Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review 07: The Demon-Haunted World

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

I miss Carl Sagan.

Ever since I was a kid, Carl Sagan has been the face of science for me. I would watch Cosmos and feel a sense of amazement that the universe was as wonderful as it was. He'd be there in his turtleneck and his blazer, smiling as though he'd just heard the coolest secret and he wanted to share it with you. And he did, except that it wasn't his secret. Hell, it wasn't a secret at all - it was the combined results of thousands of years of thoughts, deductions, mistakes, missteps, experiments, accidents and achievements. Whether he was talking about the orbits of the planets or the genetics of peas, or measuring the Earth with shadows, you could feel an almost palpable sense of wonder coming from him. You'd listen to him and think, "Y'know, maybe we humans aren't too bad after all...."

Then the smile would fade, his eyes would get serious, and he would explain how, for all our achievements as a species, humans were still terribly fallible creatures. Our knowledge has, perhaps, outpaced our morals, and we are only a few simple steps away from losing everything that we've gained. Our mastery of nuclear technology could wipe out civilization in a day. Our carelessness with industry could do the same in a century. His earnestness was clear, as was his disappointment.

It was in this latter mood, perhaps, that he wrote this book. Simply by looking at the title, one can glean his attitude not only towards science, but towards the world around it. When he looks at the world, he sees a place filled with demons - not literally, of course - the demons of irrationality, superstition and an unfortunate willingness on the part of people to believe in things that just aren't so.

This book is about the advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking. In a world where people are obsessed with celebrity, where people trust their feelings over their observations, where rulers make decisions based on the predictions of astrologers, Sagan feels rather threatened.

I can certainly understand why.

It still angers me that now, in the 21st century, we are still arguing about evolution over creationism. It amazes me that newspapers even print horoscopes, to say nothing of the fact that there are people who take them seriously. It horrifies me that evil men are still able to use fear and superstition to convince people that they should kill in the name of God. And it saddens me that so many people have given control of their lives over to their concept of a deity rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.

Sagan's premise in this book is simple: knowledge is better than ignorance. Full stop. Whether it's witches, "intelligent design," UFO abduction or anything else, it is always better to find the truth rather than to rest comfortably in a lie. The truth is hard, yes, and it may feel better to stay wrapped up in our illusions, but no matter how comfortable they are, they're still illusions. Still lies.

He spends a lot of time on UFOs and abductees, actually, and uses that as a bridge into other areas of skeptical inquiry. This is because UFO abductees (and the legions of enablers who encourage them - psychologists, writers, newspapers, and conspiracy nuts) exhibit the same behavior that allows unreason to flourish: an unwillingness or inability to consider other options. Yes, you see some lights in the sky that you can't quite explain - the alien explanation would be a romantic and weird one, but wanting something doesn't make it so. There is probably a reason why you saw things out your window, and that explanation is probably perfectly terrestrial.

Whether you're talking about UFOs, reiki, power crystals, witchcraft, tarot cards, channeling, telepathy, past lives, Indigo Children, psychic surgery, miracles, visitations by angels, demonic possession, the hollow Earth theory... The evidence just isn't there. As interesting and entertaining as a world containing such things would be, they're just not so.

Wouldn't it be better, Sagan asks, if we could all dismiss such things? If everyone could think critically about them, dismiss them, and turn their vast amount of energy and resources towards actually making the world better? If, instead of putting together high budget shows about ghosts and Bigfoot, networks made programs about scientific inquiry and achievement? Or perhaps a show about mysteries that science has solved? Instead of portraying scientists as either nerds or maniacs, why not show the scientists who are looking for ways to make safer materials, better medicines and more efficient cars? I suppose that the Discovery Channel has done a very nice job of trying to realize this dream, with shows like Mythbusters, and Penn & Teller strongly advocate critical thinking in their Showtime program Bullshit! But I reckon Sagan would want more.

This is where he does come across as something of a curmudgeon in this book. You get the feeling that if Old Man Sagan had his way, there'd be no X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flintstones. Science fiction would all be something like Contact - nothing that isn't reasonably explainable by our current understanding of science. No evil robots or planet-busting Death Stars would survive such skeptical scrutiny. Indeed, you get the feeling that he would not only disapprove of those shows, he would definitely look down on those of us who do.

This is an attitude I've noticed a lot of in modern skeptics - a certain annoyance with fantasy and a rather condescending attitude towards those who haven't signed on to the skeptical view of the world. I am a regular listener of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, and I enjoy it - except when they turn on the arrogance when talking about people who believe in things like religious revelation, alien visitation and the like. I can understand the attitude towards scammers - they deserve nothing but contempt - but there are people who take real comfort in their world view, regardless of how irrational it might be. Sagan addresses this as well in his book:
"All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based - or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven't thought of, or demonstrates that we've swept key underlying assumptions under the rug - it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault."
He goes on later to say:
"In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many ways consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped."
So in other words, even if you know a lot, don't be a know-it-all.

Sagan had a lifelong love of science and the wonders that scientists have performed. The world today, every part and parcel of it from that computer that you're reading this on to the fact that you didn't die before you were five years old, is attributable to the work of dedicated scientists trying to better understand the world. And that is the key message of this book: knowledge makes the world better. Science has performed wonders that aliens, witches and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have never been able to do.

A well-educated, rational populace is the greatest protection we have against tyranny, and it behooves every citizen to acquaint him or herself with the methods and principles that science uses. It is the greatest tool available to us if we want a better world. Yes, there will be missteps along the way, but the errors of science can - if we act out of clarity and reason - be repaired. Science is self-correcting.

Teach your children, encourage them to think critically about the world and no one will ever gain mastery over them. For an educated person is a free one. And if you can spread this kind of freedom, then perhaps Sagan can rest well.

"We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours."
-Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

The Carl Sagan Portal
Carl Sagan at Wikipedia
The Demon-Haunted World at Wikiquote
The Demon-Haunted World at
Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
The James Randi Educational Foundation

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