The Astronomer Who Abolished Gravity
If anybody possesses all the qualifications necessary for a fully ordained Expert in America today, Carl Sagan
certainly has that dizzying eminence. Through frequent appearances on TV and in Parade (a news magazine circulated through hundreds of newspapers in their jumbo Sunday editions), Dr. Sagan has issued Expert verdicts on every possible controversial issue in science, and in politics, and even in theology, for three decades now. And, like the Experts who authenticated hundreds-to-thousands of Elmyrs
, he has never once admitted he ever made a mistake.
You may wonder how a man who only has qualifications in astronomy can also function as an Expert
on everything in general. Well, I think it requires that Sagan have a lot of raw courage, in the first place, and a strong, well-founded confidence that those who don't believe his dogmas have much less access to the media than he does; if they answer him back, however effective their arguments, very few of his large, gullible audience will ever hear about it.
Let us see how Expert
ese works, by examining Dr. Sagan's long series of polemics against Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky
First of all, in every page Sagan has written about Velikovsky, he only once calls him "Dr. Velikovsky" as I just did. Thus, most people who know Velikovsky only through Sagan's attacks have never learned that Velikovsky had scientific training.
[ Velikovsky studied ancient history at Moscow University before acquiring an M.D. there. Later he studied psychoanalysis with Freud in Vienna and edited an international scholarly journal of Jewish studies to which Einstein contributed. (Einstein also became a lifelong friend and continually opposed those, like Sagan, who tried to slander Dr. Velikovsky without actually examining the evidence for his later, controversial comet theory.) ]
The contest thus seems a struggle between "Dr." Sagan, the learned scientist, and "Mr." Velikovsky, the ignorant layman. Little tricks like that go a long way in deluding the naive, and Sagan never fails to use every dirty trick he knows.
In what follows, I reverse this process, just for the hell of it. Sagan I will call Sagan and Dr. Velikovsky I will call Dr. Velikovsky. Sauce for the goose can serve, after all, as sauce for the gander.
Sagan continually states bluntly, and falsely, that Dr. Velikovsky intends his cosmic catastrophe theory to revive the old-time religion: "It is an attempted validation of religion ... " "Velikovsky attempts to rescue not only religion but also astrology." (Broca's Brain, p 126) We can only conclude that Sagan either reads very carelessly or engages in deliberate lying. Any close reading of Dr. Velikovsky shows numerous expressions of skepticism about both religion and astrology.
In addition, Dr. Velikovsky's theory of cometary near-collisions offers a naturalistic, scientific explanation for many events or alleged events in ancient history, which the religious prefer to explain supernaturally, as miracles. Nobody who suggests a natural
explanation for allegedly supernatural
events offers real support to religion, in either the judgment of the religious themselves or of those of us with agnostic disposition.
Only Sagan — and a few others, who seem to never have read Dr. Velikovsky and obtained their "knowledge" about his works from Sagan — think of the cornet model as "validating" religion, since Dr. Velikovsky uses a hypothetical comet to replace a hypothetical god in explaining huge reported floods, and other catastrophes. Most of us think of Dr. Velikovsky's theory as one which, if proven, would knock one more leg from under the edifice of Bible Fundamentalism. Nobody seems likely to worship Dr. Velikovsky's comet, but millions still worship the Bible's god.
In the 30 years or more that Sagan has engaged in diatribes against Dr. Velikovsky, somebody must have pointed out this fundamental confusion to him — mis-identifying a naturalistic theory with a supernatural theory. Evidently, he has a lot of trouble hearing or remembering such corrections. You become a leading Expert
by acting as if everybody else's opinion deserves no attention and never even deserves the courtesy of an answer.
For instance, to leave Dr. Velikovsky for a moment, consider Sagan's hilarious theory of "nuclear winter."
