America’s most popular science writer was a lousy historian! Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was a revered and immensely popular public figure around the time of the Space Race. He was a gifted communicator whose mass appeal arose from his style, skill and ability to bring his audience on a journey of the imagination, regaining their childhood sense of wonderment. Sagan took the pilots seat of a NASA built imagination-mobile and brought his assemblage into space on a magical and inspirational journey, well beyond the moon and into deep space.
They imagined all the possibilities of space travel and wondered what kind of life forms they would encounter. In reality the journey, while looking into the future, the machine actually took travellers back in time to rediscover their love of childhood fairy tales.
Before blast off, Sagan went back in time to produce a version of history which can be labelled false history. In Sagan’s fairy tale, science was cast as Little Red Riding Hood, religion as the Big Bad Wolf and himself as the Woodcutter.
Scientists in general are never very good at doing history, but Sagan liked to label himself with the respectability of agnosticism. However, his actions and arguments were mostly about promoting atheism, an anathema to agnosticism. It begs one big question, why does atheism need create and believe in myths?
Carl Sagan worked as an advisor to NASA from its beginning and throughout the time of the space race. He organised the first physical message to be sent into space on the space probe Pioneer 10 and on later Voyager missions.
The public came to know him through staring in many TV series and debates and writing many books on the subject of science and the importance of space exploration. He brought style and poise to a potentially boring subjects, converting the esoteric language of science into everyday parlance, removing its complexity so that it could be understood by general audience. Using these skills, he captured the public imagination, and inspired an entire generation, not only of the American people, but people worldwide.
However, the old saying that ‘all that glitters is not gold’ comes to mind. Sagan perceived science to be under threat, and set about attacking who he thought was its enemy, religion. To mount his defence, Sagan used ancient history and the history of science to attack religion.
He was not the first scientist or science aficionado to attempt this, but like most similarly motivated people, he to achieve their aim, they had to leave a lot of information out of the real history of science. Not being familiar with the subtlety of history, made significant blunders. To avoid all blunders Sagan offered this advice to his followers and how to avoid getting ‘suckered’, writing,
Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires intelligence, vigilance, dedication and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us – and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who comes along. – Carl Sagan, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection
In this present day in the era where ‘fake news’ takes precedence over mundane truth, it can be justifiably argued that we have become a nation of suckers, and we love our charlatans. Alas, it is a statement which is not just true of Ireland in the 21st century. Sagan’s comments date from 1995, the year before his death, and demonstrate that the rising tide of ignorance is not just a present day phenomenon, but one which has lasted decades. It continues to rise unabated despite, or in spite of, the increasing levels of educational attainment. I am alluding of course to the increasing number of people who hold University parchments. Qualifications which it would appear, provide no inoculation against the pestilence of ignorance. This may account for why so many falsehoods endure for decades but we must also take into account that lies are made from sweet cake, while the truth is just plain bread without butter.
Sagan himself, despite winning many awards and being lauded for his efforts to bring science to the masses was fairly ignorant of history. Believe it or not I am being kind in using the word ignorance because if he had competent knowledge, and still made the same claims, it would expose much more sinister motives. Chiefly of which was to manipulate the opinion of the general public. Accordingly, and as we shall see, like most propagandists using history to promote their own agenda, Sagan’s version of historical events is untrustworthy at best and false history at worst.
Sagan is to be lauded for his invention of what he called the Baloney Detector. Simply, it is a series of questions one must ask before accepting new information or in reassessing current and old information. The method has a lot of merit but it is a great pity that Sagan did not point his Baloney Detector at his own claims, it would at times, have gone off the scale. Consequently, his historical work would have been much improved.
In his book the Cosmos and television series of the same name, Sagan set out to bring science to the masses and started off explaining science from its very beginnings, using science history. One of the stories he starts with is that surrounding the measurement of the circumference of the earth, Sagan wrote of the ancient Greek mathematician:
Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with an error of only a few percent, a remarkable achievement for 2,200 years ago. He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a planet.
That is a claim which no competent historian can make but his audience has no idea that the claim is not based on evidence nor scientific evidence. Eratosthenes did try and measure the circumference of the earth and brilliantly came up with a measurement of 250,000 Stades. There is only one big problem, nobody today knows what the actual length of a Stade was or which one Eratosthenes was using. Accordingly we have to try and estimate what the length of a stade actually was.
The mathematical association of America website has an article which tries to work out the length of the various types of stades in use in antiquity and argues that there were in fact four different stades. It states,
Using these four stades, modern approximations of Eratosthenes’ 250,000 stades can be obtained. Below, the modern equivalent of 250,000 stades is given for each type of stade. Also given is the percent difference from the modern accepted value for the equatorial circumference of the Earth, which is approximately 40,075 kilometers
|Type of Stade||Modern Equivalent Stade Length||Stade x 250,000||Percent Difference from Modern Circumference|
|Olympic||176.4 meters||44,100 kilometers||0.1|
|Italian||184.8 meters||46,200 kilometers||0.153|
|Babylonian-Persian||196.1 meters||49,020 kilometers||0.223|
|Phoenician-Egyptian||209.2 meters||52,300 kilometers||0.305|
Here again the mathematicians have got it slightly wrong, note they gave a figure for the equatorial circumference. Eratosthenes using the method of shadows cast by sticks (gnomon) could not possibly be measuring equatorial circumference. It is was the pole to pole circumference he was measuring, which we now take to be 40,007 km which is 68km shorter due to the bulge at the equator.
No one knows for sure which one of these measurements Eratosthenes was using, accordingly, emphatically choosing the closest value to the known actual value is a course of action only open to charlatans or those mislead by charlatans. Impartial historians have to show that there was a variation and that Eratosthenes may have come close to a fairly accurate measurement or he may not have done. Readers of history are entitled to be informed and it is the first duty of a historian to report historical events setting them against their correct background.
The first person in history to be recorded as accurately measuring the circumference of the earth is Jean-Félix Picard ✝1682. He measurements tanked during a survey in 1669-1670 were a mere 0.44% of todays accepted distance. The Picard mission launched in 2010, an orbiting solar observatory, is named after Jean-Félix. As we will see later, there might be a very good reason for why Sagan chose to ignore this fact and this scientist.
Sagan’s work is full of extraordinary claims which, I surmise these days, would have most people laughed off the stage.
When our genes could not store all the information necessary for survival, we slowly invented brains.
Aren’t we brilliant! We had the brains to invent our brains. An emphatic statement for which there is no evidence to support it, scientific or otherwise.
Single-celled plants evolved, and life began to generate its own food. Photosynthesis transformed the atmosphere. Sex was invented. Once free-living forms banded together to make a complex cell with specialized functions.
Here again is another bald statement but even though he claims ‘sex was invented’, he declines to name the inventor! But goes on to write,
Sex seems to have been invented around two billion years ago.
Sagan goes back into history to validate his beliefs and he chooses the usual canards including the Galileo story which he repeats or adds in a number of his own falsehoods. I will cover this in separate essay, as the true Galileo story is much more interesting than the fallacy we have all been thought to believe in school.
The biggest canard of all used by Sagan is what is known in historiography as the ‘Conflict Thesis’, a discredited 19th century theory that religion and science are incompatible. Any historian with knowledge of science history knows that modern science grew out of Christianity.
We do not have to rely on inferences, Sagan himself tells us directly that the Christians hated science and one of histories he used to support this opinion was the Hypatia story. A renowned female philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who murdered by a Christian mob in AD415 in Alexandria, Egypt.
Hypatia’s work was destroyed in the Alexandrian library when the Christians hating science burnt down the building.
Sagan’s version of the story carries a number of blunders which an unsuspecting audience would not be able to spot. Firstly, there was no science in the 5th century AD, especially not science as we understand it today. Accordingly, using the term is an anachronism, a term which Sagan did not use in his book but used the term in the Cosmos TV series.
The great library of Alexandrian burned down c. 150 years before the Hypatia incident, along with a large section of the city, during a civil war at the time of the Emperor Aurelian. In one of his TV documentaries Sagan visits what he thinks is the only remaining part of the Alexandrian Library called the Serapium, this building was standing in Hypatia’s time but was closed by the Emperor Theodosius I in AD391 and was not a library. Sagan’s statement that the building was burned down by Christians hating science is a total fabrication.
