remarkable job of getting their minds around such a larger-than-life figure, especially given the pressures they were under from their publishers to be first into print. But the problem of all narrative biography (and here I do not fault biographers for not writing biographies I would write) is in determining whether a particular action, a quote from a speech, an excerpt from a book, or a description of one’s subject by a colleague or friend represents a passing fancy or a deep interest, a whim or a passion, a long-term personality trait or a short-term temporal state (trait v. state theory in personality psychology).

Was Sagan a tender-minded liberal or a tough-minded careerist? Was he a feminist or a misogynist? Was he really obsessed with the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, or was this just a flighty avocation that happened to generate a lot of media attention? Was he a scientist of the first rank or merely a media-savvy popularizer? How can we tell? It is easy to start off with a hunch and then comb through books, papers, notebooks, diaries, interview notes, and the like, pick out the quotes that best support the hypothesis, and draw the anticipated conclusion. In statistics this is called “mining the data.” In cognitive psychology it’s termed “confirmation bias,” a powerful explanatory concept that accounts for many thinking foibles where we tend to focus on information that confirms what we already believe and ignore disconfirming evidence. Or as I like to say about psychic readings, we remember the hits and forget the misses.

Toward a Scientific Biography

How can we avoid the confirmation bias in writing biography? One way is to apply the tools of the social sciences. Fortunately for any would-be scientific biographer, Sagan’s curriculum vitae (CV) is, to say the least, comprehensive. Weighing in at 4.5 pounds, it totals 265 single-spaced typed pages. An analysis of it allows us to answer certain questions and to test specific hypothesis.

figures 29 (left) and 30 (right)

above left: Figure 29. Sagan’s advisory groups by type.
above right: Figure 30. Sagan’s fellowships by type.

For example, how productive a career did Sagan have? Figure 29 presents his 293 advisory groups, professorship and lectureships, and professional societies by type. Figure 30 displays Sagan’s 89 fellowships, awards, and prizes by type, offering insight into what he was most recognized for by society and his professional colleagues: first and foremost as a humanitarian and science popularizer, next for his scientific research, and last for his scientific writing (but one was the Pulitzer).

Such data alone, however, tells us little without a context. Was Sagan a world-class scientist or a mediocre scientist and a world-class popularizer? Since he was rejected by the National Academy of Science, the most prestigious scientific organization in America, I thought it would be instructive to compare Sagan’s statistics to those of the average NAS member. Unfortunately such comparative data are not available. But even by NAS standards Sagan was no ordinary scientist, so I decided to compare him to a handful of scientists who represent the créme de la créme: Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, Ernst Mayr, and E.O. Wilson.

(left to right) figures 31-33

above, left to right:
Figure 31. Sagan’s honorary degrees in comparison.
Figure 32. Sagan’s books by content.
Figure 33. Sagan’s books in comparison.

Figure 31 shows Carl’s honorary degrees in comparison: Gould’s 41 towers above the rest, but Sagan’s 23 is nestled firmly between Wilson and Mayr (although Ernst was quick to point out that his “are from the very best universities — the cream of the crop — such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, and Bologna, the world’s oldest university”). Diamond’s single honorary doctorate actually helps us understand the meaning of the others. Honorary doctorates are one of several means of keeping score for driven careerists. Of these five, in my opinion Diamond is the most modest and unassuming. As he told me: “I only have one because they don’t mean that much to me and they take time away from my family.”

Sagan’s book production is also telling — in totality, in content, and in comparison. Figure 32 shows Sagan’s 31 books by content, indicating his primary professional interest in planetary science (from his first book in 1961, The Atmospheres of Mars and Venus with W. W. Kellogg, to Pale Blue Dot in 1994), as well as his pioneering efforts in the exotic science of exobiology and (at the time) the mildly radical SETI (from the classic Intelligent Life in the Universe with I.S. Shklovskii to his novel Contact). Under general science I included such books as Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, and under the category of evolution fall The Dragons of Eden and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, co-authored with Ann Druyan and considered by Keay Davidson to be Sagan’s greatest work (because of her influence). But Sagan’s most controversial books dealt with the topics of nuclear winter, disarmament, and the environment, especially A Path Where No Man Thought with Richard Turco.

