Readings: Carl Sagan; Maggie Jackson

  • A 1987 Carl Sagan lecture, just published in 2022, about the protocols of science and government and the need to acknowledge uncertainty;
  • A NYT opinion piece by Maggie Jackson about uncertainty and how to manage it;
  • R.E.M.’s “Leave”

Quillette, Steven Pinker and Harvey Silverglate, 1 Jul 2022: Science and Civil Liberties: The Lost ACLU Lecture of Carl Sagan, subtitled “Around 1987, Sagan gave an uncannily prescient lecture to the Illinois state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Here’s a piece I came across going through my backlog of recent magazines issues — in this case, the November/December 2022 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. It reprinted a 1987 lecture given by Carl Sagan, to a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, under the title “The Lost ACLU Lecture of Carl Sagan.” The lecture was first published at the link here,, in July 2022, with an introduction by Steven Pinker and Harvey Silverglate, with modern annotations (e.g. a reference to the Lukianoff/Haidt book, mentioned here, which I still haven’t written up in a post).

The lecture opens with some of Sagan’s concerns of the time, recalling some of his books of that era, concerns such as chlorofluorocarbons, the burning of fossil fuels, and the global nuclear arms race, and the recognition that modern technology can go wrong, citing the Chernobyl incident and the Challenger catastrophe.

Then he generalizes to his broad theme, which is as pertinent as ever. Some excerpts:

The conclusion is that we desperately need error-correcting mechanisms. We are fallible. We’re only human. We make mistakes. We have a set of new technologies that, in many cases, we barely know how to control. Those in charge pretend otherwise. The question is how do we make sure that the most serious sorts of errors do not occur?

Now there is another area of human activity that has to face the same issues, and that’s the area called science. Science has devised a set of rules of thinking, of analysis, which, although there are exceptions in individual cases (scientists being humans just like everybody else), nevertheless, on average, are responsible for the remarkable progress of science.

And you all know, certainly, what these rules are. Things like arguments from authority have little weight. Like contentions have to be demonstrable. Like experiments must be repeatable. Like vigorous substantive debate is encouraged and is considered the lifeblood of science. Like serious critical thinking and skepticism addressed to new and even old claims is not just permissible, but is encouraged, is desirable, is the lifeblood of science. There is a creative tension between openness to new ideas and rigorous skeptical scrutiny.

This set of habits of thought could also, in principle, contribute to the kind of error-correction mechanism that is desperately needed in the society that we are generating. In public affairs, this sort of error-correction machinery in our society is institutionalized in the Constitution. It’s institutionalized, first of all, in the separation of powers, and secondly, in the civil liberties, especially in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution: the Bill of Rights.

The founding fathers mistrusted government power, and they had very good reason to, as do we. This is why they tried to institutionalize the separation of powers, the right to think, the right to speak, to be heard, to assemble, to complain to the government about its abuses, to be able to vote or impeach malefactors out of office.

Despite our best efforts, some things we believe are probably wrong. We certainly are very keen on recognizing the errors of past times and other nations. Why should our nation, why should our time, be different? If there are things that we believe, if there are institutions in our society that are in error, imperfectly conceived or executed, these are potential impediments to our survival. How do we find the errors? How do we correct them?

I maintain: with courage, the scientific method, and the Constitution. Sooner or later, every abuse of power must confront the Constitution. The only question is how much damage has been done in the interim.

Here we have precisely the theme of the Jonathan Rauch book I reviewed in November (here and the two following posts), which aligns the principles of science with those of the government. And here in 2024 things are worse than they were when Sagan spoke. The far right, always deniers of science in favor of religion and ideology, are now doing their best to subvert principles of democracy and regulation in order to keep their favorite strong man in power.

Sagan goes on to address how we must not be too sure of ourselves, and be willing to hear other views, even change our minds.

Now, in every nation—certainly in ours; certainly in the Soviet Union—there are a set of forbidden thoughts, which its citizenry and adherents are, at any cost, not to be permitted to think seriously about. … These forbidden thoughts in the Soviet Union—at least until recently—include capitalism, God, and also the surrender of national sovereignty. In the United States, among the forbidden thoughts are socialism, atheism, and also the surrender of national sovereignty—one point of agreement at least.

If we are agreed that there is nothing we can be absolutely sure about, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that there is something to be learned, why is each side so frightened about having the principles of the other expounded? Why, on Soviet television, is there no serious and systematic exposition of the presumptive virtues of free enterprise by someone who holds those views? Why, on American television, is there no consistent exposition of socialism and its purported virtues by people who hold those points of view? What is each side afraid of? What’s wrong with a little understanding of what the other side believes? Maybe there is something that can be understood. Maybe there is something that can be used. The fact that both sides are so reluctant to have the philosophy and theology of the other expounded to its people suggests that neither side is fully confident that it has convinced its own people of the truth of its doctrine. And that, of course, is a dangerous circumstance.

