Yesterday I began reviewing Donald L. Zygutis’s new book The Sagan Conspiracy, which alleges that NASA and the Pentagon conspired to suppress what Zygutis believes to be Carl Sagan’s “model” for proving that ancient astronauts visited the Earth in historical times. For a variety of reasons that I laid out yesterday, I found the author’s evidence to be lacking and his conclusions to be faulty. Nevertheless, I am moving forward with the remainder of the book to evaluate the evidence that Sagan operated under suppression from the government and was preparing to defy their diktats when he died.
The third chapter of the book is a bizarre rant against Frank Drake, whom the author believes to be the mastermind behind the anti-Sagan conspiracy. He alleges that Drake is the only person left in the scientific community who doubts that interstellar space travel is probable, and that Drake is “almost-fanatical” in his belief that aliens would only communicate by electromagnetic signals, and therefore rejected “Sagan’s” idea that space aliens would send spaceships to Earth and record their doings in myths and legends. The chapter segues seamlessly into a prolonged attack on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which Zygutis believes has engaged in a Pentagon-backed propaganda effort to spread lies about the capability of space aliens to reach the Earth in physical spaceships. For Zygutis, science froze in time in 1962, and any evaluation thereafter of the likelihood that space travelers could (a) find and (b) reach the Earth (or would want to) must be a conspiracy, not an advancement. Pointedly, he offers no evidence for his conspiracy beyond his own preference for Sagan’s 1962 paper over other scientists’ views.
As I mentioned in the first half of my review, the National Security Agency and other government bodies commissioned reports discussing the ancient astronaut theory, so it seems rather unlikely that the government was dogmatically opposed to it.
The fourth chapter looks into the Fermi Paradox (which asks, if aliens are everywhere in the universe, why haven’t they contacted us?) and the Drake Equation in order to try to prove that Sagan’s 1962 paper remains correct today, which is to say that given the age of the universe, if there are aliens who can travel between stars, mathematically speaking we should have been visited by them. Here, though, Zygutis (and, to an extent, Sagan in 1962) look at this through a human-centered lens. If we agree that the numbers are correct, why would we assume that the aliens would have reached Earth in the 10,000 years (to be generous) of historical human civilization and not the 4.5 billion years that preceded it, or even, if we are being “scientific” the hundreds of millions of years in which we might propose spacefaring civilizations have been actively sweeping the galaxy? Mathematically speaking, if aliens came, humans wouldn’t have statistically be around to see them. But this is beside the point; Zygutis in this chapter becomes so wrapped up in using the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation to argue that it is mathematically probable that space aliens have visited Earth that the book’s narrative thread breaks down entirely, and Sagan is reduced to a side-note, a kind of cudgel that Zygutis can use to badger celebrity scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson for advocating the feasibility of human colonization of other star systems while denying that space aliens have done the same here.
Elsewhere in the chapter, Zygutis alleges that NASA considered Sagan’s speculative 1962 paper to be a “disaster” because it “would require NASA to hire archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and other academics who had no connection to space” and to expand NASA’s mission beyond space. This, he says, they would never do because of budget constraints and Congressional oversight. Oh, really? Never? Is Zygutis aware that Sagan himself and Frank Drake were involved in the NASA-funded 1960s dolphin experiments of Margaret Howe Lovatt that involved pseudoscience and human-dolphin sex? And that this zany research occurred after Zygutis believes that a conspiracy to protect NASA’s budget and integrity from embarrassment began? With Lovatt’s encouragement, Drake and Sagan had dolphins try to teach them their language. Surely, NASA wouldn’t have had a problem hiring an archaeologist or a Classicist to find aliens if they were willing to fund research into learning dolphin language to study how to speak to aliens.
The remainder of the fourth chapter restates all of the claims from the first four chapters and then admits that the entire argument is circumstantial at best.
The fifth chapter starts a new topic entirely, which is a sustained attack on popular ancient astronaut theorists as well as professional skeptics. This section is quite different from the earlier chapters in tone and topic, but it emerges out of two circumstantial arguments that are now boldly and baldly stated as fact: First, that Sagan seriously believed that space aliens gave civilization to the Sumerians specifically and, second, that NASA “suppressed” his efforts to evangelize on the subject. “For ancient alien enthusiasts, there is now a choice to be made: to stay with conventional advocates like Erich von Däniken, or to follow Carl Sagan,” he writes. He claims that there is a difference between what he calls the “Sagan Model” of ancient aliens and the “von Däniken Model,” blithely unaware or unwilling to admit that the very claim that he praises Sagan for suggesting—that statistics prove that aliens visited Earth—is exactly the claim from Sagan that von Däniken uses as the underpinning of his own book! (Zygutis never cites Chariots and seems unaware that its author cited Sagan.) Sagan’s other (pseudo-)claim about Oannes being a space alien is quoted verbatim by Robert Temple in the Sirius Mystery (1976) from Intelligent Life in the Universe and is literally the basis for the book heralded as the most “scholarly” ancient astronaut book of the 1970s. Zygutis is tilting at windmills of his own construction due to his lack of awareness of the broader history of the topics he seeks to explicate.