Hypatia was indeed killed by a Christian mob not because of her scholarship but because she was closely associated with, and was an advisor to the roman governor of the area, Orestes. There had been severe tensions in the city with a complex political battle for supremacy among the Christians, other denominations and their Roman rulers. Tensions spiralled unabated and went into overdrive when a Christian monk named Ammonius tried to assassinate Orestes, hitting him on the head with a rock. Orestes survived suffering only a bleeding head wound but Ammonius was captured, tortured and executed. It appeared to the Christians that Orestes was anti-Christian and that Hypatia was turning Orestes against the local bishop. It was these tensions which led to the death of Hypatia. The actions of the mob were deplored by many Christians at the time and we would know nothing of the incident for it only survives in one account, written by a Christian.
However, we can be 100% sure that Hypatia was not killed because Christians hated scientists, it is a myth entirely fabricated by Sagan as a pillar to support his beliefs. If Sagan had a scientific mind he did not use it when it came to separating historical fact from historical fiction. Neither did he switch on his Baloney Detector and point it at his own work but later on I will do exactly that.
First we have to as the question, why? Why would Sagan tell a story and make false claims and why do these stories continue to be believed, even by people who claim to have scientific minds or at least have adopted scientific thinking?
Sagan continues to be admired to this day and his supporters believe in the many myths he propagated, and have accepted them religiously, without any examination and without subjecting them to the de rigueur of science. That is despite the fact that many of them claim that their beliefs are based on science, and as science is now held to be superior to all other methods of investigation they feel justified in claiming that their beliefs are superior to all others. However, it should be noted that it is not possible to base one’s beliefs entirely on science and ascribing powers to science which it does not possess is termed ‘scientism’.
Sagan certainly influenced my views in my youth and a great many more young people were inculcated with scientism and it continues to this very day, unabated. It is extraordinary that the blindness caused by scientism in its beholders goes unnoticed by themselves. It is a system of belief and claims based thereupon are easily debunked by scientific thinking. Thus evincing that holders of scientism cannot think scientifically, but think the can. There is an old insult in Ireland, which goes ‘if I want your opinion, I will give it to you’, and clearly many people have been given their opinion and have not subjected their opinions to any kind of critical evaluation.
Asking a simple probing question reveals much more than meets the eye. Why should so many people believe in such obvious falsehoods and what psychological need does such behaviour gratify?
We all have beliefs, especially beliefs learned early in life, which we have not subjected to any intellectual evaluation. They can be personality traits, prejudices, stereotypes and many more, both good and bad, learned from parents and peers. We also have a need to be loved and valued and as we are hierarchal animals our image of our social standing is highly important to our mental health and is inextricably linked to our self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to a person’s overall sense of his or her value or worth. It can be considered a sort of measure of how much a person ‘values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes him or herself’. Self-esteem is a similar concept to self-worth but with a small but important difference: self-esteem is what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves, while self-worth is the more global recognition that we are valuable human beings worthy of love.
Low self-esteem is a major cause of mental illness but the mind has a strategy to combat feelings associated with low self-esteem. It simply creates an illusion of higher social standing than exists in reality. Accordingly, if we have higher social standing and this is not possible in reality the mind creates a sense of social elevation through the denigration of other individuals or groups of individuals.
The position we see ourselves holding within the hierarchy means that we have individuals or groups which are both above and beneath our level. Viewing people as being beneath our level elevates us to a higher social plane and the more people beneath us the higher we think we are. Due to Ireland’s long history of enforced ancestral poverty and consequent impossibility of upward social mobility, the Irish have a long tradition of illusory superiority, which has many manifestations but probably the best known is begrudgery.
It is not just a type of jealousy of other people’s achievements, that achieves nothing psychologically, but denigration achieves the psychological illusion of upward social mobility and achieves a consequent rise in self-esteem and self-worth.
All religions hold that their beliefs are superior to those of other religions. There would be no point in holding them if one believed them to be inferior. Belief superiority ranges in scale from mild to severe but the level of severe, it becomes belief supremacism, a highly dangerous psychological phenomenon, which causes individuals and groups to escalate beyond sneering up to discrimination and in extreme cases, dehumanisation.
Consequently, it creates the illusion in the mind of sufferers that they have been conferred with the right to make life and death decisions regarding dealings with inferior sub-human beings. Belief supremacism occurs naturally as well as being uncalculated deliberately by ruling classes in order to get the masses to fight. It was behind the holocaust, present day mass shootings, suicide bombings, racism and the full gamut of man’s inhumanity to man. It has nothing got to do with religion and everything to do with personal beliefs, whether they were inculcated, occur naturally or acquired through mental illness.
