What Carl Sagan Understood About Human Cruelty (2023)

Up for Debate

An infrequent astronomical event offers a new way of processing the unthinkable.

By Conor Friedersdorf
What Carl Sagan Understood About Human Cruelty (1)

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

This week, five planets are aligning in the night sky: Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Uranus, and Mars will all be visible just after sunset, alongside the moon. I’d like to take this cosmic occasion to ask: What role has outer space played in your life, your worldview, or your imagination?

Or: How, if at all, should we keep exploring it?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com

Conversations of Note

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Amid news of another mass shooting this week, I found myself returning to Carl Sagan. In Cosmos, the astronomer and astrophysicist did his best to give readers a sense of the unfathomable:

No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion … Worlds are precious.

In Pale Blue Dot, he writes:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Maybe we humans ought to spend more time in dark places gazing up at the night sky.

The Shadow Government

In Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State, the writer Kerry Howley, an exceptional prose stylist, turns her attention to the world of state secrets––and lays bare many of its absurdities. Surely there is an argument for reform in this passage:

John Kiriakou, a CIA analyst based in Virginia, once wrote a paper about Iraqi nuclear weapons and sent it to the Department of Energy, which has its own classification system. As he pressed send, it became illegal for him to access the paper he had written; he did not have the clearance. Kiriakou wanted to tell the president, as the military was preparing to invade Iraq, that someone had had a nervous breakdown. “I knew he had had a nervous breakdown,” he told me at his kitchen table in Clarendon, “because I saw the original data, but I couldn’t tell anybody that he had a nervous breakdown, because it was so highly classified, so highly compartmentalized. I couldn’t put it in writing, because before it gets to the president, it goes through six other people, who wouldn’t be cleared for the information.” The president never found out; the information hit a dead end with Kiriakou.

Once, a report had come in suggesting that a high-placed Iraqi source was unreliable and unstable. Kiriakou thought the president needed to know, and Kiriakou knew the director of the CIA was about to meet with the president. But he couldn’t print out the information—it was too highly classified, there was no print option—or tell the director of the CIA’s assistant, who was not cleared, so he remembered the report as best he could, ran up to the director’s office, and told him. “Give me the report,” the director said. “I’m not going to remember that stuff.” Kiriakou said he couldn’t print it out. He repeated what he knew, from his memory, three times. The director then repeated what he could remember to the president. Anyone who has played telephone can see the problem, though in this case the original information was later revealed to be false. It’s hard to fact-check information when no one can see it.

“I could count on my two hands the times that I used my open telephone in those 15 years,” he told me, “because everything is classified, including the classified email system. So I want to meet my wife for lunch, so I send her an email. ‘You wanna meet for lunch?’ And I classify in secret note form. Why? Because everything is classified. Everything. Like I would have to stop and think, should I really make this unclassified? So eh, fuck it, I’m just gonna say secret note form. That’s what everybody does, for everything.”

The secret state reveals itself in its need for people with security clearance to sift through emails about inviting one’s wife to lunch. On clearedconnections.com, employers based in 47 states try to rustle up cleared candidates; at the time of writing, just one company, Northrop Grumman, had 2,250 job postings. In 2003, two million people had security clearance, approaching 1 percent of the population, which suggests less a security state than a caste system.

Brace Yourself for Change

That advice is implicit in the George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen’s recent commentary on the era in which we find ourselves:

In several of my books and many of my talks, I take great care to spell out just how special recent times have been, for most Americans at least. For my entire life, and a bit more, there have been two essential features of the basic landscape: 1. American hegemony over much of the world, and relative physical safety for Americans. 2. An absence of truly radical technological change.

Unless you are very old, old enough to have taken in some of WWII, or were drafted into Korea or Vietnam, probably those features describe your entire life as well.

In other words, virtually all of us have been living in a bubble “outside of history.”

Now, circa 2023, at least one of those assumptions is going to unravel, namely #2. AI represents a truly major, transformational technological advance. Biomedicine might too, but for this post I’ll stick to the AI topic, as I wish to consider existential risk.

#1 might unravel soon as well, depending how Ukraine and Taiwan fare. It is fair to say we don’t know, nonetheless #1 also is under increasing strain. Hardly anyone you know, including yourself, is prepared to live in actual “moving” history. It will panic many of us, disorient the rest of us, and cause great upheavals in our fortunes, both good and bad. In my view the good will considerably outweigh the bad (at least from losing #2, not #1), but I do understand that the absolute quantity of the bad disruptions will be high.

Risk and Reward

The writer Freddie deBoer rages against substitutes for the risky endeavor of human connection:

All across our culture, you’ll find people eager to abandon the fundamental task of our lives, fostering and maintaining human connection, so that they can fall deeper into a pit of hedonistic distraction forever. You send an email a large language model wrote for you to spare yourself a minute of mental activity at the end of a long day working from home driven by Adderall you got via Zoom from a pill-mill doctor, you order dinner through an app (so that you don’t have to talk to an actual person on the phone), masturbate to online porn, watch several dozen videos on YouTube, none of which you’ll remember even three days later, then take two Xanax to put yourself to sleep. That’s progress now, the steady accumulation of various tools to avoid other human beings, leaving people free to consume #content that is by design totally, existentially disposable, throw-away culture that asks nothing of us and which we don’t remember because neither creator nor audience wants to invest enough for remembering to make sense.

Basic dynamic in life: there is nothing meaningful enough to make you happy that could not make you sad if you lost it. This is the paradox of feeling, and it’s inherent and existential. If things inspire real positive emotion in you then they are necessarily things in which you are sufficiently invested that you would feel negative emotions when they’re gone. One of the fundamental choices that you face on Earth is the degree to which you’ll pursue deeper but riskier fulfillment or practice avoidance that exempts you from bad feelings but leaves you bereft of good ones. We all move in one direction or the other, from one day to another, certainly including me, but it feels to me as if our society is decidedly embracing the latter. Depth and intensity of feeling risk too much; Xbox and hard seltzer and HR culture anesthetize. Pop culture soothes and placates with a steady series of uncomplicated morality tales in predigested narratives where nothing ever really changes and so there’s no worry that the storyline will move in a way that hurts your feelings. Crowdsourced “content” is built on ephemerality. Ask a TikTok megafan, someone who’s totally unapologetic and proud about their love of the service: what’s a TikTok that you still come back to, a year later, two years later, three? I think the honest answer is “none.” Because like so many other things in our culture, those videos are designed to be thrown away. They can’t hurt you, but they can’t move you. They’ll never challenge you, and they’ll never inspire you. All they’re meant to do is help you pass the seconds that make up your life, a finite and precious resource.

Provocation of the Week

Writing in Persuasion, Dr. Erica Anderson, a former president of the U.S. Professional Association for Transgender Health and a former board member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, weighs in on the conversation about recent reporting on transgender healthcare:

In recent months, I was quoted in The New York Times in a number of articles on topics including gender therapy, hormone treatments and parental rights. These articles were condemned in two highly publicized open letters … Having been quoted in the aforementioned pieces, and being steeped in the issues surrounding trans healthcare, I would like to offer my view on both. First, the accusations of bias and transphobia against journalists at the Times are unconvincing. Each of the journalists with whom I spoke (in some cases multiple times) stressed their intention to illuminate the complexities of the issues. Their motivation was to cover the issues with accuracy, clarity and compassion. They were clearly trying to understand all the nuances of the issues and stressed that they were talking to many people representing a diverse range of views. In each case we discussed the precise language to be used in the articles.

… Writing about these topics is extremely difficult. If one seeks to discuss the nuanced aspects of trans medical treatments, it is even more difficult. As recently as two years ago, many journalists admitted to me that they were afraid to cover transgender healthcare at all, let alone weigh in on the substance and particulars of the issues. In America it would seem that one is cast as either pro-trans or transphobic … This unwillingness to deal with nuance is hugely problematic … The truth is that nothing is binary about gender. In particular, a false narrative has emerged about one of the most contentious issues: the status of research on trans youth, and the rigor behind current guidelines.

Major medical organizations agree that gender affirming care for youth is necessary and appropriate. Some people have taken this to mean that all the issues surrounding such care are settled. But this is not the case. A recent British Medical Journal investigation notes that the research evidence for certain forms of care has come under question in several Western European countries—countries known to be progressive and motivated to help gender-questioning youth. A full systematic review by the Swedish health authority, for example, concluded that the evidence for medicines like puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for youth is currently weak, and that the risks currently outweigh the benefits. Sweden’s health authority has updated their recommendations to severely curtail the use of puberty blockers for those under 18, pending further systematic study. They did not do this because they are transphobic: they did it because they are responsible. Meanwhile, a minority of overzealous practitioners in the United States have blurred activism with responsible professional conduct.

That’s all for today––I’ll see you next week.

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