[ "Hilarious" represents my own subjective judgment, of course. But I really doubt that anybody can read Sagan's woolly theorizing on the subject, then read the scientific rebuttals, then read Sagan's blithe reiterations of his theory (all written as if he had never heard of the rebuttals) without laughing out loud or at least snickering. As I said, Sagan knows that he has a bigger audience than any of his critics, so he can afford to bluff. Cf. Elmyr on Experts
Briefly, Sagan's theory holds that nuclear war could result, not just in the horrors we all know, but in a freeze that would probably abolish all life on this planet. (He published this notion in Parade, where his mass audience could see it and gasp.) His refusal to accept valid criticisms of this sci-fi story led to the following summary in Science, official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "News and Comments" section, Jan 16, 1987:
Sagan's refusal to acknowledge merit in the NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research], s analysis-known as "nuclear autumn"-sends some people up the wall. One wall-climber is George Rathjens, professor of political science at M.I.T .. ." (Sagan's) claim that the original nuclear winter model is unimpeached [he says] .. .is the greatest fraud we've seen in a long time" ... Russell Seiz, a fellow at the Harvard Center for International Affairs .. .gibes at [Sagan and his co-authors] for mixing physics and advertising.
Most scientists I have spoken to about Sagan share this dim view of his use of publicity to represent his pet notions as Scientific Truth even when--or especially when-a large segment of the scientific community has severe doubts about these notions.
(Simifarly, in Broca 's Brain, Sagan rejects data on so-called "out of body experiences" among near-dead patients because, he says, nobody in that state has reported anything they couldn't have heard while unconscious. But the literature of OOBE has hundreds of cases of such reports, including numerous incidents in which the subjects reported things in rooms far away from the operating room. Once again, we can only wonder if Sagan habitually lies through his teeth or just doesn't read any of the literature on the subjects upon which he claims Expert
But returning to Dr. Velikovsky, and Sagan' s crusade against his ideas:
Sagan likes to quote a "distinguished professor of Semitics" who told him no Semitic scholars take Dr. Velikovsky seriously. Like the "intelligence officer" who told Newt Gingrich about dope in the White House, this "distinguished professor" remains anonymous, and thus Sagan's hearsay about him would get thrown out of any civilized court. Three distinguished professors of Semitic studies, however, have all shown cordial support for Dr. Velikovsky: Prof. Claude F.A. Schaeffer, Prof. Etienne Droiton, and Prof. Robert Pfeiffer. Look them up in any Who' s Who of Semitic studies, archeology and Egyptology. They have a lot more prestige in those fields than Sagan's Prof. Anonymous, who doesn't have a single entry under his name anywhere in the scholarly journals (although elsewhere he receives credit for many olde ballads and almost all bawdy limericks.)
Another choice bit of Sagan's Expert
testimony: he accuses Dr. Velikovsky of believing that ancient cultures had a calendar of ten months of thirty days each and 360 days in the year. Of course, 10 x 30 = 300, and this gives Sagan a chance to gibe at Dr. Velikovsky's inability to handle simple arithmetic. Very good, wouldn't you say? The only trouble with this brilliant analysis consists of the simple fact that, once again, Sagan has either consciously and deliberately lied or accidentally revealed again that he doesn't read carefully . Dr. Velikovsky says specifically "the month was equal to thirty-six days" (Worlds in Collision, p. 344.) 10 months of 36 days each = 360. See?
According to Dr. Velikovsky's model, the year changed to 365 days (plus a few hours) after the cometary near-collision. Whether he has proven that or not, he did not make a crude mistake in arithmetic. Sagan either made a crude mistake in reading, or followed Elmyr's formula for Expert
-ness: "sheer bluff."
Consider next the high temperature of Venus (480° C.) As Dr. Roger Wescott and others have pointed out, Dr. Velikovsky predicted a temperature in this range for Venus when astronomical orthodoxy believed that planet much, much colder. Sagan tries to avoid giving Dr. Velikovsky credit for this confirmation of his model by claiming "many" had predicted a high temperature before the Venus flyby. Actually, he only names one
other who had made such a prediction, Dr. Rupert Wildt, and Wildt's work did not win general acceptance. (Others try to get around Dr. Velikovsky's correct estimate in this and other instances by describing him as a "lucky guesser." That seems mere cage-rattling to me. One could as well call any scientist who made many correct predictions a "lucky guesser" ... )
As Harry H. Hess, president of the American Geological Society wrote in a published letter to Dr. Velikovsky:
Some of these predictions were said to be impossible when you made them. All of them were made before proof that they were correct came to hand. Conversely, I do not know of any prediction you made that has since been proven to be false.