Figure 33 shows that Sagan’s book productivity was the highest in my comparison group, out-generating Mayr by 10 in 35 fewer years, Wilson by eight in 10 fewer years, Gould by 11 in only five more years, and Diamond by 22 in the same time frame. Interestingly, for all his alleged arrogance and self-centeredness, Sagan has the highest ratio of co-authorships and co-editorships of this elite group (eight of his 15 co-authored books had four or more authors or were large group collaborations, artificially inflating his book total but demonstrating his ability and willingness to work with others).

(above left to right) figures 34-36

above, left to right:
Figure 34. Sagan’s scientific articles by content.
Figure 35. Sagan’s overall scientific productivity in comparison.
Figure 36. Sagan’s average scientific productivity in comparison.

In Figures 34, 35, and 36 we get to the meat of Sagan’s CV — scientific output by content and in comparison. Figure 37 presents a content analysis I conducted on Sagan’s 500 published scientific papers, revealing that planetary science was by far and away his greatest professional interest, with two-thirds more than all other papers combined. Nevertheless, nearly a third (31.6 percent) of the total were in the (then) controversial field of exobiology, and another 9 percent in such career-hampering fields as SETI and nuclear winter. To many scientists, these washed out Sagan’s remarkable 67 (13.4 percent) papers that appeared in the prestigious journals Science (37) and Nature (30). By comparison, Diamond had 13 in Science, 128 in Nature (with 120 of them as his regular “News and Views” column), and through 1996 Gould had 45 articles total published in Science and Nature.

figure 37

Figure 37. Sagan’s scientific and popular productivity total and average over time.

Edward Teller was the most publicly vitriolic critic of Sagan, sputtering to Davidson “Who was Carl Sagan? He was a nobody! He never did anything worthwhile. I shouldn’t talk with you. You waste your time writing a book about a nobody.” Even though Teller had his own agenda, he was not alone in such criticisms. Many have claimed that Sagan was little more than a popularizer, forcing us to accept a crude binary taxonomy where one is either a scientist or a popularizer, but never both. These critics strengthen their case by citing Sagan’s inability to get tenure at Harvard, or the National Academy of Science’s rejection of his bid for membership. When asked by David Swift to characterize Sagan’s role as a SETI pioneer Melvin Calvin put it bluntly: “He’s a publicist.” Philip Morrison said of Sagan “I don’t think he’s actually done very much directly bearing on the technical problems,” but that “There’s no doubt that he’s had an impressive impact on the public about the whole question.” When I asked a number of his colleagues to describe Sagan’s “strengths and weaknesses as a scientist,” one astronomer (who wished to remain anonymous) wrote: “I don’t think about Carl Sagan’s strengths and weaknesses as a scientist. I think of him as the most successful mass media promoter of science yet. Some of his own research, public pronouncements, and priorities were compromised by his personal vision and style, but that is how it is in science.”

Can we scientifically assess the relative value of Sagan’s scientific contribution versus his popularization? We can. And we can make quantitative comparisons to other world-class scientists. In Figures 35, 36, and 37 we see Sagan’s overall scientific production and annual rate of publication comparable to my select eminent group (in Figures 36 and 37 Sagan’s total and average do not include abstracts, which the others did not include in their curriculum vitaes). The data speak for themselves: by quality and quantity Sagan stands toe to toe with these giants of science. (Note: had Sagan lived to Mayr’s age of 95 and continued publishing papers at his average pace, his total would have been 751 articles. If Diamond continues at his present rate to 95, his lifetime total will top out at 1,004, bettered only by Gould who, if he makes it to 95, will peak at 1,219. Gould’s figures include his 288 essay columns in Natural History.)

Figure 37 shows that with the exception of a dip during the years Cosmos was under production in the late 1970s (and a subsequent messy divorce), Sagan’s scientific productivity never wavered. In fact, he turned out more than a scientific paper per month from 1983 until his death in 1996, during the off-the-chart years of media exposure and popular writing. (Note: included in these 1,380, so labeled in his CV as “General Works, Interviews, Speeches, Policy Analyzes, Book Reviews, Television Writing, etc.,” are articles written not by Sagan or even about Sagan, but by journalists who interviewed Sagan, along with others for an article on a subject of which Sagan was an expert. No one in my comparison group has anything comparable in their CV)

What Sagan was most famous for, and what got him in the biggest trouble with the academic establishment, was his Brobdingnagian outpouring of popular articles and interviews. For Figure 38 I conducted an eye-blurring content analysis of all 1,380 items, revealing that public and professional perceptions of Sagan as the ET go-to guy were not misdirected, with SETI and space exploration topping the list. The number two most popular subject, interestingly and tellingly for this analysis, was Sagan himself, with no less than 263 interviews and profiles of the man (and many with his wife and professional collaborator Ann Druyan).

figure 38

Figure 38. a content analysis of Sagan’s popular writings.

