Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Believe it or not, I had never read a Sagan book before this. I am pretty sure I read a magazine article or two, but not that much.
I grabbed this book on a whim, and here we are.
Sagan, back in the day. I'm glad to see science on TV has become cool again.
First, let me say that the book is, in my opinion, a bit flawed. But not in the ways that come most readily to mind. It is well written, well thought out, and well argued. The ideas are solid. The references are aptly chosen. The poems and quotes that begin each chapter are excellent.
So what is the flaw? As far as I can tell from the book itself, it grew out of previously written material that was re-worked and expanded. This means that some of the chapters feel disconnected from the others, as if they were part of a different book. Or, perhaps, as though half or so of the book is a set of related essays, rather than a connected argument.
The other thing that this leads to is a feeling that some of the chapters repeat stuff from other chapters. Not verbatim or anything, but as part of an argument that Sagan makes regularly when speaking about science or superstition.
Thus, the book feels like a hybrid. It is something like a collection of essays arguing for science over superstition in a variety of facets of public life, from schools to public policy. But other parts - particularly the first quarter of the book - seem to be connected and written as a whole.
To give a feel for the scope of this, the first few chapters focus on how science works, and why it is helpful in understanding the world. Then, it shifts to several chapters on…..alien abductions. Which, okay, this was the late 1990s, and this was a thing, particularly among certain segments of our population. After this, Sagan connects belief in aliens to their antecedents: believe in goblins and the like, belief in demons, and belief in witches (which led to people - mostly women - being brutalized.) So far, so good.
The book then kind of wanders off into a number of essays arguing for things like better science education, a more scientific and less ideological approach to public policy, and several other directions. This is where things start to feel repetitive. The arguments are the same, even if a bit different due to the context, and some things (the witches included) appear in multiple chapters and in the same sorts of discussions.
The final issue with the book is that Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, co-wrote some of the chapters. This is noted in the table of contents and at the beginning of each chapter she co-wrote, but neither the cover nor the cover page acknowledges her contribution. This is a shame, as I believe she should get full credit and billing for what she wrote, even if she isn’t as famous as Sagan.
Okay, so that out of the way, despite the structural weaknesses of the book, the arguments Sagan (and Druyan) make are compelling, and often highly quotable.
I have made the same arguments myself a lot over the last few decades. There are many things about the world we live in which can be explored, tested, and proven or disproven using science. Because science can shed its light on these things, the question is “is it true” followed by “prove it.”
This is even more important in our present political moment where ideology is being wielded as a weapon by dominant groups to persecute and even annihilate those they dislike. People can be demonized - just like supposed “witches” were in the past - and that is precisely what we see happening today. Sagan isn’t particularly political in this book, but the American Right Wing would see him as a commie pinko these days, because he insists on evidence and reality over their preferred fantasy world.
Sagan makes his arguments better than I can, so I will mostly stick to quotes from here on out, with a bit of commentary as called for.
One of the key concepts in the book is the twin pillars of scientific thinking: skepticism and wonder. These two must be in balance. You need the wonder to explore the world and come up with ideas to test. But you also need skepticism to not swallow every idea that you find. Along with this, of course, is the judgment to understand how experiment and evidence work. Otherwise, you find yourself, like my parents and most of my former religious tribe, skeptical about expertise and evidence, while full of gullibility to every pseudoscientific charlatan that uses the right buzz words.
Early in the book, Sagan both bemoans the state of science education in the US, while also acknowledging that it hasn’t ever been that great. Likewise, every generation whines about the next one:
Every generation worries that educational standards are decaying. One of the oldest short essays in human history, dating from Sumer some 4000 years ago, laments that the young are disastrously more ignorant than the generation immediately preceding.
There are definitely times I lament how ignorant people seem about science. But this is hardly limited to my kids’ generation. I remember my friends growing up were lost when it came to science too. (And often grammar.) But good lord, the level of ignorance in my parents’ generation is even worse. (As I came to realize in my teens.) For that matter, comparing biology courses in high school for my kids to what I learned, they have a LOT more on their plates - stuff that wasn’t even discovered when I was a kid.
