Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Weight of a Legacy

On this day in 1996 Carl Sagan died. A great author, popularizer of science, and skeptic, Sagan's passing left a huge hole in the skeptical world. At least, that's how his death is usually portrayed. I have a different take on Carl Sagan's legacy. I don't want this to be disrespectful in any way, but I don't think we need Sagan anymore. As I hope to convince you, this is the best compliment I can give him.

I'm part of a young generation of skeptics. We're in school. We write and read blogs. We listen to podcasts. We have sources of information that weren't available to the earlier generations of skeptics. Those skeptics were weaned on Sagan. He was a beacon and a sage. His books were the textbooks. He was a star of the popularization of science scene, but a superstar among skeptics.

Sagan sought to teach critical thinking, and he did it very well. So well, in fact, that those who studied the lessons Sagan taught learned them fully and completely. They really got what he was trying to say. Sagan was an undeniable success: his skeptical students retained his teachings.

So today, after Carl Sagan has gone, those whom he taught are carrying the torch. The older generation produces the podcasts that the younger generation listens to. They write some of the blogs we read. They pass on the untainted message of Sagan to us, and hopefully we retain as much as they did. We don't need Sagan anymore because we have hundreds of people passing on his message.

That's why I feel it is a compliment to say we don't need Carl Sagan. His teaching was so good that his message survives untainted beyond his death. And I hope that my generation can take on the mantle of his ideas as well as I think we can.

-Thanks to Joel's humanistic blog for organizing.
-Still thanks, but perhaps I'll link to this year's post rather than last year's.


Blake Stacey said...

Oddly enough, this echoes what I said during last year's Sagan-a-thon. I think there's an important point, though, which should be addressed: it's true that many people today are carrying on Sagan's work. Indeed, his mission would have been a failure if people weren't doing just that, or if there were only one "science superstar". However, in the modern media environment, we might need just such a superstar — a person whose name is big enough to get documentaries funded, say, or who can go on TV when science needs a face. I'm all for having as many of these people as we can get! In fact, it might be easier to build up such a person today than it was in Sagan's time, because now, anyone who tries will have the volunteer support structure of all us Internet folk.

Flavin said... the modern media environment, we might need just such a superstar...

I really don't want to seem confrontational, because I may agree with you (I'm not sure), but why? Why do we need a neoSagan? What goals would that serve? You imply that there is a strong skeptical community on the Internet; do we really need wider support than that?

Ben said...

I think Blake might be saying that we need a louder voice in the public arena. Most people who are not interested in skepticism aren't going to waste their time on our blogs. I think I agree with Blake that it would be nice if the media has a well-known and well-respected go-to-guy for science issues. It also helps if the guy is likable/friendly. Unless I'm mistake, I think Blake and I would like to see better PR for us skeptics.

Blake Stacey said...

What Ben said.