Was Sagan politically and socially liberal? The data give us an unequivocal answer: one-third of everything he wrote or said was on nuclear war, nuclear winter, environmental destruction, women’s rights, reproductive rights, social freedoms, free speech, and the like (and this figure does not include Op Ed pieces, which were not given titles in the CV).

But in looking beyond the raw data one finds a definite tension in Sagan between his liberal/feminist ideals and his career ambitions. Although he was already a social activist in his early 20s, according to his first two wives Sagan was no liberal or feminist in the home. As Davidson described it: “Sagan’s liberalism, while sincere, had an abstract aspect; it was the clever, witty, after-dinner-speaker liberalism of Adlai Stevenson, not the passionate, heart-wrenching, take-to-the-streets liberalism of Martin Luther King Jr. Like so many aloof intellectuals, the young Sagan seemed to think in terms of People rather than people, of Humanity rather than humans.” His first wife, Lynn Margulis (herself a world-class scientist and a member of the National Academy of Science), recalled that Sagan “never changed a diaper in his life, he never cleared the table of his dishes, he never washed the dishes … He needed ten thousand people to be raving about him all the time. I was just one young woman, trying to go to school and take care of kids and run a household. Every distraction he considered personal.” To be fair to Carl, however, it should be noted that after his death Margulis admitted to Druyan that she had been unfaithful in the marriage (a fact I confirmed with Lynn, but who also explained this was long after the marriage had gone sour for other reasons), possibly making Sagan’s lack of household egalitarianism, in conjunction with the cultural expectations of that time for men to be excused from such domestic duties, a little more understandable.

As a consequence, his first marriage disintegrated. In a response emblematic of a man so committed to science and rationality as to not see its boundaries, Sagan tried to persuade Margulis to come back through what Davidson called “a very Saganish sales pitch — big on career, tongue-tied on love.” Margulis recounted the breakup: “We were walking on the street and he told me how I was crazy because he was such an important person, and he was going to be much more important, and that I was really married to a fantastic guy and I was crazy to even think about leaving.” More than anyone else Ann Druyan showed Sagan that you have to live the principles, not just talk about them, even in the home. Even here, however, my wife Kim pointed out that it is much easier for one to be a liberal and a feminist later in life when one is established and well off, where day-to-day chores can be hired done, when careers are flourishing and the children are grown. Sagan’s first son with Margulis, Dorion, wrote Sagan a contentious letter to point out what he perceived to be hypocrisy (summarized by Davidson, Dorion is speaking, reflecting as well the pain of being largely abandoned by his then excessively careerist father):

“His understanding of markets, which I had been studying, was simplistic. I remember being up at the Ritz Carlton … with his friends and his new wife [Annie]. Top floor of the Ritz Carlton, getting all kinds of perks — and they were going on about the virtues of communism. And that’s classic champagne socialism, you know?” Dorion wrote his dad a letter implying that his left-leaning economic views were hypocritical — a letter that was, Dorion admits, a pretext for his own inner hurts. “In the letter I said stuff like, ‘You say that we should have an equal allotment of wealth … Okay, why don’t we cap [the maximum allowable wealth] at your earnings last year and we call the unit ‘one sagan,’ and nobody can make more than one sagan. While we’re doing it, let’s cap the number of books that anybody can write.”

Along similar lines Poundstone properly nuances Sagan’s conflicting feelings about, and attitudes toward, homosexuality. When Dorion was in high school he befriended a gay classmate, triggering Sagan to sit him down for a lecture explaining that homosexuality was not how a species can propagate itself. Nevertheless, Poundstone gainsays Dorion’s stories (and we would do well to remember that, however understandable, Dorion still harbors a fair amount of ill will toward his father that may cloud his judgment) with examples of how Carl’s closest scientific collaborator, Jim Pollack, was openly gay; how Carl came to the defense of Pollack’s lover in a problem with obtaining treatment at the university health service emergency room, and that “in no visible way did Pollack’s homosexuality impede Sagan’s long and productive collaboration with him.”

