Book Review

The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is a 1995 book by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan

Science has brought us modern medicine and a deep understanding of the universe, not to mention much of the technological gadgetry we rely on every day. In short, science and scientists are largely to thank for our almost health, happiness and prosperity.

And yet, in the modern world, science is under heavy attack from the proponents of superstition. From astrologers to religious fundamentalists or intellectual, many people are beginning to question the merits of the scientific approach. They suggest it is too arrogant, too narrow, too boring.

These Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking work, show you why such criticism is pure hogwash. They delineate why our development as a species depends on our giving up our beliefs in the paranormal and replacing them with an understanding of science.

When you look at the moon, what do you see? Throughout human history, millions of people believed they saw a face. Today, however, we’re quite sure that the “man in the moon” isn’t really looking down on us. Rather, it’s we who are looking at nothing more than 4.5 billion-year-old craters.

But how do we know there’s no man in the moon? Well, because scientists disproved that hypothesis by using powerful telescopes to carefully examine the moon’s surface. Science is generally open to all ideas – even that of there being a man in the moon! – but it tests them rigorously. Scientists look for explanations of how the world works, and try to consider every single idea that might explain any given phenomenon.

Then, through the process of critical questioning, careful observation and repeated experimentation, they try to discern the explanation that is most probable.

For example, if you were to explain your burnt finger to a scientist by saying it had been roasted by a dragon’s fiery breath, you would have to demonstrate that there were no other more probable, more valid explanations for your burn.

Otherwise, your theory simply doesn’t hold up to the scientific method, and will remain just another unsubstantiated claim. The scientific method is fortified by a constant skepticism that jettisons bad ideas and singles out good ones. And because scientists know better than anyone that human thought is fallible, they constantly challenge one another’s explanatory models.

It is this skepticism that helps them find and correct errors even in well-established scientific theories. Copernicus did exactly that when he flouted centuries of scientific thought by proposing a heliocentric, as opposed to a geocentric, astronomical model – that is, that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.

By maintaining a stolidly scientific skepticism, only the best explanations survive, which ensures a deeper understanding of the universe.

Many people are uninterested in science and don’t understand its methods.

Here’s a startling fact: 95 percent of Americans have trouble explaining how a scientific theory, such as the Big Bang theory, differs from statements like, “Ghosts exist.” In other words, they are “scientifically illiterate.”

Such illiterates don’t really understand what science is or why it’s different from religious and superstitious beliefs. Most importantly, they don’t understand how the scientific method is able to differentiate between truth and myth.

Consequently, most people can’t distinguish real, well-grounded scientific findings from the unsupported claims of pseudoscience. Perhaps this is why about a quarter of Americans believe in the oracular power of horoscopes, despite the dearth of evidence demonstrating that astrological predictions are anything more than fortuitously correct.

Scientists speculate that people identify with horoscopes because they are written in such general language. To prove this, a French scientist sent the same horoscope to hundreds of Parisians. (It had originally been written for a French serial killer.)

He then asked these Parisians if they thought the horoscope reflected their personality. Ninety-four percent of them said it did – even those whose astrological sign didn’t match the killer’s!

So why the popularity of pseudoscience and superstition? For one, they appeal to people’s emotions, rather than to their rationality. There are many passionate believers in astrology, for example, who love the mystery and excitement of prophesying their love lives by reading tarot cards. By comparison, the hard facts of science are a bit of a letdown.

From high school onward, the prevailing belief is that science is “too hard” or “boring.” Parents and teachers are often unfamiliar with the intricacies of the scientific method, and therefore do little to change the minds of their children and students. As a result, subjects like mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics are increasingly unpopular.

This lack of interest in science is a great threat, not only to individual enlightenment, but to the moral fiber of our society as a whole.

Science guides humanity’s social and technological development.

Imagine your life without real science. You’d live in a frightening world, dominated by religion and superstition. There’d be no cars, no TVs, no toasters – and certainly no computers or tablets on which you could read this!

To be sure, scientific innovations have been put to unspeakably evil ends. But if physics, biology, chemistry and other scientific approaches are applied carefully and with ethical intentions, the benefits of the technologies they give rise to will far outweigh the potential hazards. These benefits are, generally speaking, threefold: they steer us away from danger, improve our material conditions and help us grapple with life’s eternal questions.

Let’s start with how science helps us avoid danger.

Even if a scientific discovery (like, for example, nuclear fission) gives rise to a potentially dangerous technology (such as a nuclear warhead) it’s science that often enables us to see and prevent those dangers from getting out of hand. By illuminating a technology’s underlying mechanisms, science can help us predict that technology’s possible applications.

For example, scientists often blow the whistle on other scientists. Remember Edward Teller, the guy who imperiled the world by lying about the dangers of nuclear weapons? Well, another scientist alerted President Franklin Roosevelt to the very real possibility of a nuclear war between the United States. and the Soviet Union. That scientist was Albert Einstein.

Technological advancements, while sometimes threatening, can also boost production efficiency, improve the use of sustainable materials and energy, and draw in money from foreign investors. Those are exactly the effects industrialization had on the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And for developing countries, such increases in efficiency and investment often improve the population’s quality of life.

Finally, science helps us answer some of life’s big questions. Using scientific inquiry, we are able to learn more about our species, our planet and our universe, and thus gain insight into the role we humans play in the context of the cosmos.

We must provide better science education and encourage kids to think critically.

One of the most important steps toward the abolition of slavery in the US was the uptick in literacy among African-American slaves. For them, literacy meant greater access to knowledge, an increased understanding of the laws used to justify their mistreatment and an ability to politically organize. Indeed, in many cases, knowledge is power.

Education and critical thinking offer an escape from poverty and oppression. With better education, oppressed peoples can better understand their surroundings and critically question existing hierarchies of race, gender, wealth and so on.

In our modern world, the basis for this kind of critical thinking should be laid in school. Unfortunately, however, the quality of science education, and the quality of grade school in general, has suffered a sharp decline in recent decades.

We see this in American high school students’ poor rankings in cross-cultural science tests. On one algebra test, for example, Japanese 17-year-olds managed to answer 78 percent of the questions correctly; American students of the same age only managed 43 percent.

This is especially tragic considering that it’s in our very nature to question our surroundings and experiment. In our evolutionary past, curiosity and inventiveness were likely to be rewarded. Hunter-gatherer groups that experimented with medicinal herbs and thereby learned to treat disease, for example, were more likely to thrive and procreate than less creative groups.

It’s the job of parents and teachers to encourage this natural curiosity in children by inviting them to ask questions and conduct their own experiments.

This will require educators to stop teaching by rote. Rather, they should explain how we’ve come to know these facts. They should explore questions like: How do we know that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around?

Of course, education continues well beyond school, and critical thinking is beneficial during every stage of our lives. It’s therefore important that adults continue to think critically, too.



→ The short URL: