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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon

Carl Sagan died ten years ago today. My contribution to the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon is a quotation from page 297 of The Demon-Haunted World.
Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I've even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it's applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless, and dismissive of the feeling and deeply held beliefs of others. And, it must be said, some scientists and dedicated skeptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse. Sometimes it looks as if the skeptical conclusion came first, that contentions were dismissed before, not after, the evidence was examined. All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our beliefs as insufficiently well-based—or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven't thought of, or demonstrates that we've swept key underlying assumptions under the rug—it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It becomes a personal attack.
Sagan combined skepticism with finesse. That was part of his charm.

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