Carl Sagan and the Demon-Haunted World Part 1…..

I’ve been thinking about Carl Sagan a lot lately. This isn’t surprising considering what would have been his 76th birthday recently passed (November 9th), and a number of skeptical blogs and podcasts have covered this fact. Sagan passed away in 1996, a good 7 years before I stumbled into awareness of  the skeptical community, but his impact on myself and countless others since has been significant. He was, and is, a beloved icon of the skeptical movement, and deservedly so. Sagan championed reason and popularized science like none before or since.

While Sagan’s classic 1995 ode to critical thinking, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, wasn’t my first book focusing on science and skepticism, it certainly had the greatest impact. My personal introduction to skepticism, after watching an interview of him on the DVD extras for Penn and Teller’s television program Bullshit, was James Randi’s Flim-Flam, another classic that finds a home on many top ten lists. That book, along with the writings of Michael ShermerBob Park, Stephen Jay Gould and many others have influenced my approach to life greatly, but none like Sagan’s. It wasn’t just his ability to debunk pseudoscience, which I am especially fond of, or his ability to discuss complicated scientific topics in a way that those of us with lower intelligence quotients could grasp. Sagan’s gift was his ability to communicate the wonder of it all, the overarching beauty of a natural world with intimate connection between the tiniest elementary particles and galaxy clusters 85 million light years from Earth, or strands of nucleotide molecules and elephants. 

I’ve decided to pick up my copy of The Demon Haunted World and read it for the second time. My plan is to share what is meaningful to me as I progress through it, and to hopefully inspire others to read the book themselves.

In the first few pages of the book, Sagan wastes no time in describing one of the fundamental frustrations in skepticism. While being driven to a speaking engagement, he engages in conversation with the driver, an intelligent man with many questions about topics ranging from the supposed lost continent of Atlantis to the shroud of Turin. As Sagan politely shoots down each and every claim brought forth by the gentleman, he is struck with the notion that here is a man, curious about the natural world and motivated to learn, with a misplaced sense of awe. Rather than the wonders of scientific discovery, he is captivated by the unproven and implausible claims of pseudoscience.

Sagan writes,

“And yet there’s so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge-as well as being a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 4-million-year-old volcanic ash? What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses, built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host organism’s defenses and subvert the reproductive machinery of cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the newly discovered ancient civilization of Elba that advertised the virtues of Elba beer? No, he hadn’t heard. Nor did he know, even vaguely, about quantum indeterminacy, and he recognized DNA only as three frequently linked capital letters.”

Admittedly, the siren’s call of pseudoscience can be quite enticing. I speak from a certain degree of experience having been caught up in the world of paranormal research in my younger days. Like the driver in Sagan’s anecdote, I have always had a keen interest in understanding how things work. Not quite like my brother, who used to take apart mechanical devices so that he could put them back together, learning what makes them tick in the process, but on a more fundamental level. And I have always experienced an intellectual rush, so to speak, from learning about new scientific advances. M problem was differentiating science from baloney.

I yearned for insight into the mysteries of life but faced a number of hurdles, like cultural influences, the educational system itself and the way science is presented by the media and entertainment industries. I knew quite a few scientific facts, such as how to define a mammal, how fossils are formed or the order of the planets but I didn’t realize, hadn’t an inkling of in fact, how much there was that I didn’t know. And when I did attempt to piece together these random tidbits into a larger picture, I filled in the gaps of my understanding with what was available for easy digestion. I credulously watched television specials on alien visitors and the paranormal or read the Time Life series on ghosts and psychic powers uncritically. I even remember learning some medical “facts” from the commercials for a local chiropractor. Later, when I told my friends about it, I thought I was discussing legitimate science. I thought that these were the real mysteries of life. I didn’t have a clue what real science was or how it works.

The frustration that so many skeptics share, and certainly those involved in skeptical outreach, is that such a large impetus for belief in pseudoscience is that it fulfills the human desire for awe and wonder. But it is a meager gruel. One of the reasons why so many people look elsewhere for their wonder fix is that science is typically not presented in a flattering light to the public. Scientists are portrayed as nerds, or weird old men in white jackets with wild hair. Science is the butt of jokes and shown as boring, or overly complicated, or as just another way of understanding the universe, equal to any other. But good science, properly explained in the right context, is more awe-inspiring, more satisfying than anything that could ever be invented by the human brain.  

Sagan discusses the general state of scientific illiteracy but more importantly why it matters:

“It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology…..Consider the social ramifications of fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data “highways”, abortion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high-resolution TV, airline and airport safety, fetal tissue transplants, health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depression or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning-after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial dispositions, space stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer.

How can we affect national policy-or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives-if we don’t grasp the underlying issues?”

Despite the negative stereotype of skeptics, debunking is only a small part of what we do. Despite being much maligned, debunking is an extremely important role, but that is a topic for another post. Many of us consider the most vital role of the skeptic, however, to be that of the science popularizer. Unfortunately, very few actual scientists have proven to be any good at this. Besides Sagan, there is a very short list of people who have been able to achieve any significant mind share. Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two very excellent examples. A number of non-scientist skeptics have answered the call as well, but it is an uphill battle. Still there is hope. The popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory and Mythbusters is very encouraging.

More to come.


3 comments so far

  1. Stacy on

    You wrote: “The frustration that so many skeptics share, and certainly those involved in skeptical outreach, is that such a large impetus for belief in pseudoscience is that it fulfills the human desire for awe and wonder.”

    I find this to be true as I was recently told, “you like to take the fun out of everything.” while I was discussing events that were merely coincidences and suggesting that the person stop labeling said events as divine interventions.

  2. theredstickskeptic on

    Naturally I get that a lot Stacy. Divine intervention, to me, is boring and begs so many questions. It amazes me every time, for instance, that I see a news report about a miraculous recovery from a terrible illness. Even the doctors throw terms like miracle and divine intervention around. I’m thankful that there are people who ignore such absurdity and strive to advance our understanding of human illness and how to treat it.

  3. Ben Wiech on

    Sagan thought the Shroud was a fake. Many agree. The C14 agrees. However, the scientists who studied it in 1978 examined the threads under magnification and no artist’s medium was visible.

    So we have a bit of an issue: If the C14 is right and the ST is a fraud, why is there no evidence of the fraud on the cloth?

    Magnifications of up to 1000X failed to show any artists substance. (Note: Dr. McCrone, studying tapes from the blood areas, found protien and some red balls that he visually identified as iron oxide and concluded “fraud.”
    The rest of the scientists who studied it said “McCrone misidentified blood products.

    I wouldn’t trust Sagan’s opinion on this one. He’s WRONG.

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