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The Demon-haunted World - Carl Sagan

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Genre: Science / Nature / Author: Carl Sagan / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 436 Pages / Book is published 1997-01-09 by Headline Book Publishing

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      27.02.2002 08:45
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      "Science as a Candle in the Dark." So reads the subtitle to this significant volume. This phrase speaks volumes for Carl Sagan's motivation for putting pen to paper. His thesis is a simple one, yet one which is almost continuously under fire: that it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of our species depends upon the success of rational science, and that the dual forces of wonder and scepticism must be our weapons in the struggle against fraud and credulity. "The Demon-Haunted World", written jointly with his wife Ann Druyan, was the last to be published before Sagan's untimely death in 1997. ("Billions and Billions, his final work, was published posthumously.) It argues cogently and forcefully the case for rationality, considering in turn each branch of what Sagan terms "pseudoscience", and methodically dismantling the arguments of its proponents. He is careful not to dismiss such views unthinkingly, and is even willing to accept that they may have certain attractions - for example, he acknowledges that astrology, though of no scientific validity, can in certain circumstances fulfil a genuine social need - but rather he advances convincing counter-arguments to show that, whatever the phenomenon under discussion, there is always a rational explanation, even if not an easily understandable one. Further to this, Sagan derides the doctrine of "special pleading" - the idea that the only reason scientific methods fail in a certain case is because the incident is somehow "above the laws of nature" - literally, supernatural. As he explains, it is entirely consistent with science to speculate that in certain peculiar circumstances - at the heart of a black hole, say - events may take place that cannot be explained in terms of current knowledge. But one should in no way infer anything "mystical" from such a state of affairs - merely that our knowledge of science is as yet (
      and probably for all time) imperfect. One of the most popular fields of pseudoscience, especially in Sagan's native United States, is that concerning itself with UFOs and "alien abduction". Sagan presents us with some startling figures on this score: no less than ten percent of Americans claim to have flown through the air without mechanical assistance. With a restraint I can only admire, he does not jeer at them or call them names; instead, he considers what they have to say, and rebuts each claim from a scientist's perspective. For example, a recurrent idea of certain pseudoscientists is that humanity itself is the result of an ancient selective breeding programme undertaken by extraterrestrial beings some thousands of years ago. Ah, says Sagan, but in that case how do you explain the fact that humans share 99.6% of their genes with chimpanzees? And what about flying saucers? Actually, they never existed. The phrase's debut in 1947 was the result of a misunderstanding - the man being interviewed about what he had seen said that the UFOs had flown "in a saucer-like fashion" - *not* that they were saucer-shaped. ESP? Again, this has never been proven to succeed under properly controlled laboratory conditions over a prolonged period of time (as any statistician knows, tiny samples are virtually worthless). Sagan refers to the rather sad case of a Scottish mother and daughter, convinced that they could read each others' minds, who were devastated to be disabused of the notion when put to the test in the lab. As Sagan candidly admits, a serious obstacle in the path of the rational scientist is that the pseudoscientists, along with their - uneasy and strictly temporary - allies from religion (remember, God "moves in a mysterious way"), are able by their very nature to promise all manner of things - eternal life, superhuman powers, telepathy... - that conventional science cannot. Think, for example,
      of transubstantiation, the (largely) Catholic doctrine that, at the rite of the Eucharist, the bread and wine are *actually transformed* into the body and blood of Christ, while retaining their superficial ("accidental") appearance. This sort of thing absolutely demands the presence of divine intervention, a tool unavailable to the rationalist as its use would violate the "no special pleading" rule. On the face of it, then, the Supernatural Party is heading for a landslide victory. Sagan realises that it would be foolhardy to attempt to meet such an avalanche head-on, so as an alternative employs a subtly different method. Scientific discipline, he argues, won't bring the instant prizes the pseudoscientists can flourish, but it can hold out as a reward the sense of decency, humility and - yes - community spirit that comes from understanding our common purpose - to push back the boundaries of human knowledge in the quest for the common good. It's not so tangible a prize as the tempting goodies on offer from the pseudoscientists, but in the long run, asserts Sagan, it is infinitely more satisfying and uplifting. That Sagan is not one to shrink from controversial topics may be seen to good effect in his lengthy discussion of what has come to be called "false memory syndrome". He rejects the that everyone who reports having been abused should be believed implicitly - indeed, he is nothing short of scathing on the contention argument (apparently put forward quite regularly, in the US at least) that the intensity of a feeling is any sort of reliable guide to its accuracy. Equally, though, he rejects the arguments of those who would dismiss all such accounts out of hand. Sagan's line of reasoning is that a combination of factors - not least those "therapists" (one can almost feel the steam coming out of his ears here) who invest a great deal of time and effort in persuading their patients to "remem