SETI as Science and Religion

What made Sagan a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? To attempt an answer to this question Figure 39 presents data I culled from David Swift’s 1990 book SETI Pioneers. Not surprising, none believed that UFO sightings represent actual visitation by extraterrestrials. Equally unsurprising was their universal agreement that extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) probably exist somewhere in the cosmos (why else would they be involved in SETI?) I included these columns because, although interest in and the study of exobiology and the possibility of ETIs is certainly not mainstream science, then or now, it is nowhere near as fringy as belief in UFOs. In a way, SETI is elitist, UFOs populist; SETI is highbrow, UFOs are lowbrow; SETI is dominated by Ph.D. astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians, UFOs are predominantly the domain of non-credentialed amateurs. As revolutions go, SETI is on the conservative side. This observation will become important when we turn to the role of personality in science.

name birth order
/sibship size
religious upbringing religious attitudes belief in ETI belief in UFOs
Billingham 1/2 Church of England nonbeliever yes no
Bracewell 1/2 Anglican Orthodox nonbeliever yes no
Calvin 1/2 Jewish nonbeliever yes no
Coconi 2/2
(older sister)
? ? yes no
Drake 1/3 Baptist nonbeliever yes no
Dyson 2/2
(older sister)
Church of England nonbeliever yes no
Kardashev 1/2 none (parents died young) ? yes no
Kraus 2/2
(older sister)
Strong Methodist believer? yes no
Morrison 1/2 Jewish nonbeliever yes yes
Oliver only nondenominational Atheist yes no
Sagan 1/2 Jewish nonbeliever yes no
Sakurai 2/7 ? ? yes unlikely
Seeger 1/7 ? ? yes no
Shklovskii 1/2 Jewish ? yes/no no
Tarter only Protestant
nonbeliever yes unlikely
Troitskii 1/3 ? ? yes unexplained

Figure 39. a data analysis of the SETI pioneers.

Swift asked each of the SETI pioneers about their parents’ religiosity, but oddly did not ask about their own beliefs. Nevertheless, I was able to glean most of that information from the interviews — enough to make the generalization that most were raised in a religious household but that not one believes in anything like the traditional Judeo-Christian God (although I am missing some data). What is the significance of this observation? Astronomer Frank Drake, ostensively the SETI pioneer if there was one (and creator of the infamous “Drake equation” for computing the probability of ETIs), who was raised “Very strong Baptist. Sunday school every Sunday,” made this observation: “A strong influence on me, and I think on a lot of SETI people, was the extensive exposure to fundamentalist religion. You find when you talk to people who have been active in SETI that there seems to be that thread. They were either exposed or bombarded with fundamentalist religion. So to some extent it is a reaction to firm religious upbringing.” Similarly, John Kraus recalled: “We were very strong churchgoers, members of the Methodist church. I was brought up in a very religious atmosphere … there was never any thought of conflict between science and religion in my thinking or in my upbringing. Science and religion were simply both seeking ultimate truth but using different ways of going at it.”

But there were exceptions. Melvin Calvin’s parents were Russian Jews who “didn’t keep any religious practices. When I grew up I was without religion; a-religious, not anti-religious.” And Bernard Oliver’s parents “belonged to no orthodox church of any sort. I think my father had been christened a Congregationalist by his mother when he was very little, but he never went to church; it didn’t interest him. My mother, however, had this strong interest — a philosophical interest, let’s say, in life: what was life? And she believed that there was a soul. And the reason was that material things were far too gross to in any way hold this marvelous quality called life.”

Does religion play a role in attitudes toward ETIs? Philip Morrison gave his considered opinion: “Well, it might, but I think that it’s just one of the permissive routes; it isn’t an essential factor. My parents were Jewish. Their beliefs were conventional but not very deep. They belonged to the Jewish community; they went to services infrequently, on special occasions — funerals and high holidays.”

One might speculate that SETI, as a highbrow, elitist revolution, contains within it quasi-religious and spiritual overtones, in the sense that these scientists, while not believing in God, do believe in ETIs, uniformly portrayed as higher intelligences who, having survived what might be a tendency in species toward self-destruction once advanced technologies are created, and who are virtually certain to be significantly more advanced in every way than us, must also be morally superior. To the extent that religion involves belief in and hope for transcendence or transcendent beings, SETI is a high-cultural form of religion, and UFOs a low-cultural form of religion.

Melvin Calvin said as much about the impact of first contact: “It would have a marked effect. It’s such a broad, major subject of concern to everyone, no matter where they are, that I think people would listen. It’s like introducing a new religion, I suppose, and having it picked up by a lot of people.” Philip Morrison compared it to the Copernican Revolution: “Up till now a great many people have the happy view that we are unique, the green footstool of creation, and that there is nothing else like us.” Discovering ETIs “will have an impact over the long run comparable to the notion that the Earth is not the center of the Solar System.” And Bernard Oliver returned to the problem his mother posed: “My mother was involved in quasi-religious or metaphysical things. The question is really, ‘Is life a negligible and extremely rare phenomenon in the universe — intelligent life, that is — or is it so prevalent that the universe can be considered to be somewhat efficient in producing it?’ … life could, in the course of time, become an important force in the late evolution of the universe. I can imagine, though I can’t tell you how, that this life, in a network of communication, could form a sort of super-consciousness throughout the galaxy that, in ways we can’t foresee now, might modify the history of it.”

Although Sagan did not believe in God, he nevertheless said this about SETI’s importance: “It touches deeply into myth, folklore, religion, mythology; and every human culture in some way or another has wondered about that type of question. It’s one of the most basic questions there is.” In fact, in Sagan’s novel/film Contact, described by Keay Davidson as “one of the most religious science-fiction tales ever written,” Ellie discovers that pi—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter—is numerically encoded in the cosmos and this is proof that a super-intelligence designed the universe:

The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle — another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.

Sagan’s Exquisite Balance

The left column in Figure 39 presents the birth orders and sibship size of each of the SETI pioneers. David Swift identified an apparent overabundance of firstborns in his population, including Sagan. But is it a statistically significant overabundance? Swift did not test for this, but U.C. Berkeley social scientist Frank Sulloway and I did, applying what is known as the Greenwood-Yule rule for expected number of firstborns. For the SETI pioneers eight is the expected number of firstborns based on the number of siblings they had, but 12 is the observed number. This difference (four) is statistically significant at the .05 level of confidence.

What does this significant number of firstborns mean? In Sulloway’s book Born to Rebel he presents a summary of 196 controlled birth-order findings classified according to what is known as the Five Factor model of personality, or the “Big Five” personality dimensions:

  • Conscientiousness: Firstborns are more responsible, achievement oriented, organized, and planful.
  • Agreeableness: Laterborns are more easygoing, cooperative, and popular.
  • Openness to Experience: Firstborns are more conforming, traditional, and closely identified with parents.
  • Extraversion: Firstborns are more extroverted, assertive, and likely to exhibit leadership.
  • Neuroticism/Emotional instability: Firstborns are more jealous, anxious, neurotic, fearful, and likely to affiliate under stress.

To measure Sagan’s personality Sulloway and I requested a number of his family members, friends, and colleagues to rate him on a standardized Big Five personality inventory of 40 descriptive adjectives using a 9-step scale. For example: I See Carl Sagan as Someone Who was:

  • Ambitious/hardworking 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Lackadaisical
  • Tough-minded 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Tender-minded
  • Assertive/dominant 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Unassertive/submissive
  • Organized 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Disorganized
  • Rebellious 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Conforming

Figure 40 presents the results for Sagan in percentile rankings relative to Sulloway’s database of 7,276 subjects. (To measure the consistency of ratings between raters, Sulloway computed an interrater reliability score for the six raters who participated of .73, more than acceptable by social science standards.)

figure 40

Figure 40. Sagan’s personality analysis.

Most consistent with his firstborn status was Sagan’s exceptionally high ranking on conscientiousness (ambitiousness, orderliness, dutifulness) and his strikingly low ranking on agreeableness (tender-mindedness, easy-goingness, modesty). Extroversion and Neuroticism were nondescript, but Sagan’s openness to experience (preference for novelty, variety, adventurousness) was nearly off the scale, significantly higher than what one would expect from a firstborn. How can we reconcile this disparity? In Sulloway’s family dynamics model he reveals a number of variables that shape personality:

  • Social Attitudes: “People who are socially liberal are more open to radical change.” As we saw in Figure 9 for his publications and interviews about social issues, Sagan was extremely liberal.
  • Parental Social Attitudes: “People having liberal parents tend to be liberal and hence to support radical change.” According to his biographers, Sagan’s parents were both socially liberal. Plus, members of many minority groups (Jewish in Sagan’s case) tend to support liberal causes and are more open to experience.
  • Personal Influences: “Mentoring and friendship influence the adoption of radical ideas.”

