Thursday, April 22, 2010

How similar are Carl Sagan and Milton Friedman?

I often find the great thinkers I admire attract some radically different followers, as I come from both science-based opinions and a free market perspective. No where has this been more obvious than the gulf between the fans of Carl Sagan and those who follow Milton Friedman.

Carl Sagan was a NASA astronomer and science popularizer. Milton Friedman was a Nobel Prize winning economist who spoke to high school students and presidents the exact same way. Neither one was afraid to speak about politics, and they commanded opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Outside of the occasional libertarian, most people I meet respect one of these two intellectual leaders at the most. Carl attracts the left wing student types - most of whom only know Milton as the scapegoat of social activists. Milton, on the other hand, tends to bring in the older conservatives - a lot of whom don't see science as the ultimate source of knowledge.

But today it occurred to me that although their political stances were usually far apart, the two have a lot in common.

First the superficial things:

Both Carl and Milton graduated from Rahway High School in New Jersey. They grew up in Jewish families but became agnostic. Both passionately advocated marijuana legalization.

In January, 1980 PBS started airing Milton's 10 part "Free to Choose" series, which popularized economic science. In September of the same year PBS began broadcasting Carl's 13 part "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." Both series are still remembered as excellent, accessible presentations on their given topics. Both Carl and Milton worked on their television series with their regular collaborators - their wives.

Most importantly, both Carl and Milton showed the world a contagious enthusiasm for science. Both were science popularizes - a difficult task to accomplish. A poor job can be seen as dry and boring or "dumbing things down." Carl and Milton nailed those topics in a way that's still fun and informative 30 years later.

They share one more important aspect. The world was made much poorer with each of their deaths. Thankfully these public intellectuals were not camera shy and future generations can benefit from their spirited presentations of science. Carl and Milton left the world a much better place than they found it, and one can't help but hear their voices when they read from the texts each one left behind.


  1. In 'Maxwell and the Nerds', a chapter in 'Demon Haunted World', Sagan shows that he holds the same belief about innovation and lack of government interference. In talking about how government control interferes with science, he outlines how scientists allowed to pursue their own interests freely, rather than being commanded by a despot/dictator to make a certain devices benefits society as a whole.

  2. Mark, would you believe that when you wrote this comment, I was writing a different post that references the same Carl Sagan book?

    I love that chapter, but I took his point as to say that scientists should just be allowed to play and not be expected to create something immediately useful. I would expect he supports government-funding science in a way Friedman would not.

  3. According to me, far deeper similarities bind these two gentlemen. They both assumed that people are generally motivated by good intentions; they both assumed that people have the intellectual capacity to understand the issues being discussed; and they both accepted the right of an individual to hold an opinion different from them. This helped them keep their arguments and persuasions objective and focus on the issue rather than the person. Both, exceedingly respectful of others, continue to set the benchmark for how public advocacy and debates should be conducted.