Robert Anton Wilson Trashes the Unbridled Arrogance of Carl Sagan



You know, I’ve never been a Carl Sagan fan. Not that I’ve read a whole lot of his stuff outside of some opinion pieces that have shown up online after his death. I guess the reason I’ve never been a fan is because I’ve frequently run into people arguing against the legitimacy of neo-spiritual/Occult concepts who reference his book The Demon Haunted Universe, which I’ve admittedly never read. You know why I haven’t read it? Because I have no idea why I would read a book about spirituality or altered states of consciousness written by an astronomer. Not really his area of expertise now, is it? What I didn’t know until just recently is that Robert Anton Wilson not only thought he was an arrogant douchebag, but wrote an entire chapter about that very topic in his book Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death:

“If anybody possesses all the qualifications necessary for a fully ordained Expert in America today, Carl Sagan certainly has that dizzying eminence. Through frequent appearances on TV and in Parade (a news magazine circulated through hundreds of newspapers in their jumbo Sunday editions), Dr. Sagan has issued Expert verdicts on every possible controversial issue in science, and in politics, and even in theology, for three decades now. And, like the Experts who authenticated hundreds-to-thousands of Elmyrs, he has never once admitted he ever made a mistake.

You may wonder how a man who only has qualifications in astronomy can also function as an Expert on everything in general. Well, I think it requires Sagan to have a lot of raw courage, in the first place, and a strong, well-founded confidence that those who don’t believe his dogmas have much less access to the media than he does; if they answer him back, however effective their arguments, very few of his large, gullible audience will ever hear about it.”

The whole chapter, entitled The Astronomer who Abolished Gravity focuses largely on Sagan’s crusade to discredit the ideas of one Dr. Velikowsky and can be read here in its entirety (you have to scroll down a bit), and ends with this gem (quoting NASA’s Robert Jastrow):

“Professor Sagan’s calculations, in effect, ignore the law of gravity.
Here, Dr. Velikovsky was the better astronomer.

Robert Bass wrote, even more harshly,

This Sagan assumption [ignoring gravity] is so disingenuous that I do not hesitate to label it a deliberate fraud on the public or else a manifestation of unbelievable incompetence or hastiness combined with desperation (cited by Ginenthal.)

Well, I always had doubts about Sagan’s ability to pronounce verdicts outside astronomy. When he does calculations inside astronomy and then ignores or forgets gravity, I begin to wonder about his competence in general….”

Why do I mention this? Because just a few days back Disinfo ran a piece siting Carl Sagan’s wisdom as some amazing guide to help us sort out reality from fantasy and warning Disinfonauts to be weary of their sources. Clearly, the guy who wrote for that bastion of cutting edge science, Parade Magazine, for 30 years should be trusted blindly as an authority on these matters. Clearly.


(As always, continual magick journal weirdness going down on the Facebooks, friend me)

Thad McKraken

Thad McKraken

Thad McKraken is a psychedelic writer, musician, visual artist, filmmaker, Occultist, and pug enthusiast based out of Seattle. He is the author of the books The Galactic Dialogue: Occult Initiations and Transmissions From Outside of Time, both of which can be picked up on Amazon super cheap.
Thad McKraken
  • BrianRouth

    Interesting that he waffles on about books that he hasn’t even read!

    • Logan Kennedy

      This is exactly what caught my attention. Now, who’s being an ignorant arrogant d-bag again? Hmm..

  • BryanCUFF

    Carl Sagan > RAW

    • BryanCUFF

      maybe you should actually try reading The Demon Haunted Universe.

  • Aram Jahn

    The issue of RAW’s attacks on Sagan go into a territory in which RAW objected to the group of self-described “skeptics” who only seemed to write hit pieces against people they thought were full of woo, and there was zero “scientific investigation” of claims of the paranormal.

    But it goes deeper than that: RAW saw the history of science and agreed with most of the CSICOP people: he loved science, logic, rational thought, the Enlightenment, etc…but he deeply disliked the persecution of heretics. One: they are later found to have been on to something valuable; no amount of what we know now justifies pretentious “we know what’s possible and what isn’t” attacks. Two: heretics, even when “wrong” bring up metaphors about the Blakean poetic qualities in the human mind. Leave them alone. (EX: Velikovsky) They may be nuts, but we should be tolerant of weird, “wrong” ideas: wasn’t that supposed to be part of Enlightenment thought?