Sagan and his supporters use belief superiority, which is evident through their denigration of the beliefs of others. The level of denigration has an undoubted inverse relationship with a person’s image of their social status and when combined with a belief in myths achieves the exact opposite of the image they are trying to project in the minds of impartial observers.
That is an important point, there is safety in numbers and groupthink and the illusory truth effect comes into play. The latter is the scientific name for the phenomenon encapsulated in the old adage ‘repeat a lie often enough and it will become the truth’. The term Groupthink also arises out of the scientific investigation into the observable tendency of groups of well-intentioned people to make extraordinarily bad decisions.
Whatever about his followers, one could argue that Sagan had a high social standing and therefore not using denigration to improve his social rank. However, all is relative and even those of high social status need denigration to maintain and prove to themselves their own superiority as evinced through elitism or snobbery. However, while a little bit of elitism is evident in his writings and broadcasts, what is more evident is insecurity in large amounts. It is the motivation which he sees that science is under threat and the chief protagonist as Sagan saw it, was religion.
I have observed myself that when ordinary Americans engage in a battle of political ideologies, of which there really are only two (Republican or Democrat), neither side cares to present their case as truthfully as possible. They load their weapons with all the balderdash each side can muster and engage in battle for supremacy, not by exposing the lies of the other side, but shooting back with lies of their own. The objective is to win and put the other side down, and while the intent can be extremely hostile, it is passive aggression. Meaning that they can be quite hostile underneath the surface but appear to be quite pleasant.
I am not sure if it is a cultural bias but we can observe that when Sagan could find no scientific evidence to bolster his beliefs, he simply created them or consciously or subconsciously took the word of a charlatan and passed it off in the guise of truth.
In my youth, a time when I believed the claims of Carl Sagan, I had an interest in history but had not studied is seriously until many years later. That is a crucial point, I had not the knowledge to at that time to know that Sagan was preaching false history. Such a style of argument is relatively common, a fallacy called the ‘Appeal to Ignorance’. This is not necessarily ignorance of the audience, just using evidence they have no access to or presenting evidence that the audience cannot examine.
Many years later, after I had long forgotten about Sagan, I met a new acquaintance who was to put it mildly, was then and remains, vehemently atheist in his views. He was scathing about religion and took aim at Christianity in particular. What struck me most about his attitude was that despite atheism being an unorganised group, he was pedalling the exact same narrative as many other atheists. After a while, it became clear he was simply repeating the false claims which Sagan had crated or used, and these can be found in writings of many other atheist writers. Fortunately by this time, I had spent many years studding history at a high level and I knew that some of his expressed beliefs were not based on historical evidence but on popular false notions.
To cite one example, it is a common belief among atheist that the medieval period was a dark age. In fact nothing could be further from the truth, it was a time when our modern civilisation was founded and represents a time of great progress, in ethics, politics, engineering, science, literacy, learning and many more. Today, no competent historian uses the prejudicial term Dark Ages as a label for the Medieval Period. Nowadays, it exposes ignorance and draws derision.
Needless to say Sagan did much to popularise the myth of the Dark Ages and much of what Sagan claimed has been written into the Atheists’ Bible, hence the homogeneity in belief of what should be a disparate unorganised group with equally disparate views and beliefs.
This homogeneity of belief is evident in atheist attacks on religion and religious people. On nearly every online forum where atheist are present, they battle for supremacy using the same old lines and arguments. For example, ‘I support your right to believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden’. ‘The church of the flaying spaghetti monster’, beliefs in a ‘sky god’ and of course the biggest canard of all, ‘I base my opinions on science’ or ‘atheism is a lack of belief’. If such a creature who lacks belief actually exists, they would have no reason to engage in belief superiority and would have no reason to write books, blogs, forum posts, ad inf. denigrating religion and religious people, sometimes in a manner reminiscent of sectarianism.
Belief superiority is a feature of all religions and the belief that god does not exist is a religious belief, because it is not supported by any scientific evidence. When all the thinking is joined up, it reveals unequivocally that Atheism, like Buddhism, is a non-theistic religion.
The history of science is a highly specialised area within the domain of history and as science arose out of natural philosophy it is difficult for beginners the get their head around the history of philosophical thought. The upshot is that there are very few historians working in the area and the public have little interest in reading anything other than sexed up stories. Quality science history has not yet made it into the public consciousness, consequently it has been relegated to the lower orders by charlatans promoting their agendas using false history.
