Monday, April 24, 2006

Book: The Demon-Haunted World

If there is one dictum that fully expresses what this book is about, it is the Latin proverb, Ubi dubium ibi lebertas: “Where there is doubt, there is freedom”. This proverb appears as a header to one of the chapters of the book and I think it encapsulates, in a nutshell, Carl Sagan’s philosophy of thought.

Basically, Sagan argues that (1) scientific literacy and critical thought are vital for the success of any democratic society; (2) the scientific method is presently the best method that we have to determine some sort of provisional truth that we can work with; (3) science is successful due to the error-correcting machinery present in its method; and (4) democracy is a good social system of governance as it also contains error-correcting attributes.

Sagan highlights the dangers of, and presents some very convincing arguments against, the claims of fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, astrologers, faith healers and alien abductees. One of the central aims of the book is to debunk these pseudoscientific beliefs, as well as to highlight the differences between pseudoscience and real science:

Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively . . . A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers towards improved understanding . . . Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof . . . Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced. (pg 25)

The book is also useful as it provides invaluable information on critical thought. The chapter titled ‘The Fine Art of Baloney Detection’ provides some tips on how to spot spurious arguments and false claims made by television adverts, politicians, astrologers and the like.

One thing bothered me though. As an indication of the decline of critical thought in society, Sagan lists various television programmes. For example, he criticizes Star Trek for misinterpreting the theory of evolution, and X-Files for presenting a half-baked idea of critical thought. I found his criticism of television programmes a bit tiring; it reminded me of those little old ladies at my childhood church who would complain for hours about television and how it was corrupting the minds of children.

I must admit that I really liked The Demon-Haunted World. All in all, a good book with good arguments against superstition and pseudoscience, although Sagan’s intermittent doomsday tone got to me somewhat.


Cori said...

I really struggle with a few ideas that Kevin highlights from Sagan's book. The first is the idea that science is the best method that we have to determine 'provisional truth'. In my blog I explore some ideas around modernism and postmodernism, and I can't help but ask some postmodernish questions. Whose truth? What kind of truth? Are there not a whole range of levels of truth to which we come to by various means? For example, what about the truth Ghandi spoke of and died for? What about the truth of humanity, love, the human condition?

The other problem I have, and it is again a postmodernish critique: is democracy really all that good? Is it really that democratic? Is it not just a way for the rich and powerful elite to remain the rich and powerful elite? Isn't the New Orleans saga in the US (hurricane Katherine) a prime example of the true face of democracy? Democracy, like captialism, benefits a few a lot, some more enough to keep them quiet, and the vast majority suffer without having any access to any of the benefits of the democratic system.

Sagan has given science a bad name if he associates it with a political system that more and more of the world are becoming dissilusioned with.

But it was an interesting post, Kevin!

Dar said...

Kevin: I'm not really a Carl Sagan fan for the same reason you stated at the end about his "doomsday tone". I prefer a more uplifting atheist/scientist/philospher...they do exist! I'm in the middle of a really good book right now called "The Reasons of Love" by Harry G. Frankfurt that discusses the science behind the human love emotion. He also wrote "On Bullshit", which has great ratings. I haven't read that one yet, but planning on it. Will let you know how it went.

Cori: We are currently under the Republican regime, which at the time of election only 50% of the nation voted for it - and the 50% who didn't vote for it are positive that there was some unethical number crunching involved. Currently President George W. Bush only has about a 20% American approval rating, those approvals being the rich and the right-winged Christian conservatives. This president will most likely go into the history books as the worst leader of all time. Hurricane Katrina being just one of his many, many blunders. I personally would love to see a Democrat back in office, any Democrat. Eight years of this guy is killing us.

Anonymous said...

Maybe read some Richard Dawkins..

Jason Hughes said...

In a true democracy, everyone's voice would be heard and everyone would get what they want, but that is quite impossible outside a single-family home. In a republic democracy like the U.S., it's more a majority rule (with the hopeful protection of minority rights!), with persons representing the voice of the people. Of course, the rep's don't always do the will of the people, which I think is an issue that the government over here needs to think seriously about.

I'm not really sure if "democracy" and "free capitalism" go hand-in-hand, although capitalism certainly isn't hampered by democracy. Democracy is all for individual freedom to do with one's life as one wishes, which allows for an individual to start a business which ends up being a multinational corporation... Capitalism I think is more of just a "free market" way of doing business, whether all those companies are owned by one individual or the government which imposes itself on people as a whole... This, of course, will take more thought on my end of things!

As for Sagan, I find all his books to have that boorish overtone...

But, at the risk of posting something long and drawn out like some people tend to do on my blog (not you, Dar!), I can't really think of a better method than the scientific approach that we now take to learn and evaluate hypothesis' and theories... If you can't prove something is true through trial and error, how else can you prove soemthing?

Simon said...

How do you explain to people that creationism and ID are not real science? I have tried and failed. People believe what they want to believe, I guess.