But the final joker came on page 153 of Broca's Brain where Sagan writes (and this really deserves caps):
ONE NOW FASHIONABLE SUGGESTION
I FIRST PROPOSED IN 1960
IS THAT THE mGH TEMPERATURES ON THE SURFACE OF VENUS ARE DUE TO A RUNAWAY GREENHOUSE EFFECT.
(all emphasis added, and deserved)
First, Sagan claims that Dr. Velikovsky does not deserve credit for predicting high temperatures on Venus because everybody knew it, although historical fact shows that only Dr. Wildt had made the same prediction before Dr. Velikovsky. Then Sagan either tells a double lie or else suffers an alarming memory lapse that may require neurological consultation, claiming that neither Dr. Wildt nor Dr. Velikovsky had made this prediction (which they had, and he had noted earlier) — and then he brazenly claims he had originated it himself. Quite a performance, wouldn't you say?
Now do you know how to become an Expert
? Keep a straight face and make sure the mass media gives you more coverage than it gives those who try to correct your mis-statements.
I could go on and on, for hundreds of pages, but instead I eagerly refer you to Charles Ginenthal's book, Carl Sagan and Immanuel Velikovsky. (Synchronistically, it is published by New Falcon Publications, 1995; when I wrote this chapter I did not know Falcon was publishing Ginenthal's book
; nor did they
know I had read it and was writing this chapter. Really!) Ginenthal does spend hundreds of pages documenting one fallacy after another — literally dozens and dozens of them — in Sagan's smear campaign against Dr. Velikovsky. I will conclude only with the most dramatic, and funniest, of Sagan's goofs:
In several places, Sagan has published a mathematical proof that several near collisions between a comet and a planet have odds against them of "a trillion quadrillion to one."
(1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.)
Sounds pretty damned improbable, doesn't it?
The problem here lies in the fact that Sagan considers each near-collision as an isolated or haphazard event, thereby ignoring gravity. In fact, any two celestial bodies, once attracted to each other, will tend to continue to approach each other periodically
, according to Newtonian laws unmodified by Einstein. This periodicity will continue until some other gravitational force pulls one of the bodies away from the gravitational attraction of the other. Ask any physics or astronomy professor about this, if you think I'm pushing too hard here. As Dr. Robert Jastrow of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies wrote (New York Times 22 Dec 1979),
Professor Sagan's calculations, in effect, ignore the law of gravity. Here, Dr. Velikovsky was the better astronomer.
Robert Bass wrote, even more harshly,
This Sagan assumption [ignoring gravity] is so disingenuous that I do not hesitate to label it a deliberate fraud on the public or else a manifestation of unbelievable incompetence or hastiness combined with desperation. [cited by Ginenthal]
Well, I always had doubts about Sagan's ability to pronounce verdicts outside astronomy. When he does calculations inside
astronomy and then ignores or forgets gravity, I begin to wonder about his competence in general. Perhaps the misfortunate man needs a guide or keeper, to lead him about and ensure that he doesn't bump into buildings.
As far as I can see, Sagan's greatest area of ability lies in one truly well-proven and absolutely undeniable talent — for getting himself promoted in the mass media as an authority on everything in general, even though he seems to have no competence at anything in particular.
Sagan serves on the Board of Directors of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the neo-Platonist cult mentioned earlier, who believe that the "normal" not only exist somewhere but that it exists everywhere. Guess what? They have in their whole career performed only one scientific investigation, which resulted in the statistician quitting, claiming they had changed his figures to suit their prejudices. That happened in 1982 and they prudently haven't attempted another scientific investigation since then. They still use "Scientific Investigation" in their title, however. Would you call that "hastiness," "desperation," "incompetence" or — deliberate
Carl Sagan and Immanuel Velikovsky, by Charles Ginenthal, New Falcon Publications, Tempe, AZ 1995.
"Starbaby" by Dennis Rawlins, FATE, October 1981 — on the statistical study that led CSICOP to abandon scientific investigation. Told by the statistician (Rawlins).