Thursday, December 31, 2015

Skepticism 101 With Dr. Carl Sagan

I first read Carl Sagan’s classic book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” after returning to the United States from a Christian missionary boarding school in Germany. I had been there for two years and, before starting my journalism studies, I needed to inject a healthy dose of skepticism in my worldview diet.

Sagan’s book struck me like a lungful of fresh ocean air. There are many thinkers who inspire me with their poetic praise of skepticism and rational thinking (Thomas Paine and Baruch Spinoza come to mind). Sagan was perhaps the 20th Century’s greatest advocate of reason.

I recently revisited Sagan’s book over Christmas vacation, and I was impressed yet again by the beauty of the prose, the precision of the arguments and the staying power of a science book first published in 1997.

Sagan advocates the application of the scientific method to the majority (if not entirety) of problems and propositions that face us. He maintains that the method of science is applicable to those big questions that have been traditionally viewed as the territory of religion and God. But Sagan’s approach is not a cold, surgical one. His skepticism is inflected with wonder. “Skepticism must be a component of the explorer’s toolkit, or we will lose our way, ” Sagan writes. “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.”

Anyone who has read Sagan or watched his epic “Cosmos” show knows that Sagan was a man in awe of the Universe. Speaking of his parents, Sagan writes, “in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabitating modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”

Sagan has a great talent for boiling down complex and sometimes conflicting information and offering up a clear, cohesive idea. The idea that sticks with me most (and I think it's the core of Sagan's thesis) is as follows:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness 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.”

In a different passage, he offers up this wisdom:

“If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)” But, Sagan argues: “At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis.”

I won’t attempt to break down and analyze the book bit by bit — that would be a fool’s errand. But this book continues to have a lasting impact on science writing, skepticism and rational thinking.

Anyone who grew up learning about intelligent design should give this a read. Anyone who claims to be a “climate skeptic” should crack open this book immediately. Anyone who thinks crop circles are evidence of extraterrestrial meddling, ditto.
There are a host of pressing