Carl Sagan had a bit to say about skepticism in his essay “The Burden of Skepticism,” originally published in the Fall 1987 issue of Skeptical Inquirer:
“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.
“Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”
Sagan was completely skeptical about Immanuel Velikovsky and his thesis. In the 1974 AAAS meeting where he was to “debate” Velikovsky, Sagan grandstanded for the reporters and disappointed those people who were interested in hearing a serious debate on the topic. Not the most healthy of skeptical responses. Many scientists claim Sagan’s botching of the debate was what gave new energy into the Velikovsky “problem”. If he had done his part with a little more focus, the Velikovsky movement could have been stopped in its tracks.
On his show “Cosmos”, Sagan said he has disappointed in the scientific community’s response to Velikovsky but he never apologized for being one of the primary attackers on Velikovsky. Sagan’s main agenda has always been about promoting Sagan, regardless of the venue. Humans are that way, self-promoting is a survival mechanism.
Many scientists have taken differing views on the impact of Velikovsky’s work. I always figured the most important thing to come out of it was the use of myth as a tool for understanding the ancient past. I may be the only one with that view.
Jerry Pournelle discussed it on his website and thought the most important part of Velikovsky’s work was his helping to break the hold uniformism had on the study of geology and evolution. Today we have evolved what could be called “punctuated evolution” aided in part by the obvious catastrophes Velikovsky had brought into the spotlight.
Alfred de Grazia has his own take on the Velikovsky Affair and about the only work being done in the scientific field evolving from Velikovsky’s work is Talbot and Thornhill’s “electric universe”.
Still, the “healthy skepticism” called for by Sagan needs to be applied in all areas of study. One never knows when something of importance can come from even the most obscure sources.
We are still so far from understanding everything about the universe and who knows from where the next stroke of genius may come.