“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” (p. 26)
The omen above was put to print in 1995 and echoed throughout Carl Sagan’s prolific career as both practitioner and communicator of science. Swathed in a world joined at the hip to science and technology, Sagan saw denial and ignorance of science as the greatest risks to human well-being and continuity. Is the past here to stay?
In the U.S. at least, conditions are none too sunny. Nearly 7 in 10 believe that angels and demons are active in the world. 61% and 48% believe in ghosts and UFOs of extraterrestrial origin, respectively. More than half doubt the scientific consensus on climate change, while one third of the public still waffles on evolution. And over half believe that God influences the outcome of sporting events. Dr. Sagan passed away the year after releasing The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, and in the decades that have come and gone since his oracular swan song, the American electorate seems as awash as ever in pseudoscience and superstition. As momentous, relevant and urgent though Sagan’s message was, its infiltration remains woefully incomplete.
The venerated astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist regularly popularized his lifelong passion for replacing delusion with fact-sensitive grandeur. His 1980 docuseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage1 was such a groundbreaking moment in broadcasting because it showcased the degree to which science, presented properly, could warm hearts and inspire minds. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan continued this saga, with his inimitable style intact, but with a dire focus on communicating how science undergirds the modern world, its co-dependency with democracy and, amid the tenured struggle for progress and survival, is so often overshadowed by uncritical thinking and politicized agenda.
The uninitiated often maintain a warped view of science, that of an arcane discipline requiring superheroic intellect out to devour devout beliefs. But as Sagan spent a lifetime making clear, science isn’t just for scientists. Every one of us can revel in its fruits, be won over by its infectious appetite for discovery. Most important, we can all benefit from applying the philosophical principles on which it rests to our everyday life. What are those principles? The twinship of skepticism and trained observation fueled by an overarching preference for the truth, however inconvenient, over the psychologically comfortable. Science is far more than cold collection of data and interpretation; it is a way of thinking, an approach to the world that values the questions as much as the answers and has built-in tools for prioritizing both.
Donning this intellectual apparatus full-tilt may occasion us to revisit ideas we once accepted without any skeptical filter or require we discard some beliefs long held dear. And in taking the plunge, Sagan encourages, we often find that nature is far more clever, subtle and adept at inspiring wonder than our fallible pattern-seeking devices can imagine. “Better the hard truth than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy…There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any”.2 While this may be new cognitive territory for some of us, the benefits are too vast to pass up. A sharp mind keeps the charlatans at bay.
Key to how science delivers the goods has been its unmasking of natural processes to arrive at natural explanation. We may recall how our ancestors ascribed various features and bugs of our existence to supernatural causality: witches inflicted sickness with their spells; rain was a divine reward, drought a divine punishment; earthquakes were just the local god(s) stomping around in fits of rage; the “rising” and “setting” of the sun was controlled by the whims of the neighborhood deity; short-period comets presaged the fall of state empires.
The advent of science severed the agency-focused paradigm. We learned that the ebbs and flows of celestial bodies mind predictable, calculable patterns. We learned that weather events are beholden to entirely terrestrial phenomena. We learned that transmissible disease is carried by microbes and other agents in our environment. We learned that the right medicine can cure an illness. The implications were radical, because if an illness was caused by the spell of a witch there is no reason to think we should find a natural cause for it, nor is there any reason to think we should find a natural cure. But in fact, it turned out that the right remedy could always overcome the power of “magic spells”. Per a unidirectional phase shift, super- and non-natural explanations were rendered obsolete, buoyed by an acute awareness of our propensity to overinterpret reality.
Respect for this approach has not been universal, as a handful of minutes with mainstream media will avouch. In a world overflowing with pseudoscientific madness, Sagan divides his time between conveying the method and blitzing specific manifestations of the irrational. He casts his gaze on a whole armamentarium of woo, including creationism, crop circles, faith healing, astrology, psychics, UFOs and alien encounters. Is there anything at all behind these claims that can connect them to reality? Not if skeptical inquiry has anything to say; such notions find a vacuum of support inside, as Sagan wittily remarks, “any universe burdened by rules of evidence”.4
We learn of how two enterprising hoaxsters from Southampton fooled millions of credulants into believing that patterns in cornfields were cryptic messages from off-world. We listen in on the exploits of James Randi, who once outfoxed Australian media with video documentation of a “channeler”. Our talent for deceiving ourselves is on full display as Sagan recounts the initial frisson of seeing “faces” on Mars and assesses the merits of UFO claims from perhaps every conceivable angle. (As a pioneer of exobiological research, it’s no surprise Sagan devoted such sizable chunks to debunking UFO conspiracy tales, but he could have toggled it down a notch.) In turn, astrology and biblical creationism5 sport the same empirical garb as alchemy and witchcraft. (Quickly! Someone get Answers in Genesis on the phone.) From séance mediumship to ‘spirit photography’, the counterfeit carousel requires similar ingredients to survive: “what they need is darkness and gullibility”.6
Democracy and the Future
Why haven’t the contrails of science seeped into the inner recesses of society and taken hold of our discourse and policy, Sagan asks? A look to the past tells us that commitment to these ideals has waxed and waned over time, surfacing first and most clearly in ancient Greece in the form of natural philosophy. Greek antiquity’s mental preoccupation with nature was distinguished by an express concern with natural cause and effect explanation, checked against their homegrown rules of logic and deduction. This marriage of reasoning and observation nourished some extraordinarily precocious activities. Sagan charts the achievements of early polymaths like Eratosthenes—who measured the circumference of the earth, its axial tilt, as well as its distance from both the sun and the moon all with peculiar accuracy in the 2nd century BCE, Aristarchus—who presented the first known model of a sun-centered cosmos, and Democritus—who was the first to offer an atomic theory of the universe and often considered the “father of modern science.”
Later societies yielded intermittent deviation from the systematic acme of Athens as triumphs gave way to enshrined overindulgence of superstition and as nationalistic fervor billowed to abnormally toxic levels. Beyond our undersized prefrontal cortex and the diversiform predispositions underwritten by our evolutionary heritage, at the heart of these setbacks lay the institution and its doctrinaire approach to knowledge. Both religious and secular governance can boast of choking free inquiry, stamping out critical investigation of the cosmos, and cultivating an infrastructural incapacity for nurturing the open exchange of ideas. Whenever and wherever this happens, humanity falters, the mind capsized under the crushing weight of tyranny. And like a derailed traincar, we inevitably throw ourselves headlong into state-sanctioned superstition and unreason.
Science cannot prosper under these conditions. It stultifies and stagnates. Democracy ensures the efficacy of science insofar as it ensures all voices are heard. Science and democracy reinforce one another in this way; science depends on democratic values to function, while democracy depends sensitively on science to maintain its selected way of life, in everything from informing policy to keeping infrastructure in motion.
After spending ample time surveying the overwhelming science illiteracy and innumeracy in the States, again and again Sagan returns to the point that democracy is unworkable in this environment. Uninformed citizens cannot cast informed votes. The shrieks of the ignorant become the shrieks of the next generation, who often adhere to the ideological persuasions impressed by their sheltered upbringing. So before we rebuff the allegation that beliefs in pseudoscience are harmless, we must be open to recognizing how they are emblematic of a larger infirmity. We need open-minded, critically thinking, intellectually equipped individuals exercising their constitutional duty and voting on the policies that will give shape to the parameters under which future generations may thrive or fall.
Sagan’s penultimate work is packed with diverse subject matter. Much more than an impassioned defense of science, The Demon-Haunted World meanders through philosophy, history, politics, religion and grin-inducing exposés on claims to reality that just aren’t so. While acknowledging the imperfections of science that come with all human endeavors, Sagan urges that when it comes to understanding how the world works and why nature is the way that it is, science seizes the epistemological crown. It is also a siren call to the coming generations: that we stifle its advance and deflect its discoveries at our own peril. With mounting concerns over a warming planet, overpopulation and sustainability, and the most forward-focused way to preserve our pale blue dot, we cannot afford to treat with insouciance its revelations. Every human should read this book.7
On a more personal note, Sagan holds a special place in my own intellectual journey, reviving a pulse which continues to reverberate throughout my life. His books unshackled my imagination. His words spoke for me. He gave me a voice. A man of great passion and fierce intellect, he had the uncanny ability to ambush the heart with an equal measure of poetry and humble curiosity. His words can be understood by anyone who takes the time to read them. Carl synthesized my deepest thoughts and pointed me toward new horizons. He opened my eyes to a post-religious ethos and, more than any other, inspired me to abandon the intellectual celibacy of my youth and secure a personal relationship with reality and the cosmos. If Sagan communicated anything, it’s that science is a unification measure, something in which all of us can partake. Together with reason it is among the greatest tools in our survival kit. Let’s keep them burning brightly.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
- To be reprised this year by Neil deGrasse Tyson in Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey [↩]
- pp. 59, 204 [↩]
- p. 26. His chapter on witchcraft and the horrors endured by the accused still gives me chills. [↩]
- p. 58 [↩]
- While by no means a religious man, Sagan nevertheless respected the institution, so long as its dogma did not wage hegemony with science over the natural world. [↩]
- p. 241 [↩]
- His chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” and the few he co-wrote with his wife Ann Druyan, especially “The Path to Freedom”, are worth the sticker price alone. [↩]