Note: this is a repost of one of the very first posts I made on this blog. Since Theo over a Humbug Online has mentioned that the next Skeptic’s Circle (#50) is going to be a tribute to Carl Sagan, whom I’ve always held in high regard, I thought I’d dig this one out again. While he may not have agreed with them, Dr. Sagan was always very fair to religion and sensitive to the beliefs of others. His idea was that it would be far easier to appeal to believers (in religion, UFOs, ESP, etc) and educate them if they were respected and treated fairly than if not. This is why it came to a surprise to me to see that there were those “believers” that attacked Sagan in spite of his sensitivity and found him to be such a threat. Perhaps it was the very nature of his appeal and popularity that some found threatening.
The topic of “scientism” keeps coming up in conversations with both those who criticize the rigorous demands of the scientific method as well as through a short monograph on the internet (Menton 1991) with the title, Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism.
Interestingly enough, the term scientism exists among scholarly references and refers to the notion that science and the scientific method can be used to explain all that can be observed or experienced in the universe. This is consistent with logical positivism, which holds that there is an objectively knowable universe.
However, a different use of scientism has been co-opted, which implies that there are those within science that are to be derided as extremists or, at the very least, alarmists who reject critical thought and reason by denying “both the special revelation of truth and the existence of a sovereign, supernatural and external being (Menton 1991).” The assumption here is that science generally accepts the supernatural and spiritual “revelations” as valid methods of obtaining truths.
More often than not, the sources of these implications and assumptions originate with theistic proponents of creation mythology. Some, however, tactically avoid the direct association with creation and supernaturalism as if to provide plausible deniability if directly called on either to produce evidence or supporting references. It is, after all, difficult to logically prove that which cannot be tested, and the intellectual and educated theist wisely avoids this. The tactic, instead, appears to be to assert that there is a subculture called scientism, which is a moral and extremist faction of real science.
The overall thesis of this assertion seems to suggest that scientism as an extremist faction of science is somehow a danger to society, perhaps with its rampant atheism and certainly with its naturalistic and materialistic views of the universe.
Menton’s paper on the subject made Carl Sagan the focus of the anti-scientism movement (as it were). Menton accused Sagan of being a “prophet” of scientism, which impliesd very clearly that the author believed this to be a new form of religion or was at least willing to argue the notion. Menton’s opening paragraph made the unsupported claim that Sagan’s work consisted of “only a tissue of empirical science covering a great bulk of improvable speculation liberally laced with Sagan’s own philosophical and religious views of life.” Menton then stated, very plainly, “Sagan’s religion [â€¦] is ‘scientism.'”
Menton’s article is short and falls even more short in delivering any support for either his claim that Sagan was a representative of a religion or that this religion of “scientism” actually exists. Menton’s derision of Sagan’s work goes little beyond merely stating that it is speculative and supported only be a “tissue of empiricism.” He does, however, criticize Sagan’s position (Cosmos 1996) that evolution is a fact and that it really happened. Menton is unconcerned with the enormous body of evidence that exists to support Sagan’s assertion and seems only interested in attempting to negatively affect Sagan’s credibility in the matters of science. In doing so, Menton invokes the words of Harlow Shapely, an apparent one-time professor of Sagan, who is alleged to have said, “some piously record, ‘In the beginning, God,’ but I say in the beginning hydrogen.” Menton then vastly oversimplifies Shapely’s contention by concluding that Shapely is suggesting hydrogen + time = H. sapiens as if the complex processes and mechanisms between hydrogen and civilization came about in a few days. I’m not sure what specific creationist beliefs Menton has, but it is interesting to note that he rejects the hypothesis that hydrogen, many billions of years, and untold energy can result in the universe as we know it. The irony is that he probably has little difficulty accepting that a mysterious, supernatural entity can speak the world into existence â€“complete with people in just a few days!
Menton mines several quotes from Sagan’s Cosmos (1996), which he takes from their original contexts and juxtaposes with new a new context â€“the one of an atheistic scientist attempting to convert the masses to become godless heathens. Menton’s deception isn’t very subtle. He quotes Sagan from a 1980 newspaper article as saying, “I feel in order to survive we someday must be able to give up our allegiance to our nation, our religion, our race and economic group and think of ourselves more as just a temporary form of life under the creation of a power beyond our comprehension.” Menton cites the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as the source but immediately follows the quote with “Sagan concludes that if man is to worship anything greater than man himself, it should be something which amounts to the pagan worship of nature,” to which Menton follows with another Sagan quote mined from Cosmos (p 243): “Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?”
Perhaps Menton truly believes that Sagan’s position was that the sun should be worshipped and that a pagan religion was necessary. But a look at page 242 of Cosmos and reading on through 243 reveals the context of Sagan’s words. The chapter these pages reside in is titled The Lives of Stars and Sagan is describing the power of a star on the community of planets from which one is lucky enough to be able to support life. He was noting that the power of the sun did not go unnoticed to man and the footnote that was attached to the quote was this:
“The early Sumerian pictograph for god was an asterisk, the symbol of the stars. The Aztec word for god was Teotl, and its glyph was a representation of the Sun. The heavens were called the Teoatl, the godsea, the cosmic ocean.”
The very next paragraph that follows the quote abbegins with, “The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions.”
Even Menton couldn’t have missed the literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole which Sagan effectively utilized to convey the enormity and power that a star has, even a “mediocre” one such as our Sun.
Menton was again disingenuous with Sagan’s words when he quoted UFO’s: A Scientific Debate (Sagan & Page 1972, p.xiv): “[s]cience has itself become a kind of religion.” Menton inserts the period that follows “religion” as if that is the end of the thought, leaving the reader with the impression that the “prophet of scientism” has spoke and the movement begun. But to add context and truth to the eight words quote-mined by Menton, it is important to not
e that “religion” is punctuated with a trailing comma and the sentence completes with, “and many pronouncements cloaked in scientific attire are blandly accepted by much of the public.” Clearly Sagan and Paige (the co-editor Menton so conveniently omits to credit) are providing an introduction to the thesis of the collection of articles to which they are the editors of in UFO’s, which is that science must contain skepticism and critical thought in order to balance the pop-culture appeal that it has attained.
What then is the purpose of criticizing notable figures of science with charges of “scientism” and of starting a “religion?”
For the theistic apologetics of creationism and it’s guise under the form of “intelligent” design, this question’s answer lies in an agenda to justify beliefs and promote doubt among believers, obfuscating the truth with appeals to their religious sensibilities. Indeed, the much talked about “wedge strategy” dictates, among it’s goals, to seed doubt among lay persons regarding the validity of the science behind evolutionary processes in order to further the creationist agenda. Interestingly enough, the scientism accusation finds its way into arguments with proponents of other forms of psuedoscience that range from ESP to “alternative medicine.”
Menton, D. N. (1991). Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism (Get the Facts). Retrieved 13106, from Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.: http://www.gennet.org/facts/sagan.html.
Sagan, C. (1986). Broca’s Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C. (1996). Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Page, T. (1972). Introduction. In C. Sagan & T. Page (Eds.), Ufo’s: A Scientific Debate (p. xiv). New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.