The story of Johan Kepler (✝1630) is one such example. Kepler building on the work of Tycho Brahe discovered that the planets moved in an elliptical orbit not circular as had been believed up until that time and after. Sagan devotes a lot of time to writing a history of science which is not only peppered with falsehoods but also uses paltering. Paltering is telling the truth but telling it in such a way as to mislead the audience. One of the classic tools of paltering is to leave out important information, an action which is most often termed ‘lying though omission’.
As a science historian, I am always disappointed when I come across so called scientists using the history of science to create false and misleading claims, which by their very nature, demonstrate that if they are possessed of a scientific mind, they certainly spare its use when it comes to history. Consequently they are, as Sagan put it, ‘suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who comes along.’
As promised let me now kick start Sagan’s Baloney Detector.
In 1620 when Kepler’s mother was accused of witchcraft Sagan wrote,
Kepler rushed to Württemberg to find his seventy-four-year-old mother chained in a Protestant secular dungeon and threatened, like Galileo in a Catholic dungeon, with torture.
The claim that Galileo (✝1642) was detained within a Catholic dungeon is a blatant falsehood. While in Rome awaiting his trial, Galileo was housed in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens. He was accorded a valet, and another servant to look after his food. His food was brought from the Florentine embassy, which employed one of the best chefs in Rome. Galileo was never threatened with torture but Sagan, if he knew the truth could not let it appear before his audience, for fear it would considerably undermine his arguments. More expert propagandists would have used paltering to avoid the inevitable derision which comes from being caught out in a lie. Having stated that, I am not accusing Sagan of deliberately lying. It is more likely he was just repeating the lies of earlier commentators, accordingly it means that he certainly did not have the knowledge to able to spot the falsehoods nor would it appear did he use ‘intelligence, vigilance, dedication and courage’ to avoid becoming a ‘sucker’.
Getting back to Kepler, Sagan tell us that, ‘among the many scapegoats chosen were elderly women living alone, who were charged with witchcraft. Kepler’s mother was carried away in the middle of the night in a laundry chest.’ Sagan provides no reference for the ‘laundry chest’ and a Google search results for it all point back to Sagan as the source for this story embellishment. While the scapegoating of women is true, Sagan uses paltering to mislead his audience into believing that it was only women who were persecuted. In continental Europe most victims of the early modern witch craze were men, very often priests.
At no point in the Kepler story, as told by Sagan, is mention made of Kepler’s most enthusiastic scientific supporters, and reference to them many present day writings is also hard to find. Kepler was not a wealthy man and could not afford to buy a telescope to carry out his scientific work. He was gifted his first telescope by the Jesuits thanks the support of a Jesuit Priest and scientist named Paul Guldin ✝1643. Kepler corresponded with him in maters both scientific and religious. Guldin asked another Jesuit priest, Nicolas Zucchi ✝1670, who was a telescope maker to gift Kepler one of his telescopes.
Today, there are 3 basic types of telescopes in use: Refractor, Reflector and Cassegrain. (radio telescopes are reflectors) A Refractor telescope uses lenses, a Reflector uses mirrors and a Cassegrain uses both. The first reflecting telescope was designed and built years before Isaac Newton was born. However, popular science history, particularly within the Anglophone, fraudulently credits its invention to Newton (✝1727). Newton did design his own type of reflecting telescope but he was not the invertor and neither was Galileo the inverter of the telescope, as has also been claimed many times.
The present day Refracting telescopes are based on Kepler’s design but he could not afford to build an example. The invention of the present day Reflecting telescope is credited to Marin Mersenne ✝1648. Mersenne never built such a telescope, like Kepler, he proposed it theoretically and based on his theory, Nicolas Zucchi built an early version. It was crude due to the lack of mirror technology at the time but it demonstrated that a telescopic effect could be achieved using a combination of parabolic mirrors and lenses instead of just lenses. Mersenne’s designs featured a strong telephoto effect which is critical to modern photographic lenses. Bonaventura Cavalieri ✝1647 also mathematically suggested designs for reflecting telescopes.
The first recorded construction of a Keplerian telescope is achieved by Christoph Scheiner (✝1575) in AD1617. Sometime around 1625, Scheiner introduced a single erecting lens to the Keplerian telescope to produce an erect image. Twenty years later in AD1645, Anton Maria Schyrle de Rheita ✝1660 used a two element erecting couplet to produce a practical terrestrial telescope with an erect image and acceptable magnification and field of view. Accordingly, de Rheita is today credited with the invention of the terrestrial telescope.
