Sagan summarizes why he wrote this book, his last before dying in 1996:
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
Twenty+ years later, I’d say America is not much better off…
Sagan spends the good first chunk of the book discussing UFOs and alien abductions. This is an interesting subject in its own right, particularly with Sagan’s involvement with SETI. But it is also a good example of the type of pseudoscience, lacking in firm evidence, which he feels is so dangerous to our society.
One interesting point, which informs the choice of title, is that alien abductions are awfully similar to medieval accounts of demons and witchcraft, even down to the often sexual nature. Many other details which Sagan describes point to these events as being almost solely psychological. He does propose a clever test for those claiming to be in contact with presumably-advanced aliens: ask them unsolved mathematical problems for which a correct answer would be immediately recognized.
Some possible explanations of UFO sightings may be gleaned by examining conditions during their heyday, the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s. Nuclear missiles were being developed, and a key aspect being worked out was re-entry. Tests would have resulted in strange lights in the sky, along with an evasive national security response, since acknowledgement could give away what our national capabilities were. Also during the same period, US and Soviet aircraft were routinely testing each others radar defenses, perhaps even with experimental aircraft.
A few more examples from the book of pseudoscience:
- There is a human innate tendency for pattern recognition (especially faces): Man in the Moon, Jesus in tortillas, face on Mars, canals on Mars.
- Incredible and horrifying story of Paul Ingram. He was led to believe that he had actually done horrible things to his children under Satanic influence.
- Carlos Hoax – incredible story of a deliberately fake medium who still fooled the entire Australian media. Even when the hoax was revealed, some people insisted that the revealers were lying and he was a real channeler.
The gist of the matter is that we should be more skeptical. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Everything hinges on the matter of evidence. On so important a question, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness’s say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they are seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren’t there.
And from Sherlock Holmes:
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” We should make theories from facts, not twist facts to fit theories.
And the opposite attitude, which Sagan quotes from from Theodore Schick Jr and Lewis Vaughn:
There’s no such thing as objective truth. We make our own truth….If an idea feels right to you, it is right. We are incapable of acquiring knowledge of the true nature of reality. Science itself is irrational or mystical. It’s just another faith or belief system or myth, with no more justification than any other. It doesn’t matter whether beliefs are true or not, as long as they’re meaningful to you.
Several concluding chapters bemoan the state of science literacy and education. Is it any better now, with widespread internet? Seems to be … or am I just in my own Google-personalized bubble? Fake news and pseudoscience seems just as easy to find as real science. Are all the skeptics getting more skeptical, and the gullible getting more gullible?
For formal education, Sagan echoes Dorothy Rich, teacher from Yonkers: more important than traditional subjects are “confidence, perseverance, caring, teamwork, common sense and problem solving” + skeptical thinking and an aptitude for wonder.
Sagan stresses the need to fund basic scientific research, even if there is no known application – it’s the “seed corn” of the future. Maxwell had no idea about radio, television when coming up with his equations.
My big thought after reading this book is on science vs. pseudoscience: how do you know what’s true when you don’t have a lifetime to devote to personal study and experimentation in the subject relevant to whatever is being claimed? It seems like you have to trust someone at some point. Maybe we just stick with the general scientific consensus? More often than not, this will probably be the best we can do… but many times the whole of a scientific field has been upended by a single individual, fighting the system. Eg. Copernicus, Darwin, continental drift theory.
One thing Sagan does offer us to determine truth is the “baloney detection kit“:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
- Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.
I think the hesitation of the masses to accept science and instead choose willful ignorance or belief in religion or pseudoscience is that ultimately science runs out of answers – there will always be the wall of “we don’t know”. (But, over time, that wall inevitably shrinks; until it exposes the next one behind it…) The quest for truth will never end, and precious little meaning to existence has been uncovered by science. The alternatives have convenient, pleasing, and comprehensible (at least superficially) truths. “Oh, just follow that prophet and I’ll get to heaven and be joyous forever! Awesome!” vs. “We are just highly evolved apes; there is no meaning in life beyond what you make of it.” — this makes us work to find our own causes; it’s so much easier to just have someone tell us what to do!
Maybe it is ok to permit some delusion? Good things have been done by those believing in something other than reality. Sagan:
…if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our misgivings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky…if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate.