5 Misconceptions About Carl Sagan

Happy Sagan Day, everyone! To mark the occasion, I made this video. The problem with correcting misconceptions is that some studies suggest that people will often walk away remembering the misconception but not the correction. To get around this, I came up with five “misconceptions” that you will probably not get wrong in the future. Enjoy, and don’t forget to also check out this Pale Blue Dot tribute by our sister site, Mad Art Lab!

Note to my deaf/hard-of-hearing/video-averse friends: I don’t have a transcript handy as I did this one sans script, so I’ll summarize:

Misconception 1: Carl Sagan’s real name was Jennifer, but he was forced to change it by a Hollywood producer.

Truth: Carl was named after a woman – his maternal grandmother, Clara.

Misconception 2: Carl Sagan liked pot.

Truth: Carl Sagan fucking loved pot.

Misconception 3: Carl Sagan lived in an Egyptian-themed tomb overlooking a 200-foot gorge, which was once owned by a secret society.

Truth: That one is true, actually.

Misconception 4: “Carl Sagan” was actually an elaborate hoax by Andy Kaufman.

Truth: Nothing to do with Andy Kaufman. But, Sagan was once a professor at Harvard but he left after being denied tenure, most likely because Harvard was annoyed at his popularization of science (as opposed to actually doing hard research). Cornell was looking for a superstar scientist so they snapped him up.

Misconception 5: Carl Sagan was a founding member of the Men’s Rights Movement.

Truth: Carl Sagan was a staunch feminist ally. His mother was a rebellious, skeptical badass who Carl pointed out was held back by society’s attitudes toward women; his only work of fiction featured a strong female protagonist based on an awesome female scientist (Dr. Jill Tarter); he wrote an essay on the science of the abortion debate, at the end of which he supports Roe v. Wade; and he wrote a passionate letter to The Explorer’s Club arguing for the inclusion of women (which they shortly instituted).

Enjoy a Sagany weekend!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I want to know what that tomb he lived in looked like!
    BTW- call us “deaf and hard-of-hearing”. More wordy, I know, but we like that better than “hearing impaired.”

    1. Crap I knew I was gonna get that wrong! Fixed. Sorry about that and thanks for the correction!

      As for the tomb, it’s really hard to find a good pic of it. Here’s a video shot from the frat house on the other side of the gorge:

  2. Biggest misconception, though? That he ever said “billions and billions.” No, that never happened – it was just a meme that evolved from comedians spoofing the Cosmos series. It got so bad that he actually wrote a Parade article called “Billions and Billions,” a light-hearted but intrinsically serious (he did that so well) response.

  3. This is a case of reading the summary, because it’s so much faster to just speed-read than watch a video, and then realizing that one has more time later because of ones small child showing a strong interest in science, and then watching the video and seeing that one’s point has been addressed.

  4. Carl Sagan was my childhood idol and remains the biggest influence on my life in terms of scientific interests. The way he worked on his COSMOS series, including the use of both classical and new age music to make it appealing to the public, also showed a vast spiritual capacity. If he had not been a scientist, he could have been a great religious leader.

    Yes, I know he did not believe in God. To me, spirituality is not necessarily about theism or even any religion. It is about feeling a connection with the rest of the universe.

  5. I thought this was very good information regarding Carl Sagan, I enjoyed the website by the way

    I also enjoyed this from Rupert Sheldrake, upon his meeting with Dawkins

    However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    “This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

  6. I heard – on a podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I believe – that Sagan was also the faculty adviser of the SDS at Harvard, which ruffled a great many feathers and likely led to his non-tenuring. Fact? Fiction? Auditory Hallucination? You Decide!

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