Sagan isn’t a big fan of religion, and I cannot blame him, given the senseless “religion versus science” wars that continue to be waged by Fundamentalists who refuse to reconsider their literalist dogmas. But he, like many authors I admire, recognizes that superstition is hardly limited to belief in the supernatural, but is present in ideological political movements as well. Here is his take on Communism, which very much parallels that of Raymond Aron:
Under Communism, both religion and pseudoscience were systematically suppressed - except for the superstition of the state ideological religion. It was advertised as scientific, but fell as short of this idea as the most unselfcritical mystery cult. Critical thinking - except by scientists in hermetically sealed compartments of knowledge - was recognized as dangerous, was not taught in the schools, and was punished where expressed.
And this passage is also excellent:
Perhaps the sharpest distinction between science and pseudoscience is that science has a far keener appreciation of human imperfections and fallibility than does pseudoscience (or “inerrant” revelation.) If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error - even serious error, profound mistakes - will be our companion forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self-assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our chances improve enormously.
This is indeed the common issue with both a belief in “inerrant revelation” - really a belief that people in the past were free from error combined with a belief that one’s interpretations are the only true ones - and pseudoscience. If you cannot admit flaws and the possibility of error, then you cannot accept evidence that you may be wrong. You just double down on the error, and that error will never leave you. I have seen so many people cling to their error even as it destroys them and their relationships.
Related to this is the question of constant testing. Science is, to a significant degree, self-correcting, because there is reward in disproving error. Sagan notes an issue that has bothered me for most of my life regarding this:
This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies. Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may no longer apply? (It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that may have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today.)
The fact that this isn’t obvious is frustrating to me. Even within the Bible itself, massive social and theological change is chronicled - in fact, every social change drove significant theological change. One of the greatest needs within organized religion is a reconsideration of dogmas in light of new information. The greatest, though, is a sense of ethics, which seems to be entirely absent in much of religion these days.
Sagan is known as one of the greatest science communicators in history. He had the ability to make science exciting and understandable. He says why this was the case.
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.
I too have had a lifelong love affair with science, which is why books about it keep drawing me in. (Take a look at the last 12 years of reading chronicled on this blog if you have any doubts.)
I already mentioned the chapter (and other places) about witches and demons. I think the chapter devoted to the history of demonology and the obsession in the not-that-distant past with incubi and succubi is enlightening. Nowadays, I personally know few (if any) who literally believe that men and women are having sex with demons. But this was a thing. Sagan ties this to the weird sex stuff of alien abductions, and suggests that maybe this is a human psyche thing - we hallucinate and have wet dreams, and take whatever explanation our culture gives us, whether demons or aliens.
There are also a series of quotes in this chapter about just how strong the belief in literal demons and witches was. John Wesley, who was hardly the nuttiest of his day, even chimed in with this:
“The giving up of witchcraft is in effect the giving up of the Bible.”
In other words, to believe that “witchcraft” - the use of evil supernatural powers to affect the natural world - isn’t real is to give up believing the Bible.
I mean, wow. I know plenty of people who would use supernatural powers on their enemies if they could. But, let’s get real here: witchcraft isn’t real. It isn’t. I can’t put a curse on you and kill you. I can’t curse your crops or your livestock, or even your nasty little Pomeranian. (I don’t dislike dogs, but there is a history between me and Pomeranians…)
Because it doesn’t actually work.
Because if it did, there would be evidence.
So instead, we scapegoat women for our own bad fortune. That is the real evil.
I’ll also note that we have a modern version of this happening right now. I have heard pretty much every conservative Christian I know say something to the effect of “if we change our minds about homosexuality, we might as well throw away the whole Bible.”
Oh really? You mean just like the belief in curses and sorcery? That’s the thing we have to cling to or everything else falls apart? Oh, that’s right. We actually can’t give it up because we need the hate and violence against scapegoats to make us feel in control. If we can just kill the witches - or persecute LGBTQ people enough - then bad things won’t happen to us, right?
Another excellent chapter is the one on true and false visions. As Oliver Sacks pointed out in his excellent book, Hallucinations, humans are prone to seeing all kinds of shit that isn’t there. So the fact we see visions should be of no surprise.
But the question is, what does the evidence suggest about what is going on? One of the common arguments that supernatural visions are real is that they seem to correspond to each other. Everyone sees the Virgin Mary in the tortilla, not, say, Groucho Marx. And they always say such banal and unhelpful things. Usually “repair the shrine” or “stop sinning.” Which, do you need a saint for that?
Sagan asks - and it is a great question - why do these divine visitations never say anything truly useful. Like, say, “stop burning witches,” or, “the earth isn’t the center of the universe,” or best yet, “how about NOT collaborating with the Nazis?”
As you can see, these chapters are starting to drift a bit from a narrative arc to something more topical and thematic. Next up is another excellent chapter on “recovered memories.”
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s remember all too well the “Satanic Panic.” Millions of otherwise intelligent people came to believe that there were groups of Satanists in a conspiracy to molest children. (Which, as Sagan points out, is nothing more than a new version of the Blood Libel - which is now transformed into accusing LGBTQ people of being “groomers.” Nothing changes, just the color of the paint…)
Sagan is skeptical of therapy generally (I think he may be a bit unfair when it comes to understanding one’s own self, perhaps) but he is particularly skeptical of the idea of repressed memories. He has several excellent arguments in favor of this. First, most survivors of genuine trauma have the opposite problem: they cannot forget, no matter how much they want to. Holocaust survivors talk about how desperately they want to forget. Soldiers with PTSD want to forget. Survivors of childhood abuse want to forget.
Second, given the tendency of trauma to be retained, Sagan argues that there would have to be two factors to create a repressed memory. First, there must actually have been abuse. This is the number one reason that we know that the Satanic Panic “memories” were bullshit. The abuse never happened - no physical evidence, even when the “memory” was of maiming, no thousands of missing infants, no dead bodies.
The other factor would have to be that the victim was required to pretend that the abuse didn’t happen, and pretend for long enough to rewire the brain.
I won’t get into all the psychological stuff, but Sagan did his homework. The circumstances in which these “memories” were “recovered” is now recognized as being practically designed to make people accept suggestions from psychologists who already believed the abuse was real.
I also want to mention another rather obvious issue with every Satanic Panic. At no time in recorded human history have the great atrocities been committed by people who openly bragged about being evil and serving the figurehead of evil. Sure, a person here or there, maybe. But always on a small scale.
Instead, the greatest atrocities have always been by people claiming they were doing good. The Nazis certainly did. They were just restoring the glory of the German people, the dominance of conservative Christian culture, and ridding the nation of the subhuman “others” that caused Germany’s decline - the Jews, LGBTQ people, the Roma, other ethnic minorities, liberals, disabled people…you get the idea.
Sagan quotes Kenneth Lanning, an FBI agent who is both an expert on child sexual abuse and instrumental in debunking the Satanic Panic.
“The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus, and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.”
The road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions, not satanism…
Just like evil generally co-opts the language of goodness, hiding atrocity behind claims of good motives, pseudoscience and woo co-opts the language of science.
He [a particular pseudo-science charlatan] wants it both ways - the language and credibility of science, but without being bound by its method and rules.
I have written about this before, but my parents fell hard for “alternative medicine” pseudoscience in my teens, at around the same time they dragged us into Bill Gothard’s cult. I remember reading a few of the articles my mom brought home, and quickly noticed that while they used the language of science, the underlying ideas were utter bullshit. Basic chemistry was wrong, the supposed mechanisms defied the known laws of physics, and any competent high school student could tell they were ludicrous. But they sure used the language of science, without bothering with things like experimental testing.
Like Sagan, I believe that one of the greatest skills our current world needs is a functional bullshit detector. In the quote at the beginning of Chapter 13, Sagan quotes a parable by William Clifford, about a shipowner who chose to send a decrepit ship out despite evidence it was unsafe. Despite his good intentions, Clifford held the shipowner morally responsible - guilty - of the deaths of those on board. He ignored evidence and stifled his doubts.
Later in the book, Sagan also notes that more money is spent on “quack medicine” than on all medical research combined. My parents gave the “big pharma” line, somehow failing to realize that the real money is in quack medicine - no expensive studies, failed attempts, or FDA approval processes. Just slap a label on unregulated shit and sell it to gullible people. That is how you get rich quick in America.
Sagan continues by looking a New Age woo, but eventually comes around to something very important in our current political moment: crystals are pretty harmless, but charlatans are also selling some very dangerous things.
All of us long for a competent, uncorrupt, charismatic leader. We will leap at the opportunity to support, to believe, to feel good. Most reporters, editors, and producers - swept up with the rest of us - will shy away from real skeptical scrutiny. He won’t be selling you prayers or crystals or tears. Perhaps he’ll be selling you a war, or a scapegoat, or a much more all-encompassing bundle of beliefs. Whatever it is, it will be accompanied by warnings about the dangers of skepticism.
Hey, this sounds like the Trump Era and the rise of fascism in the Republican Party! Speaking of which:
Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences; perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin; different philosophies and religions; or maybe it’s drug use, violent crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or “desecrating” (literally, making unholy) the flag. Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights.
This came in the context of a discussion about the Alien and Sedition Acts - early in our country’s history when the right of free speech was essentially shut down. It became a crime to criticize the government. Thomas Jefferson, when he was elected, promptly worked to repeal the acts, but they are still a horrid blot on our history. (And apparently inspiring to Trump and DeSantis these days still.)
Going back to the issue of New Age woo, Chapter 14 opens with a quote from Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, in their book on New Age beliefs. It struck a chord with me, because it was so similar to how Evangelicals today talk about truth.
“There is no such thing as objective truth. We make our own truth. There’s no such thing as objective reality. We make our own reality. There are spiritual ways of knowing that are superior to our ordinary ways of knowing. If an experience seems real, it is real. If an idea feels right to you, it is right. We are incapable of acquiring knowledge of the true nature of reality. Science itself is irrational or mystical. It’s just another faith or belief system or myth, with no more justification than any other. It doesn’t matter whether beliefs are true or not, as long as they’re meaningful to you.”
Now, I know that Evangelicals will protest about this. But, as I discussed at length in another post, Evangelicals do NOT believe in absolute objective truth. They believe in authority, which is very different. Their beliefs supersede reality, because their authority told them so. Science then becomes just another faith system.
I appreciate that Sagan understands that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science. In fact, there are some elements of religion that seem to be very much compatible.
Why should a few simple laws of Nature explain so much and hold sway throughout this vast Universe? Isn’t this just what you might expect from a Creator of the Universe?
Indeed! That is one reason, in fact, that I find my own religion to be helpful in understanding reality. An orderly universe may not require a god, but it does fit with the idea of a design. And, to a degree, at a level that too few religious folks seem willing to contemplate, perhaps the idea that “god is everywhere” is a way of saying that the very laws of the universe are an embodiment of the divine?
Of course many religions - devoted to reverence, awe, ethics, ritual, community, family, charity, and political and economic justice - are in no way challenged, but rather uplifted, by the findings and science. There is no necessary conflict between science and religion. On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, and each needs the other.
This is very much my own view, and my own way of experiencing and practicing religion. I see science as a way of reading the other form of revelation: the universe itself. In fact, the universe is a far more direct revelation of the divine than ancient writings by humans, copied over millennia, and translated into our own languages. Holy books are kind of a “playing telephone” way of experiencing revelation - reading the universe is far more direct.
