Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: A beloved scientist’s guide to skeptical thinking

Review of: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Author: Carl Sagan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: B

Readers who know only late astronomer Carl Sagan’s awe-stricken face as he strode through the original production of PBS’s Cosmos series, or his too-easily clichéd “billions and billions” descriptions of well, almost everything, may need a mental reset to reconcile him with the guru of skeptical thinking depicted in his later works, such as The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Published in 1995, the year before Sagan’s death, The Demon-Haunted World is almost literarily his last word on the importance of science not simply as a fund of knowledge, but as a way of thinking. Skeptical thinking, that is, a skill more desperately needed in our present age of “fake news” than it was even in Sagan’s time.

Ever the gentle sage, Sagan deals kindly with the readers and questioners he encounters throughout the book, beginning with the man sent to drive him to a conference. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” the driver asks. “Isn’t it confusing to have the same name as that scientist guy?”

The driver, it turns out, has a lot of questions about science. But no actually science. They are questions about things like the bodies of extraterrestrials stored in a secret military facility. About things like astrology, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and channeling (“a way to hear what’s on the minds of dead people,” Sagan explains, adding wryly, “not much, it turns out.”)

The driver questions Sagan enthusiastically, only to have his hopes dashed. “‘The evidence is crummy,’ Sagan has to tell him. ‘There’s a much simpler explanation.’”

For Sagan, and, he hopes, his readers, the real, if simpler explanations are far more awesome than the fake ones. And if the answers aren’t always what we hope (really, no messages from the great beyond?), isn’t it “. . . far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring? . . And if our naïve self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character-building experience?”

The book opens with a preface entitled, “My Teachers,” a love letter to Sagan’s parents – and to the 1939 New York World’s Fair they took him to, with its “vision of a perfect future made possible by science and high technology.”

That perfect future, of course, was on the brink of doom, as demagogues who embraced the power of science but not its critical thinking, plunged the world into chaos. Still, for Sagan, the fair was his introduction to wonder that never left him.

If some of the issues seem dated, Sagan reminds us that every era has its own obsessions, but each has a common underlying theme of irrationality, as he walks readers through discussions of extraterrestrials (imaginary as well as possible), the nature of hallucinations, witchcraft hysteria, and governmental obfuscation, each discussion headed by a quotation as thought-provoking as the essay.

I particularly love the quotation preceding “Real Patriots Ask Questions”: “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, 1950)

Sagan demolishes the notion that science (and its attendant of skeptical thinking) are too difficult for nonscientists to grasp in essays such as “No Such Thing as a Dumb Question,” and “The Wind Makes Dust” (the later with its delicious, if less than politically-correct quote from Thomas Huxley: “(E)very time a savage tracks his game he employs a minuteness of observation, and an accuracy of inductive and deductive reasoning which, applied to other matters, would assure some reputation as a man of science. . . (T)he intellectual labour of a ‘good hunter or warrior’ considerably exceeds that of an ordinary Englishman.”

Not until much later in the book does Sagan deal with the role of science in launching the specter of a worldwide catastrophe that could have eclipsed even World War II, nuclear apocalypse, in the essay entitled, “When Scientists Know Sin.” And he passes too lightly, in this reader’s opinion, on numerous other technologically-induced human and environmental disasters. Don’t expect any hard science from The Demon-Haunted World, which comprises essays written over several decades, including a few co-written with Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, as he suffered through his final illness. Instead, take it as a conversation about a way of living and thinking with a thoughtful and yes, awe-stricken, guide.