One night when I was in my terrible twos, my parents wanted a much needed night on the town and had arranged for my grandparents to take care of me, but I wasn’t having any of that because I was heartbroken over a missing L. Sesame Street and The Electric Company had me in their spell back then—so much so that my favorite toys were plastic letters. Scrambling them and unscrambling them into words—well, for me, that was the Superbowl, World Series and NBA Finals all rolled into one. And to my toddler brain, a missing letter was a tragedy of unparalleled proportions because it cut down on the number of words I could make. So there I was crying hysterically and my parents were trying to explain that it might be lost now but we could find it later, or maybe go out and buy a new one tomorrow, but no, not tonight because the stores are all closed. I was inconsolable. Instead of saying “enough is enough” or letting it be my mother or my grandparents’ problem, my poor dad spent twenty minutes scouring the house for this plastic letter, eventually getting down on his hands and knees to find the L behind the radiator. Triumphantly, he brought it to me. “Look, Nick, I found the L.” So I paused in mid-cry to see what he’d done and exclaimed, “That’s an orange L! I wanted a purple L!”
Reflecting back on that story, I’m struck by his kindness and empathy. He took the time to see things from my perspective, unreasonable two year old though I was, and unselfishly helped me because he knew how important that letter was to me. There was nothing pretentious about him. He had a scientist’s humility.
Yesterday, I received a cold call from a woman wanting to “clean up Hollywood,” reaching out to people at random to complain that the industry puts out so few G rated movies compared to years ago, and how television is subjecting young people to entertainment that fails to promote family values. She wasn’t in favor of censorship, she claimed, but she was part of an action group that wanted to put pressure on the industry and “tighten up the rating system.” Now that’s an interesting issue to me, and I happen to be on the other side of it, so I politely countered that parents should simply monitor the entertainment their children are watching, and what exactly do you consider “family values?” What offends one person may not offend another. I had the sense she was following a script, because every time I’d answer one of her questions, she’d not quite address what I was saying and would instead move on to her next talking point. Ultimately, she realized I wasn’t inclined to support her cause, and mumbled a “thank you for your time” before hanging up. And I realized that I'd been naive—she wasn’t interested in discussing the issue at all. She just wanted recruitment. It’s a shame because a real, open conversation might have left one or both of us with a fresh perspective.
(As it turns out, I wasn't talking to a live person at all. Hat Tip: Thanny.)
Since that call, I’ve found myself thinking wistfully about conversations with my dad. Many times when we were on opposite sides of a social issue, the back and forth would be not only spirited but genuinely productive, with each showing the other a perspective that had not been considered. He’d make a point, and I could feel my understanding deepen. It would force me to rethink my position. To evolve. I’m sure he moved me from my position more often than I moved him, and yet I remember the times he’d smile in appreciation of something I’d said. “Ah, that’s a good point,” he’d say, and he’d look at the issue again with a new point of view. That’s the honesty and humility that comes with science, and I’m struck by how little of it there is in the public discourse today.
There’s a Zen expression: “Enlightenment can come only after humility.” My father once said:
“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.”
It’s such an important message. Stand up for what you believe, but don’t be so stubborn that you can’t learn and change from another’s reasoned argument. So the question I would ask is this: How should we bring the sincerity and openness of science to the rest of our society? How best to enlighten our leaders and ourselves?
I view the blog-a-thon both as a tribute to the man who led so many of us to science, to skepticism, and to view our universe with a sense of majesty and wonder, and as a call for Carl Sagan fans to come together and exchange ideas in the hopes of making the world a better place. I’m grateful to Ann Druyan, Joel Schlosberg, Bryan and Dave of the Celebrating Sagan website, and to all of you who take part each year. Thank you for sharing your memories, your stories of inspiration. I know my father would be overjoyed.