Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review - The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Short review: For most of human history, our world has been shrouded in myth and superstition. Science is the light that leads us out of the darkness.

The world is shadowed
We need light to lead us out
Science is the way

Full review: Throughout his life Carl Sagan was a passionate advocate for science in general and science education specifically. Sagan clearly believed that an educated public was essential to a modern, pluralistic, egalitarian, democratic society, and attempted to do as much as he could from his position as a professor at Cornell University to promote the cause. And the kind of education that concerned him most was science education - partially because he had devoted his professional life to the pursuit of science, but also because he believed that understanding the reality of how the world around us works is a critical skill enabling a voting populace to be better able to make informed and effective choices. The primary means by which he worked to advance his goals was to publish books about science that would be accessible to the general public, culminating in the publication of The Demon-Haunted World.

The subtitle of The Demon-Haunted World is Science as a Candle in the Dark, a statement that reflects Sagan's justifiable belief that the truths about the universe provided by science are our only defense against the darkness of ignorance that dominates much of human history. To counteract the ever advancing shadow of pseudoscience, superstition, hokum, and other foolishness, Sagan prescribes a firm grounding in science and a familiarity with philosophy. Sagan starts by describing his own science education, asserting that while his own parents were neither scientists or readers, they encouraged their son's own interest in such thing. But Sagan also criticize the pre-university education inflicted upon him: learning facts and equations by rote, memorizing the periodic table of the elements, and other similarly tedious ways of imparting the dry knowledge of science while sucking the joy and wonder out of the discipline. Despite this tedium, Sagan preserved his love of science via independent study, reading voraciously from the public library. It was only once he had managed to slog his way through High School and reach the collegiate level that his burning desire to understand the universe was embraced and encouraged by the educational establishment.

Given this, it should come as no surprise that Sagan's solution is not to put children in classrooms memorizing facts, although he does acknowledge that there is value to learning facts and figures. His prescription is an effort to impart the joy of discovery in students, but to do so by encouraging and promoting creative thinking. As an example, he recounts an encounter he had with a cab driver in which the driver asserted a belief in a variety of somewhat silly ideas: frozen extraterrestrials, channeling, Nostradamus's prophecies, astrology, the Shroud of Turin, and so on. In each case Sagan had to point out that the driver's belief was almost certainly misplaced, primarily because the evidence supporting those beliefs was lacking. But Sagan didn't simply tell the driver that he was wrong, he attempted to explain why he was wrong. And at the same time, Sagan expressed sadness at an educational system that had failed to equip this man with the tools necessary to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

As an astronomer, Sagan often dealt frequently with UFO enthusiasts, who were convinced that not only were aliens real (a conviction that Sagan shared, but which he asserted was merely speculation), but that they routinely visited the Earth, abducted humans, performed bizarre medical and sexual experiments on them, and in some cases, lived among us hidden by clever disguises (all convictions that Sagan rejected as unsupported by evidence). In The Demon-Haunter World, Sagan explores the UFO phenomenon, found almost exclusively in the twentieth century of Europe and the United States, discussing the roots of the craze, its most prominent advocates, the anecdotes that purportedly support it, and the proffered evidence used to support its claims. In turn, Sagan examines each bit of UFO lore and explains exactly why the evidence supporting it is simply insufficient to reach the conclusions that UFO enthusiasts fervently believe to be true. Many of his arguments in this area are not new - UFOs have been reported since 1947, and Sagan has been grappling with claims put forward by believers for much of his career - but in The Demon-Haunted World Sagan assembles much of his collected thoughts on the issue into one place. Even though I had seen some of these arguments back in 1980 when I first watched the Cosmos television series, they are still fascinating reading.

But although Sagan hinted in Cosmos that the UFO phenomenon seemed to him to be more connected with superstition and religion than with any kind of actual events, in The Demon-Haunted World he argues explicit in favor of a connection, drawing a parallel between UFO abduction stories and the witch-burning hysteria of pre-modern Europe fueled by lurid stories of demonic visitations. Sagan convincingly traces the link between these tales, and the modern stories of UFO abduction with the only real difference being that imagined demon visitation often resulted in the condemnation and execution of thousands of people based upon nothing more than an unexplained dream someone had of being abducted and raped by demons. In a world in which claims need not be supported by evidence, the mere accusation equated to a presumption of guilt, and those presumed guilty were tortured until they confessed and required to name their accomplices, resulting in more arrests, more torture, and more accusations. Although this does not happen with UFO abduction stories, when the connection is show, it is chilling, because it demonstrates how close we are to a world in which people can be killed based upon nothing more than mass hysteria. A critical mind and a demand for evidence is often all that stands between us and barbarity.