On the latter influence, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago Sagan befriended Joshua Lederberg, whom Keay Davidson calls “the godfather of exobiology,” the meeting of which launched “the most high-profile dynamic duo of the early days of exobiology, the science of extraterrestrial life.” Sagan also worked closely with Nobel laureate H. J. Muller, and in 1976 wrote Lederberg: “if not for the encouragement by H. J. Muller and yourself, I might not have had the courage to seriously pursue what later has come to be called exobiology.” As Davidson described it: “The older scientist did more than talk; he escorted Sagan into the corridors of power.” Lederberg characterized the relationship as such: “I was often his protector and defender from folks who thought he was wild. He had a lot of offbeat ideas. They were always at some level not illogical, and some of them could prove to be right; and I would point out [to others] the value of listening closely to someone who has that degree of rigor and imagination at the same time.”

Sagan’s high conscientiousness occasionally clashed with his high openness. Lederberg recalls: “He didn’t stick to things very long. I think part of his reputation for not being ‘solid’ has less to do with lack of rigor on any one item than that he didn’t build a body of work on one particular topic. His interests were so catholic.” Actually this is what Sulloway’s family dynamics model predicts. Sagan’s openness to experience led him to gamble on a number of revolutionary ideas, but his conscientiousness prevented him from taking these ideas too far into crankdom.

If we view SETI as high culture and UFOs as low culture, then we should not be surprised to see a personality like Sagan’s support the former and reject the latter. This is the “essential tension” described by Thomas Kuhn in his apt distinction between normal science and revolutionary science, between tradition and change. Science is normally conservative, yet to progress it must occasionally relinquish ground to revolutionaries who have built enough of a foundation to grab a foothold. Sagan was masterful at finding that “exquisite balance,” as he noted (in a quote that serves as the epigram for my book Why People Believe Weird Things, from a 1987 lecture he gave in Pasadena on “The Burden of Skepticism”):

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

In this context, in a 1998 study Sulloway and I found that openness was significantly correlated with lower levels of religiosity (r=-.14, p<.0001) and higher levels of religious doubt (r=.18, p<.0001). Moreover, openness was significantly correlated with change in religiosity, with higher openness scores being associated with lowered piety with increasing age (r=-.09, p<.01), as well as with lower rates of church attendance (r=-.11, p<.01). Not surprisingly, we also found a strong correlation between openness and political liberalism (r=.28, p<.0001). These findings gel with Sagan’s personality and attitudes toward SETI and religion, where he was a passionate believer in the former and a skeptic of the latter.

This hypothesis is supported by answers offered by our raters when asked to describe Sagan’s unique thinking style. Astronomer David Morrison wrote: “Analytical, big-picture, great with students, excellent team member, probing and curious, ready to pursue unconventional paths, highly original thinker.” Sagan’s brother-in-law, Les Druyan, recalled: “In discussions Carl was scrupulously honest, always willing to admit to any flaws in his own argument; he had an uncanny memory for facts; his logic was wonderfully simple and clearly explained; he had the ability to discuss things on the same level as the person(s) he was with, from seven-year-olds to rocket scientists.” Poundstone well captured the essential tension:

  • Strengths: He had an almost phenomenal ability to look at a raw data set and see connections that no one else did. He was thereby able to pose the interesting “big” questions that are the starting point of most important research.
  • Weaknesses: Lack of follow-through. He had no patience for hands-on experimental work or the high-powered math that is the basis of most theoretical work. Having posed an interesting question, his impulse was to move on, to pose other interesting questions.

Thomas McDonough, who was a graduate student of Sagan’s at Cornell and later his colleague through the Planetary Society, noted the strain between Sagan’s rebelliousness and his ambitions:

He was not afraid of controversy, indeed, he seemed to thrive on it. Thus he advocated SETI when it was highly disapproved of by the scientific establishment. It threatened to abort his career because it was so disreputable. [Yet he] sometimes he went out of his way to insult his enemies even when it was irrelevant. For example, once at a public lecture on space exploration for The Planetary Society, he attacked Republicans even though it had nothing to do with the talk and undoubtedly alienated a good part of the audience.

