In a Dark, Confusing World: Carl Sagan, 20 Years Gone

20c_carl_saganTen years ago today I wrote a piece about the impact Carl Sagan had on my life, commemorating what was then the tenth anniversary of his death.

Today, obviously, Carl Sagan is 20 years gone, so I’ve dusted off the original piece to see if it still holds up. It does. Every word of it remains true. (Except I might today not talk about being “excited” to live in the world, but, you know, I grow more curmudgeonly and Asperger-y as I age.)

So, to mark two decades of being Carl-less, here’s “Why Paul Was Sad That Day,” written December 20, 2006. I’ll have additional thoughts at the end of the original piece.


I don’t remember where I was when I first heard that Carl Sagan had passed away, but I do remember where I was later that night. I was in college, hanging out at my friend’s apartment. A few close friends were there, and I brought up the news item of Dr. Sagan’s death.

“Carl Sagan died today,” I said, sadly.

“Who’s Carl Sagan?” was the reply.

I was totally surprised, because I assumed everyone knew who he was. I didn’t expect that most people had read a bunch of his books, or had seen Cosmos (recently, anyway), but surely he was famous enough to warrant recognition by my friends at least. I mean, Johnny Carson had imitated him! “Billions and billions!” Come on people!

I tried to convey to them why it was so bad that we had lost this important man, and while my friends played along and humored me, I really couldn’t get my message across. I would have to grieve a little more privately. It was too lonely to be openly morose about the death of a man who, to everyone I was with, was no more than some guy that nerds worship for space or something. Maybe now, ten years later, I can have another go at it.

When Cosmos first aired, I was too young to understand any of it, at age three or four. It wasn’t long after, though, maybe only a couple of years, that my dad played me the series, recorded on videotape (on Beta, no less). He knew I was interested in space, but only inasmuch as it was a location where Star Wars took place and the Transformers came from. Would I sit still for a lengthy PBS series on the real thing?

Not only did I love the series as a child, but I would continue to love it as I grew up. Having the entire series on videotape was a tremendous blessing, as I would watch it in its entirety every couple of years for most of my childhood, well into college. In our house, Carl Sagan was a huge celebrity, frequently cited (and imitated). We would be delighted to see him appear on other shows, or be referenced or made fun of by comics. But what was it that was so great about him?

Carl Sagan was a gifted storyteller. Even to a fifth grader, the story of evolution, the birth of the solar system, the building of DNA, or the death of a star were all as fascinating as any fictitious story about monsters or aliens. While these things were no doubt of passing interest to me as long as I can remember, Carl Sagan made them thrilling.

As I got older, and read his books, I realized that he was about more than appreciating how cool outer space was. My appreciation for his work deepened tenfold when I heard his call to rationality. His dismissal of superstition and shortsightedness was influential to me even in the early part of my life, but it was upon reading The Demon-Haunted World that I had a framework to discuss it. I had a means to verbalize and visualize what had always been to me simply an abstraction, wanting to be logical and thoughtful. Carl Sagan shifted, in my mind, from a celebrity to a role model.

With Dr. Sagan, you didn’t need to layer on any supernatural hocus-pocus for the world to inspire and overwhelm. Biology, chemistry, and physics were plenty astounding on their own. And it wasn’t for science’s sake, or even for wonder’s sake. It was for our sake. Sagan knew that to understand our Universe, and to marvel at life on our planet, was to cherish it, and to work to preserve it. And by preserving it, we preserve ourselves. If there’s anything I think Carl Sagan wanted, it was for humans to survive into the millennia, so we can get a fair shot at growing, evolving, and unlocking more of the Universe’s secrets. He essentially wanted us to stay alive, and not to stay put.

the_sounds_of_earth_record_cover_-_gpn-2000-001978I have been a professional actor and musician for many years, and I am now moving into the world of professional politics. I am not, and probably never will be, a scientist. But if Carl Sagan’s goal was to open the wonders of science and the value of reason to non-scientists, I am his poster boy. I think Sagan’s purpose was not necessarily to make scientists, but to sow an appreciation and enthusiasm for the Universe as it actually is. Even though my career and career-to-be are not strictly about the workings of the world at the quantum level, the appreciation for those things that Sagan has fostered in me has made me excited to live in this world and inspired me to understand it and work toward its welfare.

Today, I read the works of folks like Richard Dawkins, Tim Ferris, and Brian Greene, and I devour their words and delight in the struggle to wrap my brain around concepts like branes, supersymmetry, and Bussard collectors. The problem is that I never would have taken the plunge into the world these scientists inhabit if Carl Sagan had not opened the door for me in the first place. I fear that without someone like him today, someone who can ignite the imagination as he could, far too few people will be drawn to science and reason. In a dark, confusing world that seems to be shying further and further away from those very things, I mourn the loss of Carl Sagan anew, on this day, the tenth anniversary of his death. I wish so very much he was still with us, because we need him today more than ever.