Sagan, of course, does not confine his commentary to UFO sightings and witchcraft trials, but examines a variety of pseudoscientific beliefs including creationism, astrology, telepathy, "channeling", and so on. He recounts the tale of the psychic Jose Luis Alvarez who was scheduled to appear in Australia, heavily promoted as being able to channel the spirit of "Carlos", an ancient soul able to deliver prophecies and impart wisdom. Only after "Carlos" had appeared on Australian television, been written up numerous newspaper articles, and sold out the Sydney Opera House was the whole thing revealed to be a hoax. And with this, and the reactions to the revelation of the hoax, Sagan shows how charlatans of all stripes take advantage of the gullible, or merely unwary. And while the dangers of falling for the charms of a psychic are usually only of concern to the individual being gulled, the dangers of falling for pseudoscientific ideas can have far larger consequences in a society in which our health and welfare depend powerfully upon the application of science. People who refuse to vaccinate their children, people who deny the science of climate change, people who attempt to undermine the foundations of biology, geology, astronomy, and cosmology by advocating the teaching of creationism, they have all been misled about the nature of reality, and they consequently take actions that are foolish, and in some cases dangerously harmful.

The point of the book, however, is not just to point out that some ideas are simply wrong. No, Sagan wants to equip the reader with a tools to sort viable claims from fanciful ones. As he points out, if you are too resistant to new ideas, then you will miss out when new discoveries are made, whereas if you go the other way and become open to anything, you will be unable to discriminate between useful material and baloney. As an illustration, he introduces the idea that he has an invisible, floating, incorporeal, heatless fire-breathing dragon in his garage, and wonders exactly why anyone would believe his claim, and further wonders even if his claim were true, why the difference between an invisible, floating, incorporeal, heatless fire-breathing dragon and no dragon would matter. Sadly, too many people seem to be all too willing to accept claims that are no better than the assertion that an invisible, floating, incorporeal, heatless fire-breathing dragon is residing in Sagan's garage. To help rectify this situation, Sagan provides a "baloney detection kit" to arm the skeptical thinker. Sagan lists several ways to construct and understand reasoned arguments, and just as critically, to recognize fallacious and fraudulent arguments. To this end, Sagan gives a collection of testing tools to assess arguments, and follows with a list of commonly used logical and rhetorical fallacies. Sagan does not merely want to opine on whether a particular argument is sound or not. He realizes that this would only serve to inform the reader about that particular issue. His goal is clearly to create a cadre of individuals who can assess the claims that come their way and separate the wheat from the chaff.

It is not enough to explain how to determine true science from false pseudoscience and superstition, one has to explain why science itself is important. And to do this, Sagan creates a hypothetical in which Queen Victoria gathers the leading scientists of her day together in 1850 and asks them to create a better communications system. It almost goes without saying how silly an endeavor this would have been, and how the resulting product would be something of marginal utility and ludicrous design. But then he shows how, in 1850, James Clark Maxwell, without being directed to any particular purpose, and without any real idea of what his discovery might be used for, came up with the equations that defined electrodynamics. And by doing so, came up with the science that allows us to have radios and televisions, creating an integral part of our modern world, but a part that no one in 1850 could have possibly foreseen. The point is simply this: while we can be certain that science will define the future, we are almost certainly wrong about what that future will look like. To find that future, we need to have a populace with a comprehensive science education.

Throughout The Demon-Haunted World Sagan relentlessly hammers his point home: giving anecdotes about Frederick Douglas concerning the value of literacy, a discussion of Dr. Edward Teller's obsession with fusion bombs, and the creation of a public museum of science in Ithaca, New York. With these examples, and numerous others, Sagan eloquently demonstrates the need for a scientifically literate populace as a means to hold back the night. Although he is at times too forgiving of silliness, for example when he recounts his inability to sign a statement declaring astrology to be hokum, he explains his reasons well, and even if one does not agree, one can understand. And that is clearly the end goal Sagan had in mind: not that the reader would agree with him, but that the reader would learn enough to be able to understand, and by understanding, help to hold back the darkness.

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  1. I'm aware of Sagan's opinions. I agree with his emphasis on learning. I'm not necessarily in agreement with his philosophy that science holds all the answers.
    Science, for instance, does not address the question religion attempts to answer - Why? It addresses the how, the what and the wherefore.
    Humans want reassurance that the answer to Why? exists.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I'm not sure that Sagan would agree that he said science held all the answers. As he says in Demon-Haunted World, a good scientist need a grounding in philosophy as well. In his book he points out that when he earned his degrees he was expected to study all of the major philosophers as well, which is why his books about science education are littered with references to Plato and Aristotle.

    I would also say that religion isn't any better at answering "why" than science is. Religion, when you get right down to it, doesn't actually answer any questions. It merely gives the comfort of claiming an answer. As Sagan points out via an anecdote, the different between physics and metaphysics is that the physicist can craft an experiment to determine if his musings on reality are actually correct. The metaphysicist has no such capability.

    My answer is this: the answer to "why" is determined by us. There is no basis for claiming that a universal "why" exists separate from humanity. We are the measure of "why".

  3. I would agree with you, to a great extent, however, people want answers to pressing existential questions. Both science and religion provide answers but neither can provide an absolute - when you come right down to it - and that's the way it should be. You are definitely right about religion providing the comfort if not the answer.

  4. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I doubt that one can find answers to existential questions outside of oneself, which is more or less what I took to be the argument the existentialist philosophers made.

    The problem I have with turning to religion for answers is that when you peel away the layers of cruft supporting the answer, you eventually get to a point where the answer is supported by nothing more than something akin to "because Augustine said so", or "because it is written in a particular book". That's not really an answer. That's just an unsupported opinion masquerading as an answer.