But, of course, anyone can read the universe, if they have the tools of science. Interpreting a holy book, on the other hand, makes for a handy monopoly of the priesthood, and thus a means of maintaining power and privilege.
Sagan also points out a central problem holy books:
The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes - from incest, slavery, and mass murder to the most refined love, courage, and self sacrifice. And this moral multiple personality disorder is hardly restricted to Judaism and Christianity. You can find it deep within Islam, the Hindu tradition, indeed nearly all the world’s religions.
One of the more fascinating - but also disconnected - chapters is the one on Edward Teller. For those unfamiliar with him, he was the scientist who pushed for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Yep, the most destructive weapon humans ever created, and one with the power to destroy all life on earth.
Sagan follows his subsequent career, which seems to be an endless attempt to prove that he hadn’t committed a sin in creating thermonuclear weapons. One of the most fascinating passages has to do with the Strategic Defense Initiative back in the 1980s. I remember discussions of this, which were rarely of a particularly nuanced nature.
Teller pushed Ronald Reagan hard to create this system, despite it being scientifically impossible given the technology of the day. (Which is why it was quietly abandoned.) Reagan, not being scientifically minded himself - indeed, that is a recurring weakness among politicians generally - bought it completely.
I remember the argument that SDI won the cold war, because it bankrupted the Soviet Union. Sagan is correct that there is no serious evidence of the truth of this claim. As Soviet scientists noted at the time and later, the cheapest response would simply to build more nukes and deliver them in more different ways. Which would, of course, increase the risk of nuclear annihilation.
The chapters on science education seem both disconnected from the rest of the book and quite repetitive. I think these should have been combined into a single chapter or two, and the redundant arguments eliminated. That said, there are still some good passages worth pondering.
First is this bit on how education is different now than it was for millennia.
When the training is unchanged for immense periods of time, traditions are passed on intact to the next generation. But when what needs to be learned changes quickly, especially in the course of a single generation, it becomes much harder to know what to teach and how to teach it. Then, students complain about relevance; respect for their elders diminishes. Teachers despair at how educational standards have deteriorated, and how lackadaisical students have become. In a world in transition, students and teachers both need to teach themselves one essential skill - learning how to learn.
This is probably the main reason that we homeschooled our kids in their early years. A more flexible and individualized approach enabled us to focus on the process of learning, not just the specific things they needed to learn. This is not to say that we neglected “traditional” stuff. Our kids learned solid math, science, and writing. They read (and we read to them) stuff from a variety of time periods and perspectives. They also are turning out to be resourceful and creative, which I think is related to the learning process we went with.
Sagan actually has a lot of good ideas regarding making education better. Here is one that we have implemented in educating our kids: we focus too much on facts without giving helpful context.
Likewise, for the forms of plants and animals presented without evolution; history presented as wars, dates, and kings without the role of obedience to authority, greed, incompetence, and ignorance; English without new words entering the language and old words disappearing; and chemistry without where the elements come from.
This is why, as it was for me as a child, science texts are just a place to start. We examine nature, look at the abundant evidence of plate tectonics here in California, grow things, travel, and otherwise put science in context whenever we can.
Another great chapter is the one on education as freedom. It tells the tale of Frederick Douglass, arguably the greatest American orator of the 19th Century.
But let’s start with the quote at the beginning of the chapter, with another former slave, Epictetus.
“We must not believe the many, who say that
only free people ought to be educated, but we
should rather believe the philosophers who say
that only the educated are free.”
Which is, of course, why American enslaved were forbidden to learn to read, and white people forbidden to teach them. They might, if they learned to read, get revolutionary ideas about their own freedom.
I truly wish I could say this idea ended with the Civil War. It didn’t. In fact, so much of our politics today is still driven by racism and the desire to exclude minorities from full education. Sagan discusses at length that great racist tome, The Bell Curve, and its arguments that it is pointless to education black people, because they are just inherently inferior. (Sagan, in case it wasn’t obvious, was a passionate anti-racist, and advocate for truly universal education.) Sagan quotes Gerald Coles in summarizing the core argument of the book.
“First, inadequately fund a program for poor children, then deny whatever success is achieved in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and finally conclude that the program must be eliminated because the children are intellectually inferior.”
Finally, in this chapter, Sagan quotes autocrats who wish to keep people enslaved, including the British governor of Virginia back in the 1600s. He thanked God (!) that there were no public schools and no printing presses, because learning brought “disobedience and heresy and sects” into the world.
At the end of the book, Sagan gets a bit into politics. Not in a particularly partisan way, at least intentionally. The problem is, in our current political alignment, the American Right Wing is so extreme, and extreme in an ideological way, that reality itself skews strongly “left.” So dealing with reality inherently means going after Right Wing sacred cows.
I’ll give a couple of quotes that I think are helpful in thinking scientifically about politics. First is a footnote.
Although skeptical thinking is invaluable in politics, politics is not a science.
This is a key insight. Any time someone claims that there is one and only one way to address a problem, be very suspicious. Politics is an art, not a science, and science cannot tell us black and white solutions to most political problems. However, skepticism is super helpful, and I think it has been a beneficial practice in my own voting. Don’t take ideology for granted, but be skeptical and investigate.
And that leads to what I see as the other helpful application of science to politics: experiment.
Literally everything we do in public policy is an experiment - and the results can at least be observed and evaluated. True, as Sagan notes, you can’t always do control experiments or isolate variables, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use scientific thinking. Every policy is an experiment - keeping that in mind is so helpful.
And here is the mic drop:
Nevertheless, to a certain and often useful degree, policy ideas can be tested. The great waste would be to ignore the results of social experiments because they seem to be ideologically unpalatable.
Here is a great example that isn’t in the book, but one I have thought about a lot. My dad pretty much worships Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (His formative years were the Carter and early Reagan years when it came to politics. He personally did better under Reagan than under Carter, ergo…fill in the blank.)
However, Reaganomics - tax cuts for the rich - was one half of a fairly controlled experiment. Some first world countries - the US and England - cut taxes for the rich, while others - most of the rest of the first world - didn’t.
So, did the tax cutting countries grow faster in the long term? Nope. Long term, same growth. Not exactly the same in every case - those variables again - but the growth did not correlate to cutting taxes.
However, what DID happen was that in the countries that cut taxes, revenues went down (don’t let Right Wingers lie about this), and services got cut as a result. This led to a massive transfer of wealth and income upward, hollowing out the middle class, and leading to increased inequality, and lower social mobility.
This isn’t really disputable - the results of the experiment are in.
Or even a more recent one: Kansas cut taxes, claiming revenues would increase. They didn’t. Rather, they dropped dramatically, to the point were the loss caused a budget crisis. I mean, that’s literally an experiment where one variable - tax rates - were changed. And the result was clear.
So why does the GOP and its voters still cling to this false idea? Well, it is ideologically unpalatable.
And this is why I don’t bother, for the most part, to discuss policy with Right Wingers anymore. It is all ideology all the way down. You can’t present actual evidence, because they don’t want to acknowledge it. Ideology is everything, and evidence is irrelevant.
This is why I left the GOP over a decade ago, and why younger generations are moving leftward. It isn’t some grand conspiracy, as the Right Wing claims. It’s just that reality leans left. Once you start looking at evidence, you cannot sustain the ideology.
I think this is why, ultimately, the greatest service my parents did for my own education was to teach critical thinking. Unfortunately for them, it is also why we eventually had to part ways. They abandoned critical thinking and followed ideology over evidence, while I was led by the evidence to abandon the ideology. If the goal was blind obedience to tradition, I guess teaching critical thinking was a big mistake.
Again, this book is good, if a bit messy and in need of some better editing. The cogent and thoroughly relevant arguments it makes are well thought out and elegantly presented.