Tuesday, March 2, 2010


The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I wish Carl Sagan was my live-in step-uncle who could take me outside and explain the wonder of the night sky, tell stories about forgotten scientists, and explain to me how to live my life. What a great guy! I loved reading Contact, and I also read either Cosmos or Pale Blue Dot (it was in middle school so I honestly can't remember), but The Demon-Haunted World was the kind of book I'd been wanting to read at this point in my life.

The synopsis is that he explains the wonder, utility, necessity, and awesomeness of science. The book is dense, and I would have taken out some of the middle chapters where he compassionately, carefully, and thoughtfully debunks paranormal theories from faith healing to alien abduction. But who am I to tell him how to write a book? My copy is now so dog-eared I'll be going back to it for the rest of my life.

I'll be absorbing this one for a while, so I'll leave this review with just some thoughts in scattershot bulletpoints:

-Science is both utterly human and difficult for us to absorb. When hunter-gatherers first learned how to track prey, they had to learn many physical laws in practical terms. Older tracks became more eroded due to wind, heavier animals had deeper tracks due to weight, injured prey moved differently than healthy prey. They must have tried theories and either proved or disproved them, and this became knowledge, which was passed on through generations. The same with gathering plants - how much trial and error before our ancestors settled on the foods we tend to enjoy? And not to mention agriculture. Science, skeptical thought, curiosity is what makes us human.

-Subsequent cultural pressures to explain the unknown through faith or paranormal causes pull us away from where our minds naturally want to go. So those who castigate science as a malevolent force, or immoral tool have only to look at witch hunts and other dogmatic explorations for truth to see that it's not science, but those who would abuse it, that we need to fear. For instance, did you know that a man named Trofim Lysenko managed to convince Stalin that genetics was a philosophically incorrect field and should be banned from the USSR? He chose to believe in acquired characteristics - not that evolutionary forces caused adaptation, but that if you worked out a lot your offspring would be strong too. His theories lacked experimental controls, his conclusions flew in the face of a large body of contradictory data, and when smart Soviet scientists disagreed with him, he managed to have them deported. His recommendations messed up the Soviet agriculture system so much, for instance in waiting for an extra crop of wheat, that farmers actually produced less than the otherwise would have. Soviet geneticists were set back decades. Amazing!

-People writing science curricula should read everything he's ever written. His anecdotes, lessons, stories, and essays made me want to go back and study physics, chemistry, and math.

I can't say enough about this book. I'll leave things, for now, with a typical quote from the book:
"As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes - an openess to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track."
For the fun anecdotes and warm jokes and fascinating arguments, you'll have to pick it up for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. it may be Sagan's early books were the muses to the points of view that i claim as my own. it now seems obvious to myself that our illiterate ancestors were far wiser than we give them credit for. is it the use of science that separates us from other animals? when we look closer at that pale blue dot and see how the face of the planet has changed through the application of science, i believe the answer is yes. then i wonder what in life is there to moderate our need for change and exploration? is our science benevolent? or is it a virus seeking destruction? when will science realize that the smallest of discoveries today might have the effect of a tsunami tomorrow simply because we are ignorant. and all this blah blah blah from a guy who loves science.