Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Carl Sagan: The Greatest Storyteller of Science

When I mention the name "Carl Sagan" in my physics classes, only a small minority of my students recognize it.  It is a shame, as in my view, he is the greatest author of science non-fiction of all time.  It is also surprising, as he was the leading physics rock star of his time: His masterpiece, The Cosmos, has amassed an audience in the area of five hundred million (it exists as a TV series and an accompanying book).  A leading astrophysicist and genial communicator, Sagan inspired wonder, and helped to attract a generation of scientists to their field.

Sagan has been on my mind over the past month as I made my way through what has become my new favourite non-fiction book: The Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark.  It happens to be the last book that Sagan wrote.  Published in early 1996, it was his love letter to science and his parting message to us all; he died later that year at the relatively young age of 62 after a long battle with myelodysplasia.

Unlike much of his previous work, The Demon-Haunted World deals less with the behaviour of nature and more with the practice of science.  He details the importance of critical thinking among all members of society and methodically rips apart the practice of mysticism and pseudoscience through detailed analyses of ghost mythology, astrology, witchcraft and, in particular, UFO 'encounters'.

What makes this work so special is the complete treatment that each of these diverse topics receives.  While most readers of science non-fiction are skeptical of alien visitors, they rarely go the extra step, and ask why a non-negligible proportion of people claim to have been abducted by green extraterrestrials.  The conclusions presented in this book enter the realms of psychology and psychiatry, and the discussion follows  fascinating directions that I did not see coming.  For example, I had not considered the fact that most alien abductees claim to have been taken advantage of sexually in a space ship, and most of them also have a history of being sexually abused.

I did not need this book to realize that demons do not exist, and are rather man's invention.  But, this book helped me to understand why such inventions are made, and why fabrications of this sort continue to propogate even in an age of deeper scientific understanding.

This is difficult content in which to tread, and Sagan does so with such brilliance.  Take the topic of religion, for example.  In the hands of a lesser master (the recently departed Christopher Hitchens, for instance), a discussion in such a loaded category as this can be off-putting to the average reader.  Sagan manages to treat religious practices with respect while clearly identifying their shortcomings.  He does not polarize the audience, because he treats all subject matter with empathy.  He encourages other "debunkers" to do the same:

"... the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them - the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, you're beyond redemption.  This is unconstructive.  It does not get the message across.  It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted."

About halfway through the book, Sagan introduces his "Baloney Detection Kit".  It is simply a list of mantras to abide by in order to not be fooled by false science or to be part of the problem in terms of its propagation.  I will select two from his long list:

(1) "Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours."
(2) "Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.  Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much."

In one of the later chapters, "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder," Sagan illustrates with such clarity that the two most important aspects of science, those of discovery and critical thinking, can and must co-exist.  It may appear that if one is overly skeptical, one is closed-minded, but such is not the case.  The evolution of science requires that it be critical of itself, or self-policing.  It can do this, but simultaneously invoke wonder.  The balance is well-depicted by the Richard Dawkins quote, "By all means, let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out."

Sagan concludes the book by highlighting the importance of democracy in society.  He shows that the scientific method is employed in the democratic process, in that it is policed by all members of society.

The Demon Haunted World is a must-read for anyone who wishes to popularize science.  It comes from a man who was a leading advocate for science literacy, but was himself haunted by the reality that it can be a losing battle.  How can it be that after the twentieth century, which itself is unrivaled in terms of scientific discovery and development by any other century, pseudoscience is flourishing?  Roughly half of Americans currently believe that there is truth in astrology.  Can a democratic society truly flourish when such a large proportion of the voting public is devoid of critical thinking?

These are some of the questions that Carl Sagan has left us with.  In addition, to those of us who wish to hold a candle in the dark, to discover and reveal to others a path towards a brighter future, he has left some awesomely big shoes to fill.

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