    Third: Leary and RAW both LIKED Sagan a lot early on, when he started speculating about “exobiology.” They thought these were wonderful far-out ideas and on the cutting-edge. Sagan seems to have cashed in as an “expert” and authoritarian about what’s admissible and what isn’t. Neither Leary nor RAW could cotton to that BS game.

    Finally: It’s now out in the open, in the archives and bios of Sagan: the dude was a huge pot-head. He loved cannabis, because it allowed him to come up with ideas. But while alive and a public intellectual celebrity, he did not come out as pro-pot. No one but his friends and Dr. Lester Grinspoon knew. And RAW and Leary were on the avant about science and pot and psychedelics, and they both paid the price; Sagan played it safe to protect he Large Rep as Public Knower. Leary and RAW- esp RAW – knew this was bullshit.

    RAW pokes fun at Sagan in a lot of coded ways. For EX: see his historical novel set in the 18th century, The Widow’s Son. On pp.270-280 and pp.304-306 we meet “Sir Charles Nagas,” a classic I Know It All Enlightenment figure.

    • drokhole

      Sagan’s “Mr. X” essay really is a thing of beauty (well, in the spirit of RAW, it seems that way to me). I wish he would have been more bold and forthcoming in his use.

    • Jesse Morton

      I’ve had the same thought before regarding the persecution of modern “heretics.” From a scientific standpoint, their positions tend to be indefensible, but from a humanistic standpoint, they tend to provide a significant degree of novelty to collective human expression. From a perspective of Darwinian cultural transmission (google: “Robert C. Dunnell” “archaeology”) the occult, pseudoscience, spiritualism, etc. may be taken as behavioral “mutations” from what is statistically normal, which will be treated positively, negatively or (more or less) neutrally in the selective environment.

  • Hermesacat

    I’m glad Disinfo itself posted this rejoinder to its own prior piece that linked to an obnoxiously cheerleading piece about Sagan. I started writing a long comment under that earlier Disinfo piece, but got distracted & never finisihed it.

    On the subject of paranormal phenomena, Sagan was a scientist no longer but rather a true believing fundamentalist materialist idealogue. I further recommend Robert Anton Wilson’s informative & entertaining book “The New Inquisition” which deals specifically with the irrational, unjust, dogmatic persecution of paranormal research & researchers at the hands of fundamentalist materialists such as those at The Committee For the Scientific Investigation [not. They don’t investigate, but denounce those who do] of Claims of the Paranormal, of which Sagan was actively involved. An appalling history, eye opening, & not flattering to Sagan.

    • drokhole

      Interesting to note, the knee-jerk “extraordinary claims” mantra that most alleged “skeptics” evoke and credit to Sagan actually originated from (and should be properly attributed to) a guy named Marcello Truzzi. Truzzi was once dubbed “the skeptic’s skeptic,” and was even a co-founder of CSICOP. Thing is, Truzzi became increasingly disenchanted by the behavior of his fellow “skeptics” and ended up denouncing them and the organization altogether:

      “They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. […] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts. Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly.”

      “There are some members of the skeptics’ groups who clearly believe they know the right answer prior to inquiry. They appear not to be interested in weighing alternatives, investigating strange claims, or trying out psychic experiences or altered states for themselves (heaven forbid!), but only in promoting their own particular belief structure and cohesion.”

      He ended up coining the term “pseudoskeptic” in reference to some of his former colleagues.

      • Hermesacat

        Right. RAW’s “The New Inquisition” includes the story of Truzzi, a CSICOP founder, leaving the organization because it had abandoned what he viewed as its original purpose, i.e. to investigate skeptically, i.e. open mindedly, not denounce & debunk ideologically without honest investigation. As I recall, the last straw for him was when the organization suppressed some its own data it itself had gathered, which was slated to be published in its journal, because they were shocked when it turned out the data didn’t support their belief system & expectations. So, they insisted on burying data rather than publishing. Truzzi left to start his own organization committed to honest investigation & evaluation, which had been the original aim of CSICOP according to him, before CSICOP got hijacked by fundamentalist materialist fanatics who have controlled it ever since.

        • drokhole

          Which is an entirely noble (and helpful) aim. Now that you mention it, I think I may have first heard of Truzzi through RAW’s work, though I haven’t gotten around to reading “The New Inquisition” in particular. Gonna need to get on that, thanks for the prompting.

          • Andrew Crawshaw

            Good to read Truzzi’s journal, The Zetetic Scholar (not in any way related to rowbotham’s zeteticism), alongside the new inquisition. All the issues are available free online.

          • drokhole

            Thanks for the heads-up!

  • echar

    Perhaps both have something to offer, and can provide data that may assist in personal progress?

    • Cortacespedes

      Just like everything else. Sort thru, discard things, retain others, discard what you retain, reconsider what you discarded.

      Most everyone has something to offer someone else, in one way or another (even if it’s a lesson on what not to do).
      Lots of searching and sifting.

      I just think it’s a mistake to totally write off anything or anyone.

      • Adam’s Shadow

        Exactly; which is why on my bookshelf I keep “The Selfish Gene” right next to Jung’s “Flying Saucers” – they seem to provide a nice counterbalance to one another.

    • Craig Bickford

      Yes, but you forget that some people like the long winded intellectual tirade against their enemy of the week syndrome. Please don’t spare us the comedy of having to read that over and over.

      • echar

        I feel that some people should think carefully about who they trust and who they consider an enemy.

  • Ken_A1

    “You know, I’ve never been a Carl Sagan fan. Not that I’ve read a whole
    lot of his stuff outside of some opinion pieces that have shown up
    online after his death. I guess the reason I’ve never been a fan is
    because I’ve frequently run into people arguing against the legitimacy
    of neo-spiritual/Occult concepts who reference his book The Demon Haunted Universe,
    which I’ve admittedly never read. You know why I haven’t read it?
    Because I have no idea why I would read a book about spirituality or
    altered states of consciousness written by an astronomer. Not really his
    area of expertise now, is it?”

    With this chunk of text alone, I’ve got more reasons to doubt the usefulness of your opinion than you have to doubt Sagan’s.

    • Craig Bickford

      Well it is his opinion after all so…I’m not sure why you are bitching so much about it.

      • Jesse Morton


        • lunasea

          That word does not mean what you think it means.

      • Ken_A1

        I’ll refer you to Harlan Ellison for the answer to that.

        P.S. Cool avatar.

  • Jim Ritchey

    I’d share this if the damned headline wasn’t so awkward.
    Wouldn’t trashing someone’s unbridled arrogance be defending that person’s behavior?

  • Guest

    good work on the binary think

  • 玻璃卢克

    ‘Demon Haunted World’ is not “about spirituality or altered states of consciousness”: it is about Critical Thinking. Its subtitle is ‘Science as a Candle in the Dark’. A cursory Amazon search could have spared you this humiliation. Please at least learn how to use the internet.

  • Dennis Sweatt

    What a waste of my time. Thad, this isn’t your forte’, write for the Inquirer next time. Read the books, Carl Sagan is right about many, many things and scientist are inherently humble. Obviously you don’t know any.

  • Rus Archer

    1. the irony of citing rawilson as an argument from authority in an argument against experts
    2. i’ve never been a fan of lots of things i’ve never paid attention to
    3. no matter how much i love rawilson (and if you haven’t taken his quotes too far out of context – almost a decade now since i read the cosmic trigger series), he seems to confuse expertise with spokesperson – carl sagan played both roles at different times
    4. much like tmckenna, rawilson made his living as a psychonaut – he would’ve had a hard time selling a lot of those books and/or getting speaking engagements withOUT talking about illicit substances and behaviors
    4.b. you will find that some people currently involved in psychedelic studies find tleary’s rhetoric and behavior had more of a detrimental effect on the access to and subsequent study of these substances
    5. how many quarters did you find?

    • echar

      Seems like a self promotion of a “magickal” journal to me.

      to answer number 5:

      Coincidentally, about a day after re-reading that part in Prometheus Rising I found a wallet in a parking lot. I thought to myself while walking into the store to turn it in, “It’s not exactly a quarter”.

