Sagan and the modern scientist-prophets
By Lynda Walsh
Nobody questions Carl Sagan’s charisma. He was television’s first science rock star. He made appearances on the Tonight Show; he drove a Porsche with a vanity plate that read “PHOBOS,” one of Mars’s moons; journalists enthused over his “velour” voice. Over 700 million people have viewed Sagan’s groundbreaking public-television series, Cosmos, and about one in three Amazon commenters on the DVD set indicates that the show inspired him/her to pursue science.
Obviously, there has to be a lot more to Sagan’s success than just his personal magnetism. Yet until recently, even hard-nosed scholars have not seemed to be able to get past it. If we can better understand the cultural structures that enabled Sagan’s meteoric rise to fame—not just his, but also the trajectories of science stars such as Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—we can better understand the enormous authority science wields in public life. To begin, I would argue Sagan benefited from a sort of bully pulpit that was cemented into place by 3,000 years of civic practice in the West. That bully pulpit, ironically, used to belong to the prophet.
I say “ironically” because Sagan was an avowed agnostic, although it would be hard to find an agnostic who talked more openly, often, and positively to the public about god and spirituality. Sagan claimed in Demon-Haunted World, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality” (p. 29). This argument echoed throughout the narrative of Cosmos, which Sagan navigated in his chapel-like “Ship of the Imagination,” complete with a glowing altar and a hymnal by Vangelis.
But Sagan’s public rhetoric was more than vaguely religious; it was specifically prophetic. Sagan boasted in Demon-Haunted World, “Not every branch of science can foretell the future—paleontology can’t—but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists” (p. 30). The final episode of Cosmos opens with Sagan reading from the book of Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live…” (30:15). In Sagan’s bible, death was nuclear winter, a cause he pushed on- and off-screen with the zeal of Jeremiah.
While Sagan was the first public scientist to leverage television as his bully pulpit, he did not invent the stance of the scientist-prophet. That honor goes to the founders of the Royal Society in the mid-seventeenth century. Robert Boyle and his colleagues hybridized Protestant prophecy and natural magic (a forerunner of our sciences) to make “experimental philosophy”—and to establish it as England’s new civic oracle, its certainty factory. In the end, what a prophet does isn’t to tell the future; a prophet engages the public in an evaluative dialogue that manufactures certainty out of crisis. When the gears of our democracies grind to an impasse, our prophets step forth from the wilderness and remind us who we are, what we really value. With our dilemma cast in this new light, we can at last move off its horns and into civic action.
This was what Jeremiah did for the nation of Judah; this was what the Delphic oracle did for Athens as it faced down Xerxes. But after the precedent set by the Royal Society—who confirmed their prophetic calling with resurrected birds, glowing phosphorus, and other signs and wonders never before seen on the face of this earth—scientists became the new prophets of democracy. In this way, Charles Darwin helped Victorian England build and justify its new industrial society; and Louis Agassis bolstered American manifest destiny. In the twentieth century, Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer helped usher in the nuclear age. Then Rachel Carson helped mothers and physicians push it back for a slim chance at returning to a bucolic, pre-industrial America.
So when Carl Sagan strode out onto the California seashore in the first episode of Cosmos, the stage was set for him in more ways than one. His viewers, disciplined by generations of cultural practice, immediately recognized Sagan’s prophetic stance. Along with the objective cosmological research he presented, they listened to his admonitions about mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter as if these were totally normal things for a scientist to say—which in fact they are not: a considerable body of research has found that scientists strongly discourage each other from making moral pronouncements in technical settings. Whether Sagan precipitated or followed public will against nuclear stockpiling is impossible to say, but he was certainly in the flow of his times. By the time Sagan recorded his new preface to Cosmos in 1991, he was able to announce that widespread fear of nuclear holocaust was a thing of the past.
Since Sagan’s groundbreaking television performance, the media venues for scientist-prophets have proliferated; so have the number of celebrity and public scientists. Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Stephen Schneider, Richard Dawkins, Olivia Judson, James Hansen, and other scientists regularly get up in their bully pulpits to tell us not just what they’ve learned but also how they think we should live as a result. Whether we think this is a good thing or not is up to our personal politics. The fact remains that as long as our public crises turn on technological, medical, or environmental issues (as nearly all of them do), we will turn to science for answers; and as long as science is our dominant channel to civic truth, scientists will remain our prophets.
Lynda Walsh is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. She specializes in the rhetoric of science and reception theory. Her new book Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy traces the historical evolution of the science adviser’s cultural authority in public life.