      ber" events that have, in reality, not happened - can lead to a state of mind in which the patient becomes so certain of their "memory" that they will insist on its truth with great intensity, on occasion even to the extent of passing lie detector tests. Evidently, this doesn't mean that every one - or even a large percentage - of those who make such claims is mistaken or a liar. But Sagan quotes the psychologist Ulric Neisser as warning against unquestioning acceptance of patients' claims: "there are," he says, "such things as repressed memories. But there are also such things as false memories ... and they are not rare at all". (Sagan quotes a rather disquieting experiment carried out at the University of Washington: subjects are shown film of, say, a car accident, and then questioned on what they saw. In the course of questioning, titbits of false information are dropped into the conversation - perhaps regarding a stop sign that was not in fact there. Even when the deception is revealed, some subjects will insist vehemently that they remember the stop sign clearly.) Leading on from this, Sagan notes that those cases of "alien abduction" he has studied bear substantial similarities to such "recovered memories" of childhood abuse, and indeed to the related claims of "Satanic abuse" (one only has to recall the Orkney scandal to see Sagan's point immediately). He quotes an FBI officer as saying that in his time, he has personally heard virtually every major belief described as "Satanism" or as evil. For example, the aforementioned transubstantiation might be denounced as cannibalism, or the Jewish Passover bread accused of being made with the blood of gentiles - the venerable and long-discredited "blood libel". (Those who think this sort of thing a purely American phenomenon might do well to recall the truly hateful - in all senses of the word - Ian Pais
      ley, who has more than once referred, apparently in all seriousness, to the Pope as "the Antichrist".) This sort of thing, Sagan avers, inevitably leads to witch-hunts, pogroms and the like, and creates a poisoned mindset in which abuse, whether real or imagined, becomes a virtual inevitability. He also draws our attention to an interesting fact: "alien abduction therapists" tend to find very few cases of child sexual abuse, and vice versa. It must be stated loud and clear that Sagan is in no way denying the acknowledged reality that sexual abuse is frighteningly widespread, and that its warped practitioners have destroyed many, many lives: he merely cautions against uncritical acceptance of each and every story, something which any respectable therapist should do in any case. A most useful section of "The Demon-Haunted World" is Carl Sagan's very own toolbox for sceptical enquiry, the "Baloney Detection Kit" (BDK). This is composed of a number of simple rules which can be employed against any new notion one may encounter. For example, is the hypothesis put forward, at least in theory, capable of disproof? If not, it cannot be considered to have scientific validity. Then there's the maxim every scientist has drummed into them practically from the cradle - "correlation ain't causation". There's the "post hoc, propter hoc" fallacy ("it happened after, [therefore] was caused by"). And so on. Of course, one has to know one's limits - there is generally not a great deal of mileage in attempting to convince the cheerleaders for astrology (even the Guardian has a horoscope now - is there no escape from stupidity?) or ouija boards that simply claiming that one is "meddling with strange forces of which man should not wot" won't cut the mustard. (As an aside, it astounds me how many otherwise level-headed people are taken in by the ludicrous ouija
      board. I remember, not so very many years ago, browsing in WH Smith in Liverpool, eavesdropping as one does on the banter between two assistants. These women chatted away intelligently and perceptively for several minutes about this and that, until one woman brought up the issue of ouija boards. At once, the other woman said, in the tones a mother might use when warning a young child to stay away from electric cables, "oh no, you mustn't go near those! They're terribly dangerous!" I suppose they might be, if I hit someone over the head with one... it was all I could do to stifle my giggles.) "The Demon-Haunted World" is a coherent, heartfelt appeal to the cause of rationality and sceptical enquiry in the service of humanity, and as such is required reading for all those who rally to the banner of science in the struggle against gullibility and ignorance. To draw this review to a close, I can do no better than to quote a passage to which Sagan refers in his chapter entitled "Antiscience". It is from "Reason and Nature", a 1931 book by Morris Cohen, and runs as follows: "Rational science treats its credit notes as always redeemable on demand, while non-rational authoritarianism regards the demand for the redemption of its paper as a disloyal lack of faith." Pub. Headline, 1997. ISBN: 0-7472-5156-8

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      Sagan's blistering attack on pseudoscience, and defence of rational thinking.