Carl Sagan is a well-known astronomer, cosmologist, author and science communicator, and original host of the show Cosmos. His views on science and general living are simultaneously inspirational and galvanising. Let’s take a look at just a few of his ideas that are useful for all of us.
Hone Your “Baloney Detection Kit”
Sagan was first and foremost a scientist, and that means he had a very specialised outlook on the world. In his book The Demon Haunted World, he outlines what he calls his “baloney detection kit”. The kit is essentially a means to test arguments and find fallacies. It’s a great toolset for sceptical thinking. Here’s part of his kit:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts”.
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
Sagan’s kit here isn’t just for science, of course. It’s great for everything, from politics to statistics. When you challenge those biases, you walk away with a better point of view. It’s also a good toolset if you’re making an argument at work, giving a presentation in school, or even just taking on a lively debate at the dinner table. The better you are at detecting baloney, the better your arguments will be in the long run.
Scrutinise Your Own Beliefs
When you want something to be true, it’s really easy to trick yourself into believing it even if it’s not possible to prove. When speaking to his daughter about the afterlife, Sagan had this to say:
Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.
That said, your own belief of the afterlife doesn’t have to be affected here. The point is more about keeping yourself in check. We are all constantly tricking ourselves to love certain things, thinking that you’re the best thing out there, or whatever else. You brainwash yourself because you want something to be true, and that’s keeping you from discovering new things.
Remember Your Place In The Universe
It’s easy to get caught up in your own problems and forget about the rest of the world. But Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot speech reminds us that, no matter how important we might think these problems are, they’re really nothing in the large scheme of things. Sagan says it wonderfully here:
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
Sagan had plenty more to say about this in his books and on Cosmos, and he echoed a similar idea to his daughter too:
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
When it boils down to it, it’s about perspective. You don’t need to go to the lengths (or distances) Sagan does here, but remember that everyone’s view of the world is a little different. Whether you’re dealing with negativity, solving problems, or dealing with painful memories, attempting to take on a different perspective is always worth it.
Diversify Your Knowledge
It’s easy to get stuck in a single field, then spend all your time thinking about it. But as we know, side projects are worthwhile and diversifying your skillset is a great way to ensure you’ll always have a job. Sagan knew this and while he certainly spent a lot of time thinking about the cosmos, he also spent a lot of time researching other things. This reading list from the Library of Congress shows just how much time he spent reading outside his field. Here are just a few of his reading selections:
- The Immoralist by Andre Gide
- Julius Caesar by Shakespeare
- The Republic by Plato
- The History of Western Philosophy by W. T. Jones
- Education for Freedom by Robert Maynard
There are countless others on that list you might not expect to see, including stories from Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, and others. The point is, Sagan knew that diversifying his knowledge of the world beyond just science was essential for creative thinking. It clearly paid off too, since Sagan became not just a great scientist, but also a fantastic storyteller and communicator.