      • Rus Archer

        i think i found 1 quarter and a couple dimes
        /sux at visualization
        cosmic trigger did inspire me to get involved in some occult groups
        fun for a minute

        • echar

          i’ve yet to read Cosmic Trigger, but I’ve read a couple other R.A.W. books that supported a shift in perspective. Mainly the adoption of E-Prime, the awareness of binary think, and sombunall. I am saddened that R.A.W. was used in this posting to self promote a magickal creative writing journal.

    • Craig Bickford

      I love how all the comments i have been skimming seem to gloss over the question of whether Sagan did in fact makes some calculations incorrectly that no one called him on. Is there any merit to that statement?

      • VaudeVillain

        Per the article: no, at least one guy saw errors and called him on them.

        It seemed like a strange bit to include, frankly. It isn’t particularly “arrogant” to make an erroneous calculation, and while it sounds like a big-fucking-deal to forget gravity, that might just mean forgetting to include one of several opaque mathematical operations in a large equation.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that people aren’t focusing on it because it was the least interesting, or risible, part of the post.

        • drokhole

          Upon a cursory search, it seems there were more than a few criticisms of Sagan’s take:

          “[Sagan’s] paper was presented exceptionally well, and his charisma added to the effectiveness of the presentation. Most of the audience did not know and, because of his captivating delivery, did not care that many of his points were irrelevant, incorrect, or misleading [..] Some of his pre-AAAS meeting comments were drastically revised for the paper given at the meeting. After many fallacious points about his paper were revealed in Pensée, the paper was again corrected.”
          – C.J. Ransom, physicist


          “Having read Velikovsky, I also read Sagan’s paper; I thereafter discovered that a group of scientists and scholars had written critiques of Sagan’s analysis. After reading these criticisms I began a search of the literature and over a period of time I became convinced that Sagan’s critique lacked substance. Most surprising was the number of statements made by Sagan that proved to be clearly untrue. Further reading reinforced this discovery of the glaringly unscientific and unscholarly quality of Sagan’s paper. What was much worse, was that it was difficult to imagine that even Sagan was unaware of the misrepresentation of evidence presented as scholarly criticism by him and offered to the public.

          [..]the realization struck that Carl Sagan’s criticisms had been uncritically read by a wide audience. This was soon discovered to be the case among friends and relatives. Seemingly, they had all read Sagan’s side, but not Velikovsky’s. With little or no scientific background with which to judge, they had accepted Sagan’s word on all matters. It was then that I conceived the idea for this book. It is hoped that reading the other side will permit laymen to clarify the issues.”

          – Charles Ginenthal, author


          The last part, in particular, would seem to illustrate the strawman and argument from authority fallacies from Sagan’s own “Baloney Detection Kit.” You’ll also find that “uncritical” acceptance for a whole host of issues – be it their presumed premise and/or pertinent facts – where self-identified “critical thinkers” don’t bother to familiarize themselves with source material or alternate points-of-view (unless, again, filtered through their preferred mouthpieces…and, ultimately and more significantly, their now established/current reality tunnel).

          • Rus Archer

            well, you already did more research than the author which seems the whole point
            actual criticism of a scientist and their work requires some work
            trolling does not
            just quote uncle bob quoting someone else

  • jonathon wisnoski

    Never liked the guy.

  • O.R. Pagan

    I am sorry, but the book that you are talking about is not about what you say it is and it is not even titled like that… O_o

  • Ron Chandler

    Sagan – never could stand the man, mincing the English language, boring as all get-out… Give me Fred Hoyle (A for Andromeda, Our Place In The Cosmos, etc.) any day!
    Bryce Zabel on Sagan, who championed SETI yet fanatically denied and debunked the UFO phenomenon:
    Why would a man of Sagan’s brilliance waste his professional life-energy within such a close-minded and contradictory belief system? Why shut your mind to the one thing you most want to discover? It made no sense during Sagan’s life, and it makes less today…
    The penultimate episode of the NBC UFO series Dark Skies (1997) gave Sagan his own fitting tribute. In that episode, the debunker hired by Majestic-12 to confound
    the public with radio telescopes searching for signals from space while simultaneously discrediting all UFO reports was none other than Carl Sagan.
    This was a fictionalised drama, but it would be no surpirise. Then again, the philosophers and semioticians could expound upon the curious autism that renders so many blocked to the idea we’re not the only intelligent conscious species.

  • drokhole

    Sagan talked a great game on impartiality, but here, too, Stanislov Grof relates an encounter with Sagan’s more dogmatic tendencies:

    When Science Becomes Scientism

    “I told Carl that one of Michael Sabom’s patients was able to describe in detail the procedure of his resuscitation following cardiac arrest during an operation. He reported that his disembodied consciousness first watched the procedure from a place near the ceiling. Later, it became interested in the procedure and floated down to a position where it could observe from close up the gauges on the equipment. During the interview following successful resuscitation, the patient was able to reconstruct to Michael Sabom’s surprise the entire procedure, including the movements of the little hands on the measuring devices in correlation with the interventions of the surgical team.

    Having described this case to Carl, I asked him how he would explain this event in the context of the worldview to which he subscribed. He paused for a while, and the he said assertively: ‘This, of course, did not happen!’

    I shook my head incredulously, not believing what I just had heard. ‘What do you mean, this did not happen? Cardiosurgeon Michael Sabom reported this in his book based on the research he had conducted with his patients. What is your explanation for what I just have described to you? What do you think all this is about?’ I asked. This time the pause was even longer; Carl was clearly thinking very hard, struggling to find the answer. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he finally broke the long silence. ‘There are many cardiosurgeons in the world. Nobody would have known the guy. So he made up a wild story to attract attention to himself. It’s a PR trick!'”

  • tristan eldritch

    I remember in the first chapter of The Demon Haunted World, Sagan is in this cab, and the cabbie is asking him about Atlantis, and the Bermuda Triangle, and all the good stuff. And Sagan is basically like:

  • Craig Bickford

    Nice. Sagan is a pompous ass who was and is still today largely never questioned, and he is clearly a member of the priest class of scientism, that is the religion of scientific academia.

  • Gareth

    “I have no idea why I would read a book about spirituality or altered
    states of consciousness written by an astronomer. Not really his area of
    expertise now, is it?”

    Who’s area of expertise is it then?
    What qualifies someone to comment on spirituality?
    I don’t see that Wilson or you, or any of us are any more or less qualified to comment on it than Carl Sagan.
    Saying derogatory things about someone because they don’t agree with you doesn’t make them wrong!

    P.S. “book about spirituality or altered
    states of consciousness”, “The Demon Haunted Universe”
    Maybe, in the future, you should spare yourself the embarrassment that comes from writing articles about books you haven’t read.

  • pk

    big fan of RAW and was interested in reading the article but really the author has shown himself up here by admitting he knows nothing about Carl Sagan.
    become friends with you on facebook because you and your friends are nuts? dont think so lad

  • mannyfurious

    You should really read Sagan’s books. They are great, even if I don’t agree with all his postulations. If nothing else, in your case, at least you’ll know what you’re arguing against. And his advice on being a skeptic is spot on.

    Everybody should be a skeptic at heart, otherwise you’ll fall for any okey-doke that tickles your fancy. I’ve had several experiences that someone might call “mystical” or “occutish” or “altered states of consciousness” that Sagan would probably poo poo and use to marginalize my opinions. But I had to be skeptical of those experiences to fully understand them. I had to ask myself honestly, whether what I had experienced offered any kind of value or if they were simply the result of a short-circuiting mind. If I hadn’t examined each of those experiences with a skeptical attitude, I’d be accepting them wholly on faith, which is irresponsible.BECAUSE I was skeptical, not in spite of it, I came to see the profound truths being offered by the experiences. And, more than that, if you accept things without asking yourself the proper questions about them, you’ll come off like a haughty dipshit, just like Carl Sagan.

    • kid_amazo

      This is right on.

    • Rey d’Tutto

      “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Some Dude in a cave.
      For the majority of my waking life I am a computer tech (hardware & networking & other), which is a fairly concrete scientific worldview. I have a 5-year old, who is asking the Big Questions. I was raised devout Roman Catholic, and I have flirted with Atheism, Buddhism, Quantum Chromodynamics, other varieties of Christianity, the Kabbalah, & various mind altering substances. I have experienced meta-rational entities, and I both disbelieve that the experiences were anything other than faulty electrochemistry, as well as knowing Deity & Majick exist.
      The only thing I know for certain is that I am not certain of anything. This is not what a 5-year old wants to hear, and so some questions I answer, some I deflect (“That’s a good question! What do you think about it?”), and some I escalate to a “Higher Authority” (“Ask yer Mom…”) 😉

  • trompe l’oiel

    science is revealing the occluded realities that were protected behind the craft and mystery schools of antiquity. While science does attempt and distance itself from the personal empirical experience of the pneumatic, ineffable and the emanations of memetic principalities as nothing more than ‘electrical impulses’ in our noggin meat, now with the quantum phase of revelations happening, they are walking on an edge whose blade is everywhere and handle is nowhere. Science is essentially cornering itself to be revealed as a practical, skeptical, arrogance inflation device that’s necessary to have a massive ego gut check and a revelation of the true nature of everything. It’s own properties of disspelling has inevitably spellbound Science as something destined to have it’s ass handed to itself by it’s own curiosity.

    I see all holographic humanoids as servants of a purpose, we are representations, parts of something trying to figure itself out, enigmatically, through occluding our own true nature from even ourselves.

    Carl Sagan is less of an enemy, and more of a bridge of sorts, the bridge is rarely the destination, but it connects, he was trying to make connections. Even if at times he suffered the same folly as countless individuals before him.

    was he infallible? absolutely not, but neither is Robert Anton Wilson, Manly P. Hall or the Pope for that matter. They all still have valuable perspectives to consider.

    These gentlemen serve(d) their respective fields with proper restraint to limit themselves to a target audience, masters in marketing and informational distribution, and now we’re trying to prove one while disproving another.

    All have merit, some more than others, but the reality is, I don’t agree with everything everyone ever says ever, but does everyone have their own little fragments of truth? I’d say so.

    my fingers are cold, over and out.

  • Lynn Gray

    I find it witheringly ironic that you spelling “citing” incorrectly. What kind of dickhead can’t appreciate a wonderful human being like Carl Sagan?

    • Nathan Hohenheim

      Thank you! F@&% this article.

  • astrofrog

    Considering that the whole point of RAW’s article was that Sagan engaged in the worst sort of character assassination against Velikovsky’s work, that’s a funny thing to say.

  • astrofrog

    I’ve known a lot of scientists too. I am one. And while I can certainly agree that many scientists are just as you say, many are not, and are just as subject to common errors of thought as those lacking scientific training.

  • astrofrog

    I believe the word you were looking for was ‘right’. At least ‘siting’ is something that the spellchecker would overlook … what’s your excuse for missing the squiggly red line?

  • astrofrog

    Amazing (actually, not really) how many commenters decide to discuss Thad’s mis-spelling of ‘citing’, make pronouncements about how Sagan > RAW, or just hold forth with standard materialist skeptoid screeds, rather than actually addressing the points RAW raised regarding Sagan’s less-than-honest ‘debunking’ of Velikovsky’s work. And you style yourselves rationalists? It’s sad … this could have been a really interesting thread. But then skeptoids have a very hard time being interesting on any topic.

  • astrofrog

    Sweeping generalizations of a given profession are typically misleading. Compare to the anarchist assertion that ‘All Cops Are Bastards’: some are, some aren’t. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.

    I’m frequently conflicted as to who to be more annoyed by: the so-called ‘woo’ crowd who often believe anything so long as it contradicts the ‘mainstream’, or self-professed ‘skeptics’ and their entirely uncritical science fanboyism that often seems wholly ignorant of how science is actually done. It can be an ugly sausage factory. In the end I usually find myself being harsher towards the skeptics, as they are not defending ‘science’ but rather a particularly narrow set of scientific paradigms, and in the process utilizing a shocking degree of intolerance, emotional cruelty, bullying, harassment, character assassination, evidence manipulation, and whatever else is necessary to preserve the dominance of their world-view.

  • ÿ

    non simultaneously apprehended interacting processing!!!!!

  • Indiana Rick

    Fuck Carl Sagan he was a fuckin’ good R.A.W. would have smashed him in a debate… god damned lightweight.

  • kimsbutt

    Velikovsky was an idiot.

  • John Armstrong

    ‘siting’ — ‘citing’