“Whatever is inconsistent with the facts, no matter how fond of it we are, must be discarded or revised.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 13: “Who Speaks for Earth?”
Since first reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan one year ago, I have revered him. I admire his worldview and his way of expressing it. I’ve dedicated many blog posts to him and to the curiosity that he has inspired in me. I’ve shared dozens of his quotes, many of which carry the same sentiment as the one above. This dedication to the truth, this unwillingness to accept facts only because they were propagated by an authority figure, is what brings me to write that Carl Sagan was wrong.
Atheists Do Have Idols
Before you all start with it in the comments: I know Carl Sagan wasn’t perfect. No one is. I once got a comment on my post The Dawkins Problem which read,
A great rule for all freethinkers should be: no gods/no masters/no idols/no heroes. If you elevate someone to such a level you are still religious and not yet a full freethinker—and you will be let down.
To have no idols and no heroes is an unattainable task. Freethinkers are humans, and humans have idols. One of mine was, and is, Carl Sagan. So yes, when I realized that the stories he tells in his book and TV show are inaccurate and Eurocentric, I was let down. Having idols and being let down by them is part of life. To be an atheist is not to remove yourself from the world and the emotion that comes with being human. No one lives purely on logic.
To Be a True Sagan Fan Is to Call Him Out
Even as someone who admires Carl Sagan, I’ve always been cautious not to think of him as unquestionable and inerrant. I wrote a post last winter on why atheists revere him, explaining that
. . . he is probably the best proponent of skepticism and the scientific method that I have ever seen. Reading his works, you’ll understand that you can apply the same Baloney Detection Kit to everything from creationism to astrology to fascism. He lived a life dedicated to discovering truth and explaining to the layperson why the scientific method is our best tool for doing that. Part of this, ironically, is knowing not to believe anything just because an authority figure said so; one of the best things to hear from a scientist is ‘Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.’Why Atheists Revere Carl Sagan
Sagan’s dedication to discovering what’s true, discarding beliefs that you may be emotionally attached to, and not believing things on authority is what brings me to refute his own factual errors. In this way, I think that making this post calling him out is a way of paying homage to him and the skeptical worldview that he promoted.
Why I Believed (and Spread) Misinformation
One year ago, I published a post called Is Religion the Enemy of Science? (As I’m about to explain, most of the content of that post is incorrect to some extent. Thus, I’ve made it password protected so that you can only view it if you’ve read this post. The password is “Sagan”.)
During the time that I made that post, I was at a point when I was getting away from the anti-theistic mindset that I had in my earlier atheist days. I was done wanting to learn things simply to disprove Christianity, but I just wanted to learn for the fun of it. Cosmos was exactly what I had been looking for. In my review of it, I said,
Carl Sagan (and his bestselling book and record-breaking TV series) is exalted not only in the atheist and scientific communities, but also by the general public. This is noteworthy to me because Cosmos is neither a religious book or an anti-religious book. It’s just an honest book. But with honesty (and with wonder at the Cosmos) comes the truth that in a lot of ways, organized religion has held society back throughout history.Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan
This coincidental portrayal of the church as evil appealed to me because it appeared to be coming from an unbiased source who was simply stating the fact that religion is objectively anti-science. And Sagan was so openly passionate about not accepting things just because they coincided with his worldview that I had no reason to think that he would do it himself. I would have accepted whatever he said (because I had no reason not to), but because what he said coincided with my worldview, I decided it was my duty to make it known. What I didn’t know was that he was wrong.
What Was Sagan Wrong About?
I learned that Sagan was bad at history thanks to a comment on my post Is Religion the Enemy of Science? guiding me toward this blog post. In it, Greek history buff Spencer McDaniel breaks down all of the factual errors in the Library of Alexandria segment of Cosmos Episode 13: “Who Speaks for Earth”. (However, if you want a breakdown, I would recommend this Reddit post which is a few miles shorter and more digestible. I’ll be referring more to this thread later.)
Basically, Sagan says that the Library of Alexandria was a research institute, it was “once the brain and glory of the greatest city on the planet Earth,” and that science was born there, among other things. He lists a few Greek thinkers and claims that they studied at the Library. He also portrays the Library as a purely secular endeavor, untouched by the poison of religion. He explains that the culture surrounding the Library slowly deteriorated due to the Alexandrian society’s reliance on slavery and unwillingness to share science with the masses. He shares the story of Hypatia and explains that a Christian mob came in 415 A.D. to “flay [Hypatia’s] flesh from her bones”. Without her, Sagan says, there was no one to stop the mob from burning down the Library.
Sagan laments the loss of the Library and wonders what books we may have today if they hadn’t been lost. He feels that this hatred of learning and freethought is what set science back one thousand years, and the spirit of inquiry was only found again during the Renaissance.
Outside of this segment, in the episodes/chapters “Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” and “The Backbone of Night”, Sagan generally spends a lot of time praising the minds of lesser-known Greek thinkers like Eratosthenes, Democritus, and Aristarchus. My post Is Religion the Enemy of Science? basically regurgitated these ideas, listing out the Greek thinkers and mourning the loss of scientific advancement from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. (It’s a shame that this whole post missed the mark, because it took me all day to write. I was so proud of it!)
(Sagan loved Alexandria and specifically Democritus so much that he and Ann Druyan named their children Alexandra Rachel Druyan Sagan and Samuel Democritus Druyan Sagan after them.)
As for correcting Sagan’s errors about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria, I don’t know enough about the facts and don’t have the time in this post to go through it all. If you have some time, though, this podcast does a great job (well, as far as I can tell) of setting the facts straight. Tim O’Neill, the guy in the podcast, also has a blog called History for Atheists where he debunks a lot of atheist myths like this and Jesus mythicism. I’m surprised I had never heard of him before, since you know I love to debunk anything that’s untrue, especially when it’s popular among atheists! The information in the podcast is also in this post.
(In short, Christians did not burn down the Library, Hypatia and many of the thinkers Sagan listed never worked there, and the situation as a whole was a lot more complex than the segment let on. The Library also wasn’t quite the secular research institute that Sagan dreamt it was.)
Scientists Are Not Historians
One of the things that frustrates me the most is that I don’t know exactly how this misinformation ended up in Cosmos. The show, which inspired the book, was written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter. It’s possible that Sagan himself didn’t research and write the segments about history, but he is responsible regardless. It’s his name on the cover, and he is the one who tells the story in the show. Notably, none of the three writers are historians.
It’s completely understandable that Carl Sagan wasn’t an expert in history. I’m sure there’s plenty that he was bad at. I wouldn’t really expect a scientist like him to also be a pro at history, except that he perpetuated a scientific myth in a book that—by the way—had no sources. Cosmos has an appendix For Further Reading organized by chapters, but it is not a legitimate references section to tell us where the author got his claims. However, in multiple places, his audience has noticed that he repeats a lot of the information in Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to O’Neill, Gibbon was an anti-Christian deist who wrongly blamed the downfall of Rome on the Church. And since Cosmos is a source that so many atheists have taken as truth (as I did), this misinformation has made its way into atheist culture unquestioned.
A Reddit user put it this way: “Part of the problem with r/atheism is that they get their history from scientists and not historians. It’s why we see so much of The Chart, and so many posts blindly denying Jesus’ existence.”
“The Chart” and the Atheist Persecution Complex
O’Neill calls Sagan’s version of the story of the Library of Alexandria a moral fable. It’s an amazing story which tells a simple cautionary message with the scientists as the protagonists and the Christians as the antagonists. It serves as evidence that Christians are simply against freethinking. If only the story were true.
Part of this fable is what many Reddit users in the thread I linked above call “The Chart”. I didn’t know what “The Chart” meant, but presumably the reason people call it that is that it’s just so ubiquitous in atheist circles that once you recognize it, you see it everywhere. And if someone mentions it, you know what they’re talking about.
Other than clearly describing history this way, Sagan literally includes a version of this chart in Cosmos. I also shared his Chart in my faulty post from last August.
Elsewhere in the Reddit thread was some mention of the 2009 film Agora, which I believe tells the (false) story of Hypatia and the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It was at this point that I realized all these sources point to something I’d never considered: an atheist persecution complex. It seems we have a bit in common with the Christians after all.
Western Bias in Cosmos
If I’m being honest, I don’t know everything about the Middle Ages, the fall of Rome, and how much the Church stifled learning. (As I write this, I realize no one probably expected me to know all that. But you already know I found a book on it that I’m ordering ASAP!) I have learned that what we often dub the “Dark Ages” was actually the Golden Age of Islam, where much scholarly work was being done—and not just “preserving the Greek tradition”. I have more to learn regarding what’s problematic about The Chart. However, I can tell you that watching and reading parts of Cosmos a year later, I can see a lot more Western and Greek bias than I did the first time around.
I first read Cosmos in July of 2020. I was in the early stages of a worldview shift where I was reckoning with the reality of the white supremacy around and within me. While a couple of the margins of my book include notes on Sagan being too focused on the accomplishments of Western science, I hadn’t fully grasped just how Eurocentric it was.
Most of the history sections of Cosmos include Sagan lamenting that the scientists like Eratosthenes and Democritus aren’t better known today. In one section, he lists the supposed inventions of Theodorus of Cyrene, wondering bitterly, “Why are there no monuments to this man?”
It was Cosmos where I gained the interest in lesser-known scientific figures. I had heard much about Copernicus and Galileo, but never about Aristarchus of Samos, who allegedly proposed heliocentrism and inspired Copernicus 1,800 years later. It was this new curiosity about underrated scientific figures that led me to buy Dick Teresi’s Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya immediately when I found it at the store. So it is ironic that Lost Discoveries made me realize just how Eurocentric Sagan’s book and show are.
On the Shoulders of (Non-Western) Giants
I’m sure I knew deep down that non-Western civilizations have always done just as much, if not more, science as Western civilizations. Right now, I am only 90 pages into the 367-page Lost Discoveries, and I have already learned so much about the scientific and mathematical achievements of Egypt, Babylonia, China, India, and more. As a matter of fact, according to Teresi, many of the Greek thinkers not only built their knowledge from that of the ancient Egyptians, but they credited the Egyptians in their work. It amazes me that this passed by Sagan and didn’t make it into Cosmos. How could Alexandria have possibly been the birthplace of science when its own scholars were openly citing ancient thinkers?
As I said, Sagan emphasizes that Aristarchus had proposed heliocentrism long before Copernicus, who credited Aristarchus. Actually, Teresi points out that Copernicus’s equations look almost suspiciously like those by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, an Islamic astronomer who lived about 300 years before Copernicus. While Aristarchus did live first, one might have expected al-Tusi to at least be mentioned in the Cosmos segment. Furthermore, the Indian astronomer Aryabhata proposed a heliocentric model in 499 A.D., and it was expanded upon by another Indian astronomer named Bhāskarāchārya one hundred years after. However, the idea of the Sun being the center of the Solar System is very ancient; our first source dates back to an Indian text from the 8th century B.C.
Evidence also suggests that Aryabhata, Bhāskarāchārya, and other ancient Indian scholars proposed a form of calculus over 1,000 years before Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz simultaneously and independently developed it. Sagan wrote that Newton’s work was “a concordance and calibration of the chronologies of ancient civilizations, very much in the tradition of the ancient historians Manetho, Strabo, and Eratosthenes.”
In the first episode/chapter of Cosmos, Sagan makes a point to show the way that Eratosthenes of Alexandria calculated the circumference of the Earth with nothing but his own mind and some sticks. Sagan claims, “[Eratosthenes] was the first person to accurately measure the size of the planet.” It may be true that his name is the earliest one we have, but the Chinese demonstrated an interest measuring the size of the planet for calendar-making purposes using an instrument called the gnomon as early as 2300 B.C. However, it seems that Sagan’s segment on Eratosthenes, while Greek-centric, was mostly made to emphasize the fact that anyone can do science, even with next to no technology, if they have a little curiosity and drive.
While I only had the time to share a couple of examples, there are 18 Greek thinkers whose accomplishments I listed in my post last year. I bet that none of them were the first to come up with those ideas. Now it is obvious that nothing can truly be original, but I just wish that Sagan had paid more tribute to the even more ancient scholars in other civilizations. I thought it was really cool that Sagan traveled to places like Greece and Egypt to tell the tales in Cosmos. How much cooler it would have been if he had visited other places around the globe that had nurtured early learning.
Is Religion Actually the Enemy of Science?
Secular humanism is a worldview—it’s my worldview—but every worldview has its biases. As it is impossible not to have idols and emotions, it is impossible not to have biases. While Sagan initially appeared to be a great objective source, his blend of an atheistic and Eurocentric bias actually damaged his credibility.
He praised Alexandria and Ionia because (he believed) they were great secular hubs. According to Sagan, people came to the Library of Alexandria to do science purely for science’s sake, and to discover what must be true if nature is not explained by the will of gods. This wasn’t actually true, but even if it was, it would be troubling. One of the biggest problems with historians recognizing non-Western science as science is that much of it was done in the name of religion. For most of history, the priests were the ones who conducted science. The ancient Indians made great strides in geometry in order to build grand and complex altars, and the Islamic thinkers were dedicated to knowledge as part of their religion.
Since when is science invalid if it is tied to theism? Is rejecting that science nothing more than tainting an objective view with an anti-theistic lens? Let’s not abandon honesty just for the sake of being secular gatekeepers.
I hold Carl Sagan to a high intellectual standard. I still look up to him. I truly hope, and optimistically believe, that he did not purposely mislead readers in what continues to be one of my favorite books of all time. This is not because he was a famous white man who was capable of no wrongdoing, but because he was so openly passionate about skepticism and the pursuit of truth. When watching the clips about the Library of Alexandria, and the Ionian scientists not getting their fair share of credit for their ideas, you can tell that he is visibly upset. Throughout the book and the show, Sagan condemns slavery and colonialism, and he praises the idea of diverse societies where ideas are exchanged from people all over the world. I just wish that he had done more to include these ancient and diverse people who equally deserved his praise.