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)