And that, my college friends of 1996, is why I was so sad that day.


Back to 2016. That last sentiment, that we need Sagan now more than ever, has only become more true. Only yesterday, our Electoral College formalized the election of a man to the presidency who embodies the brazen rejection of everything good Sagan represented. Misinformation is the rule now, not the exception. Conspiracy theory and emotion-fueled irrationality is the coin of the realm. Planetary-level existential threats, the kinds that Sagan would have given all of his energies to working against, are now accelerated.

If there exists an individual or individuals who have the inspirational power that Sagan possessed, I’m not aware of him or her. Many come close. But I’m afraid that they don’t come close enough. I do hope I am wrong.

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Jill Stein’s Shameful Pander on Vaccines and Homeopathy

About a month ago on a Reddit AMA, Dr. Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party nominee for president, was asked a simple question about her official stance on vaccines and homeopathy.

Stein is, of course, a physician, so the answer, one would think, would be simple. For example, “Vaccines are safe and save lives, and everyone who can get vaccinated against preventable diseases absolutely should. Homeopathy is a sham pseudoscience that doesn’t do anything, wasting people’s money and risking people’s health while having no effect.”

Nope. You see she’s running in the Green Party, and hoping to pick up some of that sweet, sweet Bernie-rage. So here’s her answer:

I don’t know if we have an “official” stance, but I can tell you my personal stance at this point. According to the most recent review of vaccination policies across the globe, mandatory vaccination that doesn’t allow for medical exemptions is practically unheard of. In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical? I think dropping vaccinations rates that can and must be fixed in order to get at the vaccination issue: the widespread distrust of the medical-indsutrial complex.

Vaccines in general have made a huge contribution to public health. Reducing or eliminating devastating diseases like small pox and polio. In Canada, where I happen to have some numbers, hundreds of annual death from measles and whooping cough were eliminated after vaccines were introduced. Still, vaccines should be treated like any medical procedure–each one needs to be tested and regulated by parties that do not have a financial interest in them. In an age when industry lobbyists and CEOs are routinely appointed to key regulatory positions through the notorious revolving door, its no wonder many Americans don’t trust the FDA to be an unbiased source of sound advice. A Monsanto lobbyists and CEO like Michael Taylor, former high-ranking DEA official, should not decide what food is safe for you to eat. Same goes for vaccines and pharmaceuticals. We need to take the corporate influence out of government so people will trust our health authorities, and the rest of the government for that matter. End the revolving door. Appoint qualified professionals without a financial interest in the product being regulated. Create public funding of elections to stop the buying of elections by corporations and the super-rich.

For homeopathy, just because something is untested doesn’t mean it’s safe. By the same token, being “tested” and “reviewed” by agencies tied to big pharma and the chemical industry is also problematic. There’s a lot of snake-oil in this system. We need research and licensing boards that are protected from conflicts of interest. They should not be limited by arbitrary definitions of what is “natural” or not.

What the fuck was that? I mean, I honestly can’t discern an actual position out of this inscrutable wall of pandering.

The best I can glean from this mess is, “Vaccines may have saved lives, but now you should be afraid for your life because Big Pharma.”

And on homeopathy, what the fuck does “just because something is untested doesn’t mean it’s safe” even mean? I honestly don’t know. But then she gets back to making people scared. It’s not the fake medicine that’s the problem, you see, but Big Pharma pulling the strings. I mean, YOU CAN’T TRUST ANYONE.

I so deeply regret my support of Ralph Nader in 2000, but I always maintained a place in my heart for the Greens, those well-meaning hippies. But this is just gross. Stein is a fucking doctor, and she should at least have enough respect for the voters to speak a plain truth about issues that are literally life and death.

And if she actually believes what she’s saying (assuming she even knows what she’s saying), then all the worse. Be gone, Green Party. You once seemed full of fresh ideas, but now, well, you’ve spoiled.

Dr. Oz, Disinfected by Sunshine

I was a guest on HuffPost Live this afternoon, joining a panel to discuss the whole Dr. Oz imbroglio, and something struck me that I wound up mentioning at the end of the segment. I pointed out that we’ve suddenly found ourselves at a point in media and culture in which crap pseudoscience and the denial of reality are starting to get called out.
Think about it. Dr. Oz, a TV doctor whose influence and popularity are probably unmatched by any similar figure in modern history, is being taken to task for promoting “miracle” weight loss “cures,” garbage “natural” remedies meant to do everything from improve your sleep to stopping cancer, and other, even more brazen examples of pseudoscience like homeopathy and psychics. He’s “America’s doctor,” sporting the Oprah Seal of Infallibility™, and millions of Americans swear by his every utterance. Nonetheless, not only are major news outlets tracking and exposing his nonsense, but he was even hauled before a Senate committee and given the business by Claire McCaskill. (I got a little media hit for that one, too.) That’s a huge deal.

