Friday, October 23, 2009

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I just finished The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995) by Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and I was left scratching my head as to why science is still just a candle in the dark. Sagan’s hope is that science and the scientific method become accessible to the layperson. His main plea throughout the book is for the reader to be skeptical and guard against credulity. Chapter 10 has this quote that sums it up: “Keeping an open mind is a virtue – but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out.”

Only a few times does Sagan suggest why skepticism is lacking. At one point in Chapter 18 – Dust in the Wind he states that he believes science and the required skepticism that goes along with it are difficult for the average person to grasp due to political and hierarchical pressures, that is, it isn’t innate capability that’s the problem. Later in Chapter 24 – Science and Witchcraft he elaborates a bit more and writes:

“The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000 year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge those in power.”

The last thought is interesting and should be followed up using the very same methods Sagan is proposing in the book, methods he calls the Baloney Detection Kit. The kit is in some ways the centerpiece of the book. It is a checklist for evaluating a claim to knowledge. (For example, a claim that aliens built the pyramids. One would use the kit to evaluate that claim.) The checklist items are quite accessible and easy to read and provide a good filtering apparatus for evaluating all ideas or positions that you might encounter. The kit also includes a list of common fallacies in logic and rhetoric that you might encounter in applying the aforementioned list of points with someone who holds a claim you are evaluating. Here’s a video summary of the idea of the Baloney Detection Kit – though this summary has slightly different points – that gives a pretty good idea of what it’s about.

Since Sagan is a science popularizer the book may seem lightweight to those looking for some more substance. At times Sagan seems dreamy-eyed with the prose. But the story he tells, the relevancy of the topic, and his sincerity for the subject keep the dreamy aspect from dominating too much. I especially liked the fact that Sagan used stories from the lives of historical figures like Frederick Douglass, James Clerk Maxwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and William Blake, to name a few, to make his points.

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