The Book of Doubt and Freedom

June 26, 2011 § 2 Comments


The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Sagan, Carl)

Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

‘The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others…there is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.’
– John Locke

In the eighties, while in my early teens, I had watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on TV, with an open-mouthed avidity that today’s kids reserve only for video games. In those days, Dr. Sagan was all the science education we got on TV, and was one of the three most formative idiot-box influences on my worldview (David Attenborough‘s Living Planet and Shyam Benegal‘s Bharat Ek Khoj were the others).

I am less patient, these days, with books explaining basic science – they are targeted at a younger crowd who are still unsure of what they should be interested in, and who, therefore, could use the services of Dr. Sagan to wrestle with the Devil on their behalf for their scientific souls. It behooves a person of my age to fight his own battles; besides, the Devil is an old friend who comes around for a chat every now and then, and we mainly settle our differences, not on the wrestling mat, but with a civilized throw of dice.

So, anyway, here was Dr. Sagan in the first few chapters, launching headlong into impassioned tirades against people who claimed they had been abducted by aliens, people who believed these other people and published their stories; further, against people who saw alien intelligence behind crop circles, weather balloons and landmarks that look like a human face has been carved on them; even against people who believed in witches in the 17th century, and people who continue to believe in demons and Satanic cults today. Science is the only ray of hope we have to combat the inky darkness of ignorant superstition. And so forth.

In search of terrestrial intelligence, this time? (photo courtesy http://www.carlsagan.com)

I thought Dr. Sagan was tilting at windmills a bit, and not particularly sturdy windmills, either. Civilization, as far as I can tell,  is not under imminent and mortal attack from a rampant belief that an alien spacecraft crashlanded in Roswell in 1947. Kids may not be too familiar with the intricacies of science themselves, but very few would question the benefits of inspecting supernatural or extra-terrestrial claims through the prism of scientific skepticism. If anything, the greatest con tricks of our generation pretend to be completely supported by scientific evidence, in the knowledge that most people a) lack the ability to independently verify the claims, and b) tend to believe whatever is said by distinguished-looking and confident-sounding people in white lab coats.

And then after the ramble came the grumble: Dr. Sagan devotes the next few chapters to bemoaning the state of science education in the USA, that of science reporting, and that of government funding of scientific projects…and aha, I said, now I get it: the book is a rather longwinded Statement of Purpose that is part of an application to the US government for funding assistance. After all, the Congress had ridiculed and shut down Dr. Sagan’s pet SETI project in 1993, claiming that more pressing and productive uses existed for taxpayer money (like more efficient instruments for bombing and killing thousands of foreigners, no doubt), and perhaps this book was Dr. Sagan’s riposte. If so, it didn’t work, and I dare say it wouldn’t, under any circumstances.

Unlike technological innovation, significant scientific progress can rarely be directed in a top-down manner, say by a government or a corporation. As Dr. Sagan himself points out, if Queen Victoria had set up a committee of eminent scientists to invent television in 1860, they would not have known where to start. Instead, it took a whole host of studies, starting with Robert Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism; studies that were seemingly unconnected, either to one another or to a television set, but which, nevertheless, were essential pre-requisites for its invention.

Dr. Sagan’s solution seems to be for governments to fund any and all research that suits the scientists’ fancy, in the blind hope that some unknown and unforeseeable progress would accrue from this indulgence of intellectual frivolities; I think, unfortunately, an equally compelling case may be made for governments to not fund any research at all.

Corporations, for their part, may be more able than governments to foot the bills for scientific splurges, but they justifiably tend to impose onerous restrictions on its researchers, with more than half an eye on Return on Investment statistics and on the immediate marketability of ideas. Perhaps the only real solution to funding problems is for philanthropists and educational institutions to come together to fund the research. Gone, alas, are the days when independently wealthy, utterly jobless and mildly eccentric aristocrats could cultivate science as an expensive hobby without fear of starvation or public outrage.

Happily, technology has evolved since Dr. Sagan’s time, to produce social networking tools that can bring communities of like-minded people of many countries together, distributed computing mechanisms like SETI@Home that can harness extraordinary computing power without the need for bucketloads of cash, and a vast and growing world of freeware tools in every domain that help make scientific research an affordable proposition for many. This, after all, is how SETI itself survived, and in my opinion, is a better way forward for non-commercial scientific endeavor than to knock hat in hand at the doors of government.

So was Sagan’s intended readership – misguidedly so – the government? Not quite, and I didn’t understand this until I came to the last two chapters. In these, Sagan finally lays out his real concerns, and they are all political in nature. Indefensibly high defence expenditure, particularly on nuclear weapons, is one of his pet peeves. Xenophobic and jingoistic intolerance is another. So too is the disconcerting fact that big media is in the hands of a few individuals, who are able, with ridiculous ease, to sway public opinion in whichever direction they like.

But Sagan is not your standard conspiracy theorist with wild theories of Big Brotherly evil. He knows that the processes that have led to the narrowing of social attitudes and the dumbing down of the population are subtle: no single shadowy group of evil individuals has been in control, but several institutions, both governments and corporations, with aligned interests, have colluded in order to maximize their returns: the rot is in the system.

Not to worry, says Sagan, the situation is retrievable  – but it calls for the common man to question everything he is told, to believe nothing on face value, to demand explanation and proof from governments, media and corporations; in short, to display a skepticism that is scientific, by its very nature.

For this is Sagan’s main insight: science isn’t just the Special Theory of Relativity or Fermat’s Last Theorem or the chemical formula for baking soda, it is above all a framework for thinking about things; and if people were trained  in this framework, they would be less gullible,  and less likely to be fooled by pronouncements made by self-serving figures of authority; and only thus can  the world, and ultimately our minds, be haunted by fewer demons. Scientific skepticism shall set us free. As an Latin aphorism that Sagan mentions somewhere in his book reads: Ubi dubium ibi libertas (Where there is doubt, there is freedom)

It is tempting to speculate that Dr. Sagan knew that this book would be the last one he would ever publish while alive (the book was published in 2005, he lost his long battle against myelodisplasia in 2006). Yes, he does ramble, but no more than you would if you tried to string together a lifetime of opinions into a single narrative. In 1972, Dr. Sagan had designed the Pioneer plaque, a message from mankind for unknown alien entities to pick up in the distant future. I view The Demon-Haunted World as yet another capsule that Dr. Sagan has set adrift into the space-time continuum, in the hope that his views will find sympathetic readers long after his death.

Well, he found me, at least. He has my sympathies on at least one important count. While each of his opinions is strongly liberal, deeply held and passionately advocated,  Sagan was always man – and scientist – enough to be always open to the possibility of being proved wrong. If only more of his opponents were of the same mindset!

Unfortunately, I believe that in addition to this being a trait unique to those of a scientific temper, it is also a trait unique to those of a  liberal persuasion: self-doubt never afflicts the deeply conservative, who seem to view doubt in their adversaries as proof of their own correctness. This is why, I maintain, liberals find it difficult to win arguments against hard-core conservatives.

But then I could be mistaken…

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