Earlier this week, the FDA held public hearings on the marketing and regulation of homeopathy, a branch of pseudoscience that is so blatantly fantastical that even calling it “pseudoscience” gives it way, way too much credit. And yet billions of dollars are spent on homeopathic products, and its adherents insist on its medicinal properties, despite its complete disconnection from, like, physics. It took some doing, but now by holding these hearings, whatever their result, the FDA is implying to the public that “there’s something fishy here,” something worth holding hearings about. My colleague Michael De Dora was even invited to give testimony near the beginning of the hearings (here’s video in some weird Adobe format), and articles are popping up left and right that quote what he said. (He also did two great public radio interviews.) More and more Americans are hearing the message that homeopathy, that branch of medicine that you heard was “natural” and “alternative” is actually a bunch of junk.

And of course this year we saw the fall of the anti-vaxxer, as a series of measles outbreaks, particularly in Disneyland, led to a serious backlash against the celebrity-championed war on immune systems. Even the pandering GOP politicians trying to make common cause with the anti-vax movement are finding themselves looking ridiculous, as the political press corps does a collective facepalm.

All of this has been taking place in just the last few months, and the seeds of it have been germinating for a few years now. Part of the reason, I think, is that more reality-accepting young journalists are on the ascent, and the current trend for reporting is the “wonkblog” or “data-driven news site,” where raw facts make more good, clickable web copy. I’m seeing it not just at Ezra Klein’s and Nate Silver’s sites, but sites as diverse as Boing Boing (quirky culture), The Verge (tech lifestyle), io9 (science fiction and fantasy), Raw Story (left-wing outrage-posts) and many others. My friend Ed Beck suggested that it really all began with Phil Plait’s move to Slate from Discovery in 2012, and he might well be on to something there.

Organizations like mine, the Center for Inquiry, have been a key part of this shift, I believe, as every day we chip away at bad assumptions, lazy thinking, and credulousness. Bit by bit, we make the case for the acceptance of science – science the process, as well as its products – and the critical examination of extraordinary claims. The ideas that vaccines cause autism, that water retains a “memory” of a substance it no longer contains, or that magic beans can burn your fat or kill your cancer, are all claims that require that kind of critical, skeptical eye.

Only today have I allowed myself the luxury to step back and think, holy shit, I think we might be getting somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve moved that sisyphean boulder only a couple milimeters, but even just having gotten that far, I’m telling you, the view is better.

Here’s my HuffPost appearance, with a bunch of smart people.

(Note: On the Dr. Oz thing in particular, you have to read the work of Michael Specter and Julia Belluz.)

Over My Dead Body

A college girlfriend of mine used to pride herself on being kind of pro-death. She wasn’t goth, per se, but she was certainly contrarian, and when we’d get into existential discussions (far too often for my late teenaged self who was more interested in physical explorations), she’d tell me that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Well, I am, I’d tell her. The idea that everything ends, and you don’t even have the benefit of being aware that it’s over, it’s all too horrifying and confounding for me. No thank you.

She’d one-up herself. “I’m looking forward to it! I can’t wait to see what happens.”

Suffice it to say, she was not a scientific skeptic, and tried to convince me of the existence of spirits and past lives and the like (which she did with some brief success, eager to please her as I was). Death purportedly didn’t spook her because she was convinced that she herself would be a spook.

As an adult, it’s now clear to me that there was more going on there than some college-age rebellion. It’s of course rational to accept death as an inevitable event, and to make peace with that acceptance. It’s another to declare one’s enthusiasm for it. There was a pain she harbored that my 18-year-old self could not have comprehended.

I was reminded of this when I read a piece at The Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in which he declares his intention to stop trying to stay alive at the age of 75. The long and the short of it is that he feels that his probable physical and mental deterioration will cause him to be too much of a burden on his loved ones, and insufficiently vigorous for his own tastes. (“It is much more difficult for older people to learn new languages,” he informs us. Well, why go on indeed?) Therefore at age 75 he will stop seeing doctors, forego treatment of disease, and more or less embrace his (at that point) accelerated decay.

I found something unsettling about it, even offensive. I admit that this was almost certainly in large part due to my own fear of death, which, I’m telling you, is visceral, intense, and probably worthy of medication. But I was also put off by the idea that deterioration must equal devaluation. Being able to do and experience less than one used to is somehow pitiable in Emanuel’s eyes. So pointless as to not even be worth existing for.

In particular the way he talks about his father’s aging grated on me. He used it as an example of the terrible fate that awaits us all, noting how his father became “sluggish” and less “vibrant” after a heart attack. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, dude, cut your dad a break.”

My fear of death stems in large part from my atheism and skepticism. I know there is no God, no heaven, no afterlife, no reincarnation, no spirit world (in the practical use of the word “know,” as in, “I know there are no real Klingons”). I know that this life is literally all we have. This experience of being ourselves is 100% of what it is to exist, and that even much or most of that experience is illusory. Without the awareness of being alive, right now, we have literally nothing else. Once it’s over, we’re not even extended the courtesy of having a moment to digest all of it. (“Whoa, that life was crazy. I wonder what happens now.”) Nope. It’s on, and then it’s off.

During the “on” portion, the experience is inconsistent. We’ll start out brand-new and energetic and vigorous, and then we’ll develop, and we’ll age. Illness, accidents, psychological baggage, and plain-old wear-and-tear will take their toll and we will be able to do less. Our brains may process less and at a slower clip. We may get to the point where we can hardly do anything, where most of our lives are physically agonizing, or where we have no idea what the hell is going on (not in the usual, banal sense in which I have no idea what’s going on).

But you know what? It’s not nothing! It’s not the void of death! We can still squeeze out what tiny droplets of joy, love, enrichment, pleasure, even mere awareness that our collapsing meat sacks will allow us to. Perhaps the balance is tilted more toward the side of pain, of torpor, of confusion. And we all may have our own ideas about the point at which those things become too much, when ending existence is a superior choice to experiencing its punishments any longer. Fine.

But I would never put an arbitrary number on it, and predispose myself to speeding up my own demise because I crossed some threshold my younger and more arrogant self put in place. And I could never see myself looking forward to it, wishing for it to come to answer some tough philosophical questions.

Because it will definitely come. There’s no avoiding that. Morbid curiosity will be sated. The scales will tilt to the point of falling over. I see no reason to place my thumb on them now.

Quick! Get This Man to a Homeopathic Hospital!

There’s something particularly insidious about homeopathy, isn’t there? I can’t put my finger on it, but something about it gets under my skepto-atheist skin more than almost any other kind of pseudoscientific malarky.
I think it has something to do with the fact that things like religion and faith are kind of vague and etherial, making claims about things that are overtly and almost-explicitly imaginary, while homeopathy makes a nonsense claim about something that is actually supposed to be physically present; though a solution contains only a “memory” or “essence” of a substance, it’s still supposed to be there, if in only negligible amounts, and have some effect on you as a result. At least one’s qi or chakra or aura are as imaginary and ethereal as anything religion claims. Homeopathy is just straight up wrong.

This is all to say I made up a dumb joke on Twitter about what a homeopathic hospital might be like.

Homeopathic hospital: Huge empty building, one real doctor walks in, walks out again.

— Paul Fidalgo (@PaulFidalgo) August 1, 2014

And then other smart folks on Twitter took the idea and ran with it, and I thought I’d share some highlights.

@PaulFidalgo He’d have to jump around a bit on the inside first, because it’s hard to shake a hospital. — David Dennis (@The_Wolfster) August 1, 2014

@PaulFidalgo It would be a building with billions of staff and if any were doctors once, there’s no record of their ever having worked there — David Bradley (@sciencebase) August 1, 2014

Indeed, you need something that gives a similar effect to what you’re trying to cure. A mass-murderer wd be better. @AI_Joe@PaulFidalgo

— Stephan Brun (@tibfulv) August 1, 2014

@tibfulv@AI_Joe@PaulFidalgo Clearly the Dr. wouldn’t just walk in and out. He would have to at least twerk for an hour or something. — SCROB TV (@scrobTV) August 1, 2014

@PaulFidalgo Construction workers then remove one corner room at random and attach it to another hospital. #LatherRinseRepeat — Len Sanook (@LenSanook) August 1, 2014

@LenSanook@PaulFidalgo After each reconstruction, they whack it ten times with an enormous leather and wood wrecking ball. — Charles Richter (@richterscale) August 1, 2014

@PaulFidalgo Homeopathic hospital: Huge empty building, occasionally the janitor opens the window to recirculate the BS. — Travis Estrella (@AI_Joe) August 1, 2014

@AI_Joe@PaulFidalgo a bunch of water coolers labelled “help yourself”? — CBat (@ImADataGuy) August 1, 2014

And then Thomas (@tehabe) sent me this video, which I can’t believe I’ve never seen, and won the day.