Wednesday, 18 March 2009

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

I have read several articles recently highlighting the rise of scepticism here in the UK. While I’m sure scepticism is something that’s always been with us in some guise or other, there certainly seems to be a recent growth of sceptical thinkers forming a more coherent movement. I see much of the foundations of this modern skeptism in America, with three key architects: James Randi, Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan. While Randi has been writing books and exposing charlatans since the early70’s and Shermer has been publishing the Skeptic magazine and various books, Sagan, to my mind, was the key mover in popularising real science, and I’m sure still would be if he was still with us today. I see this book in particular, originally published in 1995, as one of the cornerstones of the modern skeptical movement, so I expect you’ve read it already.

I can really think of no other popular science writer who so effectively communicates the sense of awe and wonder in the universe and enthuses his readers to understand the universe through the critical eyes of reason and rationality as Carl Sagan.

However, I fear that the lines between science and pseudoscience maybe somewhat blurred in many people’s minds. Purveyors of alternative medicines and old fashioned quacksalver’s have often employed scientific sounding jargon to try and add an air of credibility to their snake oil. Conversely, genuine science is often misrepresented by sensationalist headline grabbing journalists keen to jump on the band wagon with ill-founded stories such as the MMR vaccination scare. Phrases like “scientifically tested” now seem less in vogue than claims of “natural” or “organic”. Added together with vendors of paranormal and new age beliefs, it’s hardly surprising that the layman doesn’t know who or what to believe and which claims are genuinely based in scientific fact.

Sagan starts out with an anecdote to illustrate the confusions people have between science and pseudoscience. He tells the story of a taxi driver taking him to the airport who recognised him as “the science guy of the TV”. Wishing to take advantage of his scientifically minded passenger, the driver proceeded to ask a number of questions, all of which turned out be founded on misinformation and popular myths perpetuated by the media and modern culture and confused with real science.

In this book Sagan aims to show what is real and what is not, not by listing his fixed interpretation of the truth like a religious text, but by equipping us with the tools and methods to go away and work it out for ourselves.

Sagan takes us through a number of beliefs with no credible scientific evidence to support them including UFO’s, ESP, faith healing, astrology, mediums, superstitions, religious beliefs, reincarnation and psycho-kinesis. Each one is critically examined and scrutinised in an open minded way with no preconceptions determining the outcome. However, for each extraordinary claim he demands extraordinary evidence and for each of the above, none is forthcoming.

“The Demon Haunted World” provides us with a “Baloney detection kit” which consists of methods such as independent confirmation of facts, peer reviewed papers and the use of Occam’s razor. The “Baloney Detection Kit” also includes ways of recognising common fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Once versed in these fallacies it becomes easy to see the flaws and weaknesses in certain arguments supporting various bogus claims. I’ll not go through these logical fallacies here, but the SGU have produced a great summary list and explanation of the top 20 here.

Sagan also spends some time explaining how science actually works. Over the years I have gradually learnt the difference between the scientific body of knowledge I was taught at school and the scientific method. I no longer see science as a collection of fixed laws, rules and formula’s, I see it as a method for understanding the universe. Sagan clearly explains the scientific method from the formulisation of hypothesis through to widely accepted theories. He explains that even though our current scientific understanding may one day be refined, merged or updated they are the nearest approximations to the truth, and quite possibly the most precious thing we have.

When reading authors like Dawkins and Sagan I have to be very careful not to step in to the trap that Sagan clearly alerts us to in this book. It would be all too easy to blindly accept the arguments of their writing based purely on the respect they have gained. If I was however to do this I would hopefully be drowned out by a chorus of skeptics trilling: “Argument from Authority”.
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