Today the Cassegrain design is the basis for many of the most famous twentieth century telescopes including the Hubble Space Telescope and the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mt. Palomar.
There is a very good reason why these astronomers and scientists do not get a mention from Sagan. Can you think of what it might be?
For balance, Sagan he had a number of achievements in science. By all accounts his best talents were not as an experimental scientist, rather he was an ideas man or a liaison person between the sciences. In keeping with the notion of him as an ideas man, his greatest scientific achievement came as a result of studying radio waves from Venus. He hypothesised that it had a high surface temperature but it would be up to others to prove this correct and it subsequently was. It is not unfair to say that his scientific achievements mainly came through speculation but as an astrophysicist, his speculations were better than most and these speculations, in turn, aroused interest in others who went on to make discoveries.
I am reminded of Sigmund Freud (d. 1939) who is regarded as one of the most influential psychologists in history, not because all his theories were proven correct and ground-breaking, but because he caused thousands of research projects to be instigated by people who wanted to prove him wrong. There is no doubt that Carl Sagan was influential and that points to his real genius which was as a brilliant communicator, perhaps the best science has ever had.
In 1994 he was the recipient of the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences for distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare.
The citation for that award begins…
‘Carl Sagan has been enormously successful in communicating the wonder and importance of science. His ability to capture the imagination of millions and to explain difficult concepts in understandable terms is a magnificent achievement.’
The American Planetary Society website has the following entry
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Sagan was the author of many bestsellers, including Cosmos, which became the best-selling science book ever published in the English language. The accompanying Emmy and Peabody award-winning television series has been seen by 500 million people in 60 countries. He received 20 honorary degrees from American colleges and universities for his contributions to science, literature, education, and the preservation of the environment. His research speculations led to the discovery of the surface temperature on Venus.
The planetary society was co-founded by Sagan in 1980 to counter act the NASA budget cuts coming from government by demonstrating the popular appeal of science.
Anyone who reads the Cosmos will be forgiven for thinking it is not a science book but a history book, especially at the start. It does eventually turn into a descriptive science book it is peppered with historical mistakes and omissions of significant information. There is no doubt that Sagan wrote his own version of history to promote his agenda.
What is the evidence for his agenda?
All the great telescope scientists mentioned earlier had one thing in common, Christopher Scheiner, Laurent Cassegrain, Anton de Rheita, Bonaventura Cavalieri, Nicolas Zucchi and Marin Mersenne were all Roman Catholic priests. Sagan could not mention that fact, nor could he laud the great scientific advances made by church people, for it would blow his atheist agenda out of the water.
Sagan’s crediting of Eratosthenes with the achievements of Jean Picard may also be due to the fact that Picard was also a Roman Catholic Priest.
Also a man who gets no mention is Georges Lemaître (✝1966), the first person to come up with what we now call the Big Bang Theory. A derogatory term coined by atheist scientist Fred Hoyle who believed in a steady state of the universe rather than the now universally accepted view of an expanding universe. Lemaître’s work was published under the title of ‘The Theory of the Primeval Atom’. It was ridiculed and written off by Hoyle as the Big Bang theory, but thanks to one of those great quirks of history, Hoyle’s name now enjoys some fame which would have otherwise been a lot less.
Einstein too, while not taking exception to the mathematics of Lemaître’s theory, refused to accept that the universe was expanding; Lemaître recalled his commenting ‘Your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious’. Einstein later recanted, accepting the idea of an expanding universe which helped the Big Bang Theory and Lemaître get fast recognition.
Hardly anyone to day outside genuine science and science history knows the name Georges Lemaître but he is lauded in high places. In March 1934, Lemaître received the Francqui Prize, the highest Belgian scientific distinction, from King Leopold III. He was proposed for the prize by Albert Einstein and two others. The European Space Agency named each of their five Automated Transfer Vehicles in honour of famous science personalities.
ATV-1 Jules Verne
ATV-2 Johannes Kepler
ATV-3 Edoardo Amaldi
ATV-4 Albert Einstein
ATV-5 Georges Lemaître
You have probably guessed by now that the reason I include a mention of Georges Lemaître is that he too was a Roman Catholic priest.
