Monday, March 8, 2010

demon haunted world

Just last week I read the last book Carl Sagan wrote before his death in 1996 called 'Demon Haunted World'. The thesis of the book is that America's obsession with pseudoscience has curtailed the growth of the United States as a scientifically literate society. Science requires a painstaking trial and error system called The Scientific Method. All that pseudoscience requires is gullibility. Science is fed by hard work and intellect. Pseudoscience is fed by misguided emotion.

Touching on several examples of pseudoscience - recovered memory syndrome and Satanic abuse, so-called alien abduction and others, Sagan calmly examines the claims and finds them to be built on a desire to see things as they are not. He argues that the only true method with which to examine these claims is by adoption of a healthily skeptical scientific method.

In this regard he devotes a chapter of his book to his now-famous 'Baloney Detection Kit' which informs the reader of the forms which pseudo-scientific arguments take - tautologies, ad hominem attacks etc. And also what you should be looking for in an argument that should be taken seriously and what kind of proofs should be needed for it to be accepted. His thoughts on these matters can equally be applied to politics and economics.

Sagan never once said anywhere in this book that science is perfect. Along with great things such as penicillin, food refrigeration, and the Internet that can be credited to science, things like nuclear weapons, Agent Orange, and DDT could be blamed on it as well. He acknowledged that but when all things were taken into consideration, science was the horse he chose to put his money on.. and with good reason.

Okay, the book review is over but I have to share a few of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan:

All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.

I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.

If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.

Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.

Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

(the picture is from APOD - a site I visit daily)


Elaine- said...

thank you for your kind words about my baby coco... we are both in a depressed stupor, with intermittent tears. I fear my husband is worse than i am...

Liberality said...

I read this book a LONG time ago and so I appreciate a review to remind me what the book was about. I remember reading this when I was around 16 years old so it was a while back. I DO remember liking it and arguing with my then boyfriend, who is now my husband, about his belief in astrology based upon the arguments in Carl's book. Hubby still believes in astrology I must say...;~)

susan said...

elaine - I hope you both feel better soon.

liberality - It's kind of fun to muck around with astrology sometimes but we always have to remember that astrologers didn't miss a beat when Neptune was finally discovered in the middle of the 1880's.

marja-leena said...

I admit I've not read any of Sagan's books though I've heard of him and many of his ideas. I might have seen some TV program. Love the quotes and agree with them. Somehow this also ties in with the subject of mathematics that I've just touched on. Really, it's about giving our young people a good education so they can understand this world without many of the odd biases and beliefs that go around.

Pagan Sphinx said...

If only I could get through reading anything non-fiction besides a recipe!

Keep posting on science, I enjoy your thoughts and reviews. Maybe because I'm lazy but definitely because they're good posts!

susan said...

marja-leena - The famous tv program he did was called 'Cosmos' which you can still probably fine - maybe even on-line. I think Canada and other countries are doing a better job of good general education these days.

pagan sphinx - I think you'd enjoy this one and if you'd like to read it I'll even send you a copy. Really.

I'm glad you enjoy these posts when I exercise my minuscule understanding of these topics :-)

Randal Graves said...

I can't believe you would praise a potsmoker. No, wait, yes I can.

Diana said...

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love." As Stuart McLean says on his CBC Radio program, the Vinyl Cafe, "we may not be big, but we're small." Even our mammoth Nordamercan egos are small when put in proper perspective. personally, i'm all for small. small homes, small communities, small environmental footprint, small things that make life worth living. i know an elderly fellow who has been living off the grid in a super insulated home, raising his own food orgaincally for 40 or more years... since long before it was fashionable. he maintains that the greatest technological and scientific advances are things that are simple enough that everyday people can use and understand them, that complexity only fosters confusion. i like that philosophy. but i like knowing there are people i can rely on, who understand things too complex for my limited grey matter. the scary thing is that many of the people in charge of the complicated stuff can't be trusted.

Seraphine said...

oh god, i love psuedoscience. it gives a lot of wiggle room to one's everyday life.
for instance: i don't care if 52% of marriages fail within so many years, because that's not useful information to anyone except attorneys (or as a reason to get a pre-nup).
there is no ceremony for "i accept you as my beloved husband 48% of the time."
so allow my little pseudo-moments of marital bliss, eternal youth, mind over matter, good always wins out over evil, if you work hard enough you will succeed, and everything works out in the end.
if you wiggle enough, inconvenient truths have a 52% chance of not mattering.
hey, that's close enough for most of us.

Mary Ellen said...

I never read any of Carl Sagen's books, but not because I dislike him, but living with a scientist is grueling enough, never had an interest in listening to what another one has to say. Although I do like that last quote--"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

Right now my son is waiting to find out what we're having for dinner, so I'd better hop to it. ;-)

Seraphine said...

oh i love diana's comment! i hate complicated things too.
the irony is i'm probably complicated, but shhhh.
i know enough to appreciate the simple things in life.
or rather... i'm still learning.

susan said...

randal - You're right, it's easy :-)

diana - I'm all for small too insofar as the way we live on our Earth and your friend is a very wise man. Yet I still think it's time we grew up into a society that abjures war, racism, and poverty. I think a good common goal after we stop our destructive behaviors (naive and crazy as that might seem) would be to continue the exploration beyond our world in hopes to find, or not find, other sentient beings who share the galaxy with us. It may never happen but we were born to dream big.

sera - I've enjoyed some pseudoscience as well. Horoscopes are fun but I wouldn't base my decisions on the advice of an astrologer (unless that person was also a close personal friend). The success of a marriage isn't pseudoscience but the real science of taking a lifetime to learn about one another.

The pseudoscience he talks about is pretended knowledge unsupported by facts or common sense deceptively portrayed as science. He made a powerful point when he talked about the witch hunts of the middle ages that lasted in some places for hundreds of years. It's characterized by the use of untestable claims and a lack of openness and allows the unscrupulous to gain power over people who are trusting of authority.

Wiggle room is fine. I certainly still enjoy mine :-)

nunly - You live with somebody just like Carl Sagan? Yow, you are one lucky woman :-) I hope your son's mystery was successfully solved.

susan said...

sera - I have a feeling that we as a race (and not us personally) may have to go far in order to return and be content with the wonder of simplicity.

gfid said...

erm... the 'Diana' up was me.... gfid..... not sure what happened, but my Mac did his wild and wonderful curve mega screen thing when i opened up that time, and signed me by my name.... which is ok.... but it was old familiar gfid stopping by, not a goddess.

gfid said...

... and yes, "born to dream big". but the dreamer who does not remember his own smallness is a dangerous person.

susan said...

gfid - I knew that was you and, believe me, the goddess definition suits you quite well. 'Dreaming big' has benefits when it's conducted among rational, educated people who insist on logic and proof rather than that's something's true just because they say it is. Cunning doesn't count as wisdom but it sure does bring in the rubes.