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Why Neil deGrasse Tyson cannot replace Carl Sagan

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In the background to the relaunch of Sagan’s Cosmos series with Hayden planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson is, of course, Sagan himself.

Tyson can’t step into Sagan’s shoes because they have been buried with the man. The world in which Sagan represented cool atheism in science was the real world of space exploration, of which NASA was the emblem. Tyson is trying to make it all work in a world where the multiverse, promoted by new atheists, makes space exploration meaningless.

Now along comes the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach, who had interviewed Sagan(1934–1996), to say, “Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable: No one will ever match his talent as the “gatekeeper of scientific credibility.”

The expression tells us much: Atheists and agnostics had positioned themselves, as they do today, as gatekeepers of scientific credibility. Curiously, the peer review scandals that have caused Nobel Prize winners to distance themselves from the vaunted peer-reviewed journals have happened on their watch.

Maybe these scandals are relevant, maybe not, but the question is worth examining. Any time someone positions himself as a gatekeeper, we are entitled to ask what he lets in and out.

Tyson follows Sagan in offering opinions such as that people who doubt design in nature are truth-seekers (and others aren’t?) and that religion isn’t allowed in science. One gets the feeling he is expected to say those things, so he does.

But, as noted above, atheism has moved on since Sagan. The multiverse isn becoming the religion of science, and that’s okay. It’s the new atheists’ brand.

Consider the contretemps between Max Tegmark and Peter Woit, both atheists, a harbinger of things to come. The fact that Scientific American is backing Tegmark’s multiverse fantasies vs. Woit’s skepticism tells you what you need to know about that, and about why Tyson is a man who came to prominence in the wrong time.

Consider his repetition of Sagan’s signature statement: The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be. Tell that to Max Tegmark and the multiverses!

“All there is” is everything and its opposite and all states unimaginable in between. All there “ever was” is all alternative histories, just as real as the actual one. All there “ever will be” is everything, anything, and nothing, all at once. To get a sense of this, see here and here.

Achenbach’s Saganography in the Smithsonian offers some valuable insights:

Things haven’t quite worked out as expected. “Space Age” is now an antiquated phrase. The United States can’t even launch astronauts at the moment. The universe continues to tantalize us, but the notion that we’re about to make contact with other civilizations seems increasingly like stoner talk.

After earning his doctorate Sagan began teaching at Harvard, and as a young scientist, he earned notice for research indicating that Venus endured a greenhouse effect that roasted the surface—hardly a place congenial for life. Later he would make strides in linking the changing surface features on Mars to planetary dust storms—dashing any hope that the markings were linked to seasonal changes in vegetation. It’s an obvious irony of his career that two of his major hard-science achievements showed the universe less hospitable to life, not more.

Sagan had a few core beliefs, including the sense that there is an order and logic to the universe, that it is fundamentally a benign place, congenial to life and even intelligent life. His cosmos was primed for self-awareness. He sensed that humanity was on the cusp of making a cosmic connection with advanced civilizations (and no doubt that a certain Brooklyn native would be in on the conversation!). In effect, he believed he was fortunate enough to live in a special moment. That notion rubs uncomfortably against the Copernican principle, after the 16th-century discovery that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, which tells us that we should never assume we are in a special place—not in space and not in time.

In short, the whole new atheist cosmology was founded on a logical disconnect.

If anything, the Fermi paradox has sharpened as a result of Sagan’s evangelism:

Geoff Marcy, the University of California at Berkeley astronomer who has found scores of exoplanets, and who has diligently searched for signs of anything artificial in the data, says the silence is significant: “If our Milky Way Galaxy were teeming with thousands of advanced civilizations, as depicted in science-fiction books and movies, we would already know about them. They would be sending probes to thousands of nearby stars. They would have a galactic Internet composed of laser beams at various wavelengths shooting in all directions, like a museum security system. They would reveal enormous infrared waste heat from their vast energy usage.”

Indeed, explaining where they are all hiding has become a cottage industry among educated people. See: How do we grapple with the idea that ET might not be out thereSee also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (cosmology).

Tyson will need to find a voice to either confront or accommodate the new multiverse cosmology.

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6 Replies to “Why Neil deGrasse Tyson cannot replace Carl Sagan

  1. 1
    Barry Arrington says:

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? [Who guards the guardians?]

    Why, the UD News Desk will keep them honest if she can!

  2. 2
    CentralScrutinizer says:

    A couple of years ago I dated a woman for a while who was in love with Dr deGrasse. I truly relished knocking the polish off of her infatuation with him. Not that he’s a “bad guy”, personally, but some of his views contain lots of unfounded assumptions that she (for some reason) was not able to pick out until I came along. It was an interesting time. (We’re no longer dating.)

    In the two-way radio world, we have a thing called a “squelch” that can be adjusted to mute the baseline noise when nobody is transmitting a signal. I learned to use that, metaphorically, with these philosophical noise-makers long ago.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    Why Do We Live in a Huge, Yet Finite, Expanding Universe? – Rob Sheldon – March 7, 2014
    Excerpt: With excitement about the upcoming Fox series Cosmos approaching a peak, we asked our resident physicist, Rob Sheldon, to comment on the question: Why do we live in a huge, yet finite, expanding universe, and not a smaller or infinite or static one?

  4. 4
    Joe says:

    Who would want to replace Sagan? And why do seemingly educted people say that our existence is due to improbable coincidences and then call that science?

  5. 5
    captain_red says:

    Agreed! I saw Sagan’s Cosmos as a kid and it changed my life. Never before has someone been able to clearly impart the sheer wonder of the universe around us. I’m glad there are folks out there like Neil deGrasse Tyson still trying to carry the torch of popularizing science, but Carl really was one of a kind. I wear my Sagan / Slayer mashup shirt first after a wash every time!

  6. 6
    chris haynes says:

    For what its worth, Dr. Carl Sagan had some major Scientific accomplishments before he burnt out and became a gadfly celeb.

    But Dr Neil Tyson, has he accomplished anything serious, Science-wise?

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