He treated science virtually as his religion. He had an almost messianic passion for science. I have often suspected that science held the same emotional position in his mind as religion has for others.

He used his verbal skills to help him accomplish much more than most people could have, by dictating whenever possible. He kept two secretaries working full-time just transcribing his tapes…

Some of the most interesting observations of Carl’s personality I received came from email conversations with Ann Druyan. Although he had no belief in God whatsoever, and considered most of the tenets of religion a tissue of illusions, Ann set the record straight on how important Sagan’s Jewish heritage was to him (in part, countering the suggestion by his biographers that Sagan hid his Jewishness in the interest of career ambitions):

Carl was always completely out front about being Jewish. (And believed that his face was a gloriously unsubtle declaration of his origins.) It was his primary cultural identity. All three of his wives were Jewish, each wedding presided over by a rabbi. Our homes, replete with menorahs, yearly seders, etc. identifiably so. One of Carl’s few unrealized lifelong goals was the writing of a new Haggadah. His conversation was dotted with Yiddish words and phrases. A check of his remarkable vita will reveal that he was repeatedly honored by Jewish organizations, and went to considerable effort when he was gravely ill to be included in a Life magazine book and feature on American Jews of distinction.

Sulloway has shown that firstborns are more parent-identified, and Sagan’s biographers go on at length about his adoring and dominating mother. Ann shows that the relationship with his father was no less special:

To live with Carl and his father, Sam, was to witness the most tender and unambivalent father/son relationship I have ever known. I never once saw Carl be disrespectful or even slightly testy with his garment-cutter father, or with mine. He adored Sam and tried his best to be as much like him as he could.

As a tough-minded firstborn, Sagan preferred right over nice, putting conscientiousness above agreeableness, as Ann recalled:

Carl never participated in anything so shabby or short-sighted as the desire to pass for something other than he was. See his refusal to absolve Werner von Braun, one who presumably a Carl neutered of his Jewishness would have otherwise lionized. I believe Carl was the only major figure in that community to take him on in print and even more courageously, in Huntsville. And Carl hired Frank Kameny, a man who couldn’t get a job because he was the first declared homosexual to sue the Federal government over his dismissal stemming from his sexual preference.

As for Carl “the driven careerist,” if it was careerism that motivated him, surely he wouldn’t have turned down three dinner invitations to the Reagan White House. That’s like landing on Boardwalk for careerists. No, this was the man who routinely turned down invitations to dine with the rich and powerful and curry their favor. Instead, he’s the guy who schleps to the inner city kindergartens and citizenship inductions and jury duty. No careerist would have resigned from the Air Force Science Advisory Board and surrendered his top security clearance in protest over the Vietnam War. He would have played the game at Harvard, and believe me, if that’s what he wanted to do, he would have done it brilliantly. I never knew him once to keep his mouth shut about a matter of principle when it was in his self-interest. How do we square Carl as “the driven careerist” with his consistent lifelong pattern of choosing a course that would be problematical for his career?

We square it by recognizing and analyzing Sagan’s exquisite balance between orthodoxy and heresy dictated, in part, by the essential balance between his high conscientiousness and high openness. No one is all of one personality trait all of the time. These traits are tendencies, and when they are in conflict we see such seemingly paradoxical behavior. But the paradox is resolved when put into the context of this personality dynamics model.

A Wonderful Life

Scientific biography can only take us so far. Humans are storytelling animals, and narrative biography is storytelling in the personal mode. Not only was Carl Sagan the preeminent scientific storyteller of our time, his life right up to the end was heroic in the best Homeric mode, as Ann expressed it to me so poetically: “Even facing death and excruciating physical torture, Carl remained heroically rational. His samurai-like conduct, his grace throughout his harrowing two year illness and three bone marrow transplants — two years on the rack — is a demonstration of the authenticity of his perspective and character.”

How fleeting is our tenure on Earth, Carl might have said. We must make the most of it. Sagan certainly did. To quote George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, from It’s a Wonderful Life: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Whether Carl’s life is measured qualitatively (through narrative biography) or quantitatively (through scientific biography), he really had a wonderful life.

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