And Sagan concludes:

Well, to conclude about this country: during the last decade, it seems to me there has been a terrible backsliding on Constitutional and democratic issues in this country. I don’t just mean that the regulatory agencies are, by and large, in the hands of those being regulated. I don’t just mean that arms control is in the hands of those who are in favor of the arms race. I don’t just mean that social justice is being administered by the ideologues of privilege. I don’t just mean that government agencies designed to protect people’s rights are in the hands of those who would abolish those agencies. And I don’t even just mean that there is what seems to be a conspiracy of high government officials to subvert the Constitution (I’m referring to Irangate.) It’s not just that.

It’s also that there has been a serious erosion of the tradition of skeptical inquiry, of vigorous challenging of government leaders, of public exposure of what the government is actually doing, rather than mere pomp and rhetoric. And it is in this area—skeptical scrutiny, public exposure—where the largest strides, in my opinion, are needed.

Civil libertarians must do more to explain exactly why civil liberties and their vigorous exercise are essential—essential not just to retain what freedoms we have that are, astonishingly, toasted by leading figures in countries we have been taught to think of as our adversaries, but also an exercise in the application of civil liberties that are necessary for our very survival.

Look at the points in the first paragraph of this section. One by one, the same things are happening now, e.g. how Republicans put people in charge of agencies they vow to dismantle. And to the extent vested interests aren’t deeply entrenched in these matters, those who are involved are accused of being a nefarious ‘deep state.’

So if Sagan thought things were bad in the 1980s, what would he think now? The themes are the same: how the ideals of science, and of democracy, are valued only by a few, and the majority would just as soon undermine them in favor of their intuitions and tribal identities.


I thought this piece almost vapid when I first saw it; reading it again (in today’s print paper), I think it contains a valuable point.

NY Times, Maggie Jackson guest essay, 13 Jan 2024: How to Thrive in an Uncertain World

She opens with an anecdote about how a once close friend “paused” contact for a year, for reasons the writer didn’t understand, and then reflects on how “Humans naturally need answers and so typically find uncertainty aversive.”

I’ve mentioned that one does not need to have an opinion about everything; and how certain questions do not have conclusive answers, and it’s OK to live with that.

Studies of the pandemic era offer a starting illustration of the links between uncertainty and flourishing. Ohio State researchers have found that adults who scored high on a measure of “intolerance of uncertainty” were more likely to struggle with stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Akin to personality tests, uncertainty intolerance assessments gauge people’s tendency to see unknowns as a threat rather than a challenge. Individuals who eschew not knowing tend to yearn for predictability and engage in binary thinking. During the pandemic, higher levels of uncertainty intolerance were associated with more maladaptive coping responses, such as being in denial, disengaging from life and abusing substances, a British study found. In contrast, those who struggle less with uncertainty were more likely to accept the realities of the situation.

It was at this point in the essay where I thought that there is an obvious political correlation. Conservatives tend to engage in binary thinking, are uncomfortable with complexities, and prefer to distill everything down to black and white matters (good v evil, male v female, and so on). The writer does not go there. Perhaps to her credit. The deeper issue is this.

Tolerating and even delighting in uncertainty doesn’t merely help us to accept life’s unpredictability; it also readies us to learn and adapt. Each day, the brain uses honed mental models about how the world works, which are used to process a shifting environment. When we meet something unexpected, a neural “prediction error” signals a mismatch between what we assumed would occur and what our senses tell us. Yet our uneasy sense of not knowing triggers a host of beneficial neural changes, including heightened attention, bolstered working memory and sensitivity to new information. The brain is preparing to update our knowledge of the world. Uncertainty offers the “opportunity for life to go in different directions,” says Stephanie Gorka of Ohio State University’s College of Medicine, “and that is exciting.”

This is why being open to uncertainty is critical for mental well-being. Pioneering work led by Dr. Dugas (who originated the term “intolerance of uncertainty”) and Nicholas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada shows that being intolerant of uncertainty is associated with vulnerability to mental health challenges such as anxiety, eating disorders and depression. After more than two decades of spadework, they and their colleagues are beginning to effectively ameliorate such disorders by treating people’s fears of the unknown, or what Dr. Carleton calls the “one fear to rule them all.”

Almost concluding:

At heart, being unsure demands a crucial admission: The world is unpredictable, dynamic and flawed — and so are we. It’s an approach that recognizes that the strength of knowledge — and of our own minds — derives from its very mutability. It’s a realm of second chances.

Here this essay dovetails with Carl Sagan’s, in its acknowledgement that human beings are given to jumping to incorrect conclusions, and should always be willing to learn and revise conclusions. Yet most people don’t, because they don’t need to in order to survive.


From New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M.’s 10th studio album: “Leave”

Nothing could bring me closer
Nothing could bring me near
Where is the road I follow
To leave, leave?

It’s under, under, under my feet
The sea spread out there before me
Where do I go when the land touches the sea?
There is my trust in what I believe

That’s what keeps me, that’s what keeps me
That’s what keeps me down
To leave, believe it
Leave it all behind

I don’t know that I’d call any one R.E.M. song my favorite, but this is a song that has drawn me over and over again, though the years, even though — as with most R.E.M. songs — I can’t claim to understand what it means. The suggestiveness of Michael Stipe’s lyrics, without being too specific, is, perhaps, what draws me to his songs.

The theme here does remind me of the song “Disappear” on the album REVEAL.

I came here to disappear
Tell me why you’re here

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