Zygutis claims that the difference between the two “models” is that von Däniken’s is based on looking for “evidence” and drawing conclusions, while Sagan’s is based on proposing a theory and then hunting for proof based on accepting the theory’s mathematical probabilities as facts. This misrepresentation isn’t science in any real sense, and it leads to the absurd conclusion that we must assume the existence of aliens in order to interpret ambiguous evidence in light of the assumption. Zygutis’s elaboration of Sagan’s speculation collapse under the weight of its own illogic.
In the first part of my review, I criticized Zygutis for not providing more evidence that Sagan believed in ancient astronauts in a literal way. To his credit, in this chapter he offers some (ambiguous) proof, which really should have come earlier in the book. His nonlinear style makes it troublesome to keep his timeline straight. Quoting William Poundstone’s biography of Sagan, he recounts that Sagan told his friend, the late Seymour Abrahamson, that Moses and Jesus were space aliens, and shouted it in a Bloomington, Indiana restaurant, shocking patrons. It’s a great story, but Zygutis leaves out the fact that the story occurred when Abrahamson was engaged to his wife-to-be, Shirley. They were married in August 1953, and Sagan had met Abrahamson around Christmas 1951. That means that Sagan’s conviction in Moses’s alien origins occurred when Sagan was either 17 or 18 years old. In all likelihood, he got the idea from science fiction stories of the era, of which there are plenty of examples. At any rate, Abrahamson, speaking decades later, wasn’t sure whether Sagan was joking at the time. I hope no one holds against me things I said at 17, or considers them lifelong beliefs.
Zygutis reports that in 2012 he attempted to ask professional skeptic Michael Shermer via email for comment on Sagan’s 1962 paper, and he said that in response he received an invective-laced email that “personally attacked me by suggesting that I had to be some kind of religious nut or New Age fanatic.” This is unfortunate if true, and Zygutis is undoubtedly correct that many professional skeptics confuse evaluating evidence for ancient astronauts (for which there is no convincing proof) with simply denying that ancient astronauts are possible. They are possible, if exceedingly remote, and one could form a scientific hypothesis to search for evidence of them. Phlogiston was a scientific hypothesis, too, and duly tested. Sagan entertained ancient astronaut ideas (and UFO ideas, too!) and, after evaluating them, eventually came to reject the specific formulations given by advocates of the ideas. He never, so far as I can tell, took any steps to actively investigate whether the remote possibility of ancient astronauts was more than that.
Zygutis wonders why skeptics do not speak of Carl Sagan’s arguments about ancient astronauts, and he says that whether from ignorance or suppression, “it smacks of a cover-up.”
Uh-huh. Tom Head published a book called Conversations with Carl Sagan in 2006, and it includes a 1973 Rolling Stone magazine discussion that Sagan had with Timothy Ferris—the same science writer and NASA consultant who deflated the von Däniken bubble with his famously skeptical 1974 Playboy interview with von Däniken in which he got the charlatan to admit to lying. He asked Sagan point blank whether Sagan believed that space aliens gave the Sumerians civilization. I hate to quote at such length, but since Sagan’s words directly refute Zygutis’s claims, here is what Sagan said:
Yes, I pursue that one [in Intelligent Life] because one, it’s a logical possibility, and two, it seems silly to spend a lot of money looking for life elsewhere if we have the evidence right here on earth. The conclusion I came to is that you'll never prove anything by legend alone. There are just too many possibilities. Even with very similar legends, there are two classic possible explanations. One is that they in fact had contact among themselves. There was a huge amount of cultural diffusion in primitive time; even though it took a long time to traverse from Europe to Asia, those traverses were being made.
This is, almost word for word, what Sagan said in 1962 and 1966, and Zygutis knows nothing of it. This information was not only not suppressed but was published by a NASA consultant and science writer in a magazine read heavily by young, counterculture types—exactly the audience for ancient astronaut theories. It seems ridiculous to argue that NASA and skeptics were conspiring to suppress Sagan’s beliefs while he was actively sharing his views with the help of a man who served as one of NASA’s own consultants!
Zygutis claims that after Sagan became an anti-war activist and a collaborator with Soviet scientists the government started spying on him, and he speculates that NASA and the Pentagon had him assassinated in 1996 through exposure to radioactive substances, though he admits to having no evidence, direct or circumstantial, for such a claim. He finishes the book with a long diatribe on the importance of ancient astronaut theories with a “scientific” basis, and he speculates wildly from the eight-word title of Sagan’s last, unfinished paper, “On the Rarity of Long-Lived, Non-Spacefaring Galactic Civilizations,” that Sagan was returning to his 1962 paper in order to blow the lid off the ancient alien cover-up. However, Joel Achenbach’s Captured by Aliens (1999) suggested that the paper was actually about the need to colonize space in order to establish outposts to help mitigate against extinction-level collisions with meteors, asteroids, and other space objects on the home planet. The manuscript of the paper is held in the Library of Congress, but so far as I can tell, Zygutis never consulted it to find out. He simply speculated based on the title.
In the end, Zygutis’s book is long on opinion and short on facts, and it lacks the basic research into its subject that would allow the author to make a convincing case. At every step, the author is out of his depth, and his ignorance (or omission) of evidence from contemporary records, published books and papers, and later testimony by participants undercuts the attempt to offer anything resembling proof.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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