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What did Carl Sagan mean by this statement?

  1. Sep 11, 2013 #1
    Hey guys... The part I DON'T understand clearly is the following part that is in BOLD

    "Science is more than a body of knowledge
    It's a way of thinking
    A way of skeptically interrogating the universe

    If we are not able to ask skeptical questions
    To be skeptical of those in authority
    Then we're up for grabs"
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 11, 2013 #2


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    As far as my understanding of English goes, it means that "we will be taken advantage of"(by other people/those in authority), due to our inability to recognise baloney.
    From the idiomatic meaning of "up for grabs" = available to be taken by anyone.
  4. Sep 11, 2013 #3


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    I had always assumed that it meant our minds are up for grabs as easy "yes men". I'm not sure that clearly explains it either.

    In a sense, if we don't learn to scrutinize the world around us, then we will just follow in step, taken away to follow in line by whoever has the loudest voice.
  5. Sep 11, 2013 #4
    Well put both of you. I was on the same page. Basically, we need to question authority to ever have a say if authority is wrong.

    Thanks all!
  6. Sep 11, 2013 #5


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    Both previous interpretations are correct, but I'll elaborate a little more.

    At least in the American vernacular, something "up for grabs" means something that "hasn't yet been assigned/attributed to an owner." The phase also has a connotation that the somethings will be assigned/attributed to an owner very soon. [Edit: Also, something "up for grabs" is usually chosen by its soon-to-be owner.]

    As an example, suppose you and your five family members are drawing numbers to determine who has to clean the house. You write numbers, 1 though 6, on separate pieces of paper, and put those pieces of paper into a hat. Each family member (including yourself) draws a number. Eventually somebody rolls a six-sided die, and whoever picked that number has to clean the house. Suppose the twins pick their numbers out of the hat first, and immediately after they pick, your mother asks, "who picked 4 and 6?" After looking at each-other's numbers, the twins answer, "they're still up for grabs," meaning numbers 4 and 6 haven't been chosen yet and are still in the hat.

    As another example, suppose that during an electrical blackout, there's a run for candles at the grocery store. You notice your friend in the checkout line and you ask her if she was able to get candles. She replies, "Yes, fortunately. And there should still be a few up for grabs if you hurry." She means that if you go to the isle that has the candles, there should still be a few left, assuming they haven't been taken already.

    I believe what Carl Sagan is saying, is that if we are not able to ask skeptical questions and allow ourselves to be skeptical of those in authority then we are essentially allowing ourselves to be swindled by the next charlatan* that comes along.

    *(Or whoever comes along and wants us to believe whatever they want us to believe).
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2013
  7. Sep 12, 2013 #6


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    Perhaps Sagan wished to say to the reader to be skeptical, to not put 'all his eggs in one basket.'
  8. Sep 12, 2013 #7


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    I think he means that true science should never be 'settled', especially by some so-called 'authority' and most especially by 'consensus'. Once all lines of inquiry are shut down, then all manner of perfidy may be perpetrated.

    Can be reduced to a pithy 'Shut up, he explained.'
  9. Sep 12, 2013 #8

    D H

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    Up for grabs for what? You left out a key part of the quote. Here it is, in its entirety, emphasis mine:
    Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.​

    The source of the quote is one of Sagan's very last interviews before he passed away prematurely. Here's the first part of that interview. The specific quote starts at 3:50. The context starts at 3:20. Or just watch the whole thing. Unlike the vast majority of youtube videos, this is one of the few youtube videos that you won't make you say "that's ten minutes of my life I want back."

    jod7v-m573k[/youtube] The issues w...than that. They are a bunch of dolts, period.
  10. Sep 16, 2013 #9


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    The less knowledge we have about our Cosmos, the less chance we have at growth and endurance of life in general. It's not just about petty little religious or political ideologies.
  11. Sep 17, 2013 #10


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    Thanks a lot, D H. No, that is certainly well spent ten minutes :smile:.

    Here is the full interview:

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