Friday, February 15, 2013

Book review: The Demon Haunted world by Carl Sagan

What would the world be like if it was not for science and the technologies science have provided us with? While some may feel nostalgic in a “back to the jungle” kind of way, the truth is that science have allowed us to live healthier, more comfortable, more enlightened, and longer lives compared to any other time in history. On average we live 20-30 years longer than a hunter gatherer, and because of new technologies, children today grow up with an awareness of what happens, not just in their own neighbourhood, but in the whole world. A King in the 19th century would come nowhere near the living standard of a peasant in the west today. Though we do not live in utopia, I feel lucky to live in this age rather than say a hundred or two hundred years ago.

With this backround Carl Sagan goes on to explain the difference between science and pseudoscience and religion, providing us with many examples of pseudoscience along the way.
People often ask if science is not just another religion, pointing out that scientist, like priests, are merely human beings, and that they are (like priests), not immune to corruption or emotions such as pride. It is indeed undeniable that scientists can be corrupt, hold on to ideas for too long, and even on rare occasions, fabricate data. What distinguishes science from pseudoscience and religion however is that everyone who calls him or herself a scientist accept the basic idea that we do not know anything for certain, that we should test all ideas and theories to see if they fit the available evidence, and if a certain theory does not fit the data we should throw away the theory, not the data. This basic mindset is the reason that scientic theory have progressed while religious ideology stands still, why we now have replaced the Newtonian model of the universe, which was a quite good description of the universe, with Einstein even better model. Pseudoscience on the other hand puts forth theories that often cannot be tested and when they can be tested logical fallacies are used to disregard the data - throwing out the pseudoscientific theory is not an option.

As an example of a pseudo-scientific claim, Carl Sagan analyzes in detail, the claim of extra-terrestial abductions, which two percent of Americans claim to have been subjected to. This would means that (unless the aliens specifically target Americans) one hundred million people have been abducted world wide. How is it possible that all evidence we have is a few blurry unconvincing pictures? Is it not more likely that our evidently imaginative, hallucinogenic minds that dream and daydream, see patterns where there are non, have made up aliens? Would it be more of a miracle if no one ever thought they saw an alien? Also, why do people who have never heard of aliens (in the media) never see them, and why did people in the middle ages see demons but never the aliens that are described by believers today?

Sagan also discusses the phenomenon of repressed memories. Despite the fact that there was no evidence to support their existence, nor any good evolutionary reason why we should have them (it generally aids fitness to remember when you have been hurt), it was a prominent view among psychoanalysts that people who had experienced abuse as children repressed these memories which only surfaced during psychoanalysis years later. Particularly worrying was the fact that therapist, following the guidelines in various therapy handbooks, often persuaded their patients that they had experienced abuse even when there was no other evidence available. One troublesome example is Paul Ingram whose daughter, during therapy, started to retrieve memories of her father killing and eating babies. Though he intitially denied the claims he too eventually started retrieving repressed memories of sexual abuse, and later he confessed to being part of a satanic cult that had murdered 25 babies. Only when a skeptical scientist (Ofshe) implanted memories that were demonstrably false in Ingram did people start to question the theory in general.

What can we learn from examples such as this. One fundamental lesson is that it is good to be skeptical or as Carl Sagan has said elsewhere, be open minded but not so open minded that your brain falls out (or something like that). We should be especially skeptical, and require substantial evidence when hearing seemingly amazing claims such there is a person who can live without eating (which was actually, amazingly, told to one of my daughter at her school), or that homeopathy (disease causing agents diluted to the extent that there are no molecules left) can cure something. Another important lesson from Sagan is that it is ok to reserve judgement. Do aliens exist? Will global warming become a disaster for human kind? I don’t know this and it is ok to be on the fence and wait for more data to arrive

In the remaining part of the book Sagan discusses various ways that society could increase, curiosity, skepticism, and scientific literacy. To what extent can we rely on the free market to finance science, given that short term payoff is often small? How does the media profile in the modern society affect peoples belief and scientific literacy? How can schoold be transformed to encourage skeptical inquiry? Personally I have tried to follow his advice to always take my children's question seriously (even though they are sometimes tedious questions). If there is one lesson I want my children to bring with them it is that asking questions is a good thing, and I do not want to kill their astonishing ability to come up with new questions all the time.

Though I like this type of book and though I am a big fan of Carl Sagan I did walk away from this book feeling that it was a little bit unorganized. Sagan jumped around between different subject a little too much and it was hard to find a thread to hold on to (much like this review I suspect). Still allll in all, The Demon haunted world is a book that gives its reader a comprehensive introduction to scientific and skeptical thinking. It is written in an engaging, passionate style.

No comments: