Carl Sagan brain gif

Carl Sagan the astronomer known for being probably the worlds best science popularizer had as you might expect quite a lot to say about the issue of scientific literacy. In fact the book Demon Haunted World is almost exclusively about scientific literacy and the issue of pseudoscience and why we believe in it.

I have collected some of the best quotes by Carl Sagan pertaining to education and scientific literacy.

Why care about science?

All of our marvelous advancements in technology aside.. Science helps us become better people, in so many ways.

It’s hard to justify atrocities by making things up when the people are scientifically literate.

But of course, mainly, it feels really good to know that you understand the universe to some degree. At that point you’ll also realize how much you have left to learn.

The technology around us

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark


It is true, we live in a world where hardly anyone understands the technology we use everyday. How many of you can for example fix the phone you use if it breaks? Your car? Your home electrical system? Plumbing? (I’m sure some of you can fix some of these, if not all. But that isn’t the norm.)

There’s a whole lot of technology around us these days. And one can be excused for not knowing exactly how it all works, but at the same time one has to recognize the benefits of knowing at least a little bit about it.

The disaster Carl is talking about isn’t that you might have to call a plumber or an electrician when something breaks.

Rather he is imagining how we would handle scenarios in which there is no one to call. Now this may be everything from a person being stranded in the desert with no reception and a broken down car, to a postapocalyptic society where all of our remaining technology is useless because nobody remembers how it works. In any scenario like this, you would be better of knowing at least something of the technology you depend on.


Relevant reading: Should The Public Be Trusted With Dangerous Information?


What about creativity?

Carl Sagan was also very keen on the fact that creativity is good for humanity, it’s what has helped us get to where we are. From the moon to 4k tvs, the idea had to come from somewhere.


“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”
Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan on Education. 

And while those few particularly creative of us have managed to dream for all of us, there has long been a sort agenda in society to kill creativity and uniqueness. Whether this is on purpose does not matter, what matters is that it’s bad for innovation.


“we make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Science has no room for arrogance

“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
Carl Sagan

In order to progress we cannot allow our petty human emotions to get in the way of the truth. We very often do though, we try to censor opinions we don’t agree with. We supply ‘alternative facts’, which is a newly coined term for making things up.

Another issue is that once we have been fooled by someone, we are very reluctant to admit it. We would rather stick to the delusion than admit our mistake. This of course is disastrous for a society trying to maintain scientific literacy. The world is complicated and everyone will have to misunderstand many things before coming to a real understanding.

You may have heard that people laughed at Einstein and other considered geniuses. However, insisting on holding opinions based on poor information does not make you a genius. Rather that saying refers to the issue of the public not accepting new information due to their previously held conceptions. This is a deeply misunderstood saying

“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science


“The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.”
Carl Sagan


“If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.”
Carl Sagan


What it leads to, not admiting you’re ever wrong, is a very limited world view. People with an open mind often take pity on those with a closed mind, it’s not hard to see why. The universe holds so much wonder, and some people just close their eyes to it.


“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”
Carl Sagan


“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space


“I don’t want to believe. I want to know.
Carl Sagan

In conclusion:

Following is one of the quotes that best sums up why we at Scientific Literacy Matters do what we do.

Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom, but reading is still the path.”
Carl Sagan