CarL Sagan and Pseudoscience.

Monday, December 12, 2005

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BOOK Reviews


Book Review: The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In the Dark, by Carl Sagan

Note to readers: This book review is a compilation of an email dialog between Talin and Jerry. Jerry's comments are in italics.

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I know that you're not a big fan of Carl Sagan, so I'm somewhat hesitant to submit to you a positive review of one of his books. I'm also well aware of your contention that Sagan made up his data (i.e. lied) with respect to the "Nuclear Winter" scenario. And for all I know, you could be right.

Nevertheless, I think that his book The Demon Haunted World is worth reading, and has many cogent points which are relevant to this very issue.

Although Sagan roundly condemns pseudoscience and superstitious thinking, he is careful not to show contempt for those who believe in it; In fact, his tone is one of compassion, and regret that our educational system has so failed these people. After all, he says, most of the believers in "new age" phenomena are, in fact, full of curiosity and wonder at the world, and had they been better educated and trained to think in a disciplined fashion, might have made creditable scientists. And though Sagan is an outspoken atheist, he is careful not to attack religion or religious beliefs in the book, with a few specific exceptions such as Lourdes, the Turin Shroud and other "miraculous" phenomena. (For example, the statistical chance of your being cured of cancer at Lourdes is smaller than the chance that you'll die in an airplane crash on your way there.)

The first chapter is a general introduction to pseudoscience, and how it differs from real science. One definition is that pseudo science is science without the error correction mechanism. That is, after all, the most painful (to those criticized) and yet most essential part of science.

After that, he starts in on the UFO phenomena. For example, there's a fascinating discussion on the "Man in the Moon" phenomena, in other words why do we tend to see faces in otherwise random patterns. This is then extended to a discussion of the "Face on Mars". He also talks extensively about UFO sighting reports, the Roswell incident, crop circles, and various "alien" revalations. (why is it, for example, that the dangers that the aliens are so anxious to warn us about are always ones that seem to be popular concerns; In the 60's it was nuclear war, in the 90's it is the environment. Weren't the aliens in the 60's aware that the environment was in danger?)

Sagan also talks about his own investigation on UFOs, specifically his review of the classified material associated with project Blue Book. His opinion was that the investigation was sloppy and unscientific, the data disorganized. It is clear, however, that the Air Force was far more concerned about UFOs from Russia than from outer space. Most of the "blacked out" material that you get under the FOIA was censored not because of the government's unwillingness to reveal the existence of alien visitors, but because of their unwillingness to compromise their sources of intelligence gathering.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the extensive discussion of alien abduction accounts. It appears that there are extensive and fascinating similarities between 1) alien abductions, 2) reports of demonic possession, 3) reports of visitations by saints or spirits, and 4) reports of sightings by elves, fairies or other mythical creatures. Sagan puts forth the hypothesis that we have always had these kinds of experiences, and that we tend to map them onto whatever cultural context is available at the time. What I found most interesting, however, was his assertion that something interesting and worthy of scientific investigation was in fact behind these accounts; Certainly not visitations by aliens, but in fact a heretofore overlooked aspect of human psychology.

Another chapter deals with false memories, especially memories which are "encouraged" under hypnosis or other therapy. Sagan makes an unflattering comparison between "UFO therapists" and "childhood sexual abuse therapists", and shows how the techniques used by these therapists can lead even sensible people into believing things that did not in fact happen (although, at the same time he is careful to note that childhood sexual abuse is in fact a serious problem.)

There is a chapter on the persecution of witches and the methods of prosecution of the crime of witchcraft. It appears clear now that thousands upon thousands of women were tortured to death mainly because the witch-hunters had a financial incentive to convict them. Few of those burned were actually "witches" in the sense of being believers in the old pagan religions; The vast majority were just innocent Christians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A lot of other pseudoscience phenomena is investigated, as well as methods of debunking. There's a section on SCICOP, the Amazing Randi, and various hoaxes. There's a fascinating account of how a reputable physicist in the 50's who, claiming to be a time traveller from the future, was able to create a story so consistent and so compelling that he was able to "convert" a skeptical psychiatrist into believing that it was all true, only later to admit that he had made it all up.

Another section that I found interesting was the one on ethnopharmacology,  which is the study of drugs used by primitive peoples. Sagan uses examples of this and other indigenous skills such as tracking to show that primitive peoples can in fact do science, only in their case the error correction is spread out through many generations. This kind of knowledge is particularly valuable, since humanitarian concerns would prevent us from replicating the same kinds of experiments today. He also attempts to refute the contention that science education is poor because science is too "new".

The main flaw of the book is that the latter chapters are too political. There's a lot of things in there which have no business being in a book about pseudoscience - the last few chapters digress far from the main topic of the book, and are basically a pulpit where he denigrates Edward Teller, SDI, and anything else he doesn't like, while at the same time putting in a plug for SETI. (Jerry, I'd advise you not to be near anything breakable when you read the chapter on Edward Teller; And what he has to say about SDI, and the fall of the Soviet Union is going to make steam come out of your ears!)

However, not all of his recommendations are as easily dismissed. Some of his suggestions about improving education, and especially about popularizing science and scientists are definately worth considering. I would recommend this book to anyone who is concerned about these issues. Although I can't agree with everything in it, I know that those who read it are likely to be skeptical and discerning enough to make up their own minds. And the book is certainly quite readable. (Actually, I bought the unabridged tape cassette version and listened to it in the car, which kept me entertained on a number of long driving trips.)

JP: The problem is that Carl was as willing to play pseudoscience games (nuclear winter as an example) as those he condemns; meaning, how can you trust a word he says, since he was willing to make up his data about things he cared about?

Simple: Trust is uneccessary. There are very few things in the book that you actually have to "take his word" about, and those are relatively unimportant or irrelevant to the main topic. Most of the anecdotes and trends he cites are easily verified by a casual observer. I never trust Sagan as an authority, because I never trust any authority - that's just a fundamental aspect of my temperament which has been that way since I was born.

Surely, if there are mis-statements of fact or analysis in the book, then the best thing that can happen is for people who are suspicious of Sagan to read it, find out what they are, and tell the world?

JP: Come now.  While Sagan's book may have good reason to be on people's reading lists, surely the fact that it might be suspect in some ways is not a positive recommendation?  "It's controversial so read it" isn't an argument that is always compelling.  You can say that about Nostradamus.

My problem with Sagan is that he is as likely to say with the same assurance something that is universally true, and something that isn't even "controversial" among real scientists. Nuclear winter is a good example. Sagan once said that some issues were too important for mere truth. That's not an exact quote but it's close. And it shows an attitude I cannot encourage people to accept.

I concede the point.

Pseudoscience is, in my opinion, a serious problem requiring serious thought. But most of the people who are against it do little more than whine about it. Many cling dogmatically to their notion of "real" science (without understanding what real science is). Some even use it to prove their innate "superiority" to those laughable superstitious fools. For example, Heinlein's (or rather, Lazarus Long's) comment about a belief in astrology being an indicator of certain level of intelligence may have been pithy, but in fact many highly intelligent people do believe in it, which makes it all that much more of a tragedy.

A book which treats the subject seriously and analytically is certainly valuable; if you can point me at some other such works I'd be interested.

JP: In your case, Sagan. My problem with recommending Sagan is that he was willing to prostitute his great talents to political ends, and it's not always easy to determine which hat he had on at any given time.

If you want to try to put all this including this note and some of the previous ones into a short coherent essay I'd like to have it. I would prefer something that doesn't take a lot of comment from me.

Talin (               Talin's third law:    "Politeness doesn't scale."


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