One of the great false histories of all time is encapsulated in the notion that the Catholic Church hated science. Nothing could be further from the truth. The oxygen which gives life and sustains this myth is its usefulness in supporting belief superiority. Through denigrating other people’s beliefs and belief systems it creates the illusion of superiority for the holder.
Belief superiority can be found in histories thought in school. Protestant children are brought up to believe that Catholics are backward which is the very reason that the protestant religions exist. Information which is learned early in life is seldom revaluated as an adult, which is why the likes of Prof. Stephen Hawking, Prof. Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain, the Irish comic and sometimes science presenter, have all promoted this anti-Catholic myth. It is therefore safe to draw the conclusion that their science skills and knowledge set have not been used to validate their historical knowledge. They have simply not done as Sagan asked people to do, which was to use their ‘intelligence, vigilance, dedication and courage’ to prevent themselves from becoming ‘victims of the next charlatan who comes along’. There have been many charlatans spreading false information throughout the history of science, and we know who they were and what their false claims were.
Einstein (d. 1955) is reputed to have said that, ‘it is easier to crack an atom than a prejudice’.
Prejudices are highly resistant to rational influence and that is evident in the prejudice known as ‘Conflict Thesis’. A discredited theory, first postulated a mere 150 years ago, which holds that science and religion are in conflict. This first was John William Draper (✝1882) who contended that there was the human intellect on one side and compression on arising out of faith and human interest on the other.
Draper’s claims were easily dismissed as polemical but the claims of Andrew Dixon White (✝1918) endured a while longer. Dixon was co-founder of Cornell University, which many years later, employed as a lecturer none other than Carl Sagan. The slightly lingering endurance of his false claims was due to its appearance as genuine scholarship.
No competent or genuine science historian believes that the ‘Conflict Thesis’ is valid. Yet it endures, thanks to full menagerie from bloggers to dolts, to all sorts of charlatans and scientism. All attempt ion to create illusory superiority for purposes of psychological social elevation. ‘Mine is bigger than yours’ is at the very heart of human hierarchal rivalry.
One final canard to debunk is the claim that Galileo was the first to point a telescope at the heavens. He could have been but it is impossible to prove one way or the other. The gaping holes of uncertainty can be disguised by anyone with a tarpaulin to trap the unwary. When people are caught by the balls, their hearts and minds usually follow.
Galileo was a great man for taking the credit for himself even when it was not due. His was very quick to publish and got his discoveries into the academic and public domain quicker than others. He was also vicious in his attacks on people whom he disliked or disagreed with, and this tendency lost him a lot of friends and supporters.
Simon Marius (✝1625), a Dutch astronomer claimed to have discovered the moons of Jupiter about a month before Galileo. Galileo, as was his custom, blew a fuse and called him a ‘poisonous reptile’, and an ‘enemy of all mankind. In 1903, a jury in the Netherlands looked into to the question and concluded that Marius had independently discovered the moons of Jupiter about the same time as Galileo. Who takes the credit today?
As you probably know from your school days, Galileo named the moons of Jupiter, Cosmica Sidera (‘Cosimo’s stars’), in honour of Cosimo II de’ Medici the grand-duke of Tuscany, kissing boots to get patronage. At the grand-duke’s suggestion, Galileo changed the name to Medicea Sidera (‘the Medici stars’), honouring all four Medici brothers. Today however, the moons are not known by those names, instead they are called Io (p. eye oh), Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. These are the names given to them by Simon Marius.
Sagan might have very little knowledge of history, in which case we can almost forgive him some of his many errors but what if he had good historical knowledge, it would mean that he was deliberately trying to mislead people. One thing we know for sure in the whole historical Sagan saga is that, there are many people out there who worship him as a god. His devotes worship him religiously and with so much trust that they have not bothered to switch on his baloney detector or demonstrated scientific thinking. Sagan himself said during a televised debate in 1988,
The essence of religion is not to change anything. The supposed truths are handed down by some revered figure and no one is supposed to make any progress beyond that because all the truth is thought to be in hand.
If Sagan is right, and all truths are in hand, why then do the Christians have a mystery of faith, celebrate the Seven Glorious Mysteries. To them, God is a mystery, the holy trinity is a mystery and so too is the church itself. Mysteries by definition are not truths, supposed or otherwise.
If people believe ‘the supposed truths are handed down by some revered figure’, and judging from the actions of his followers, that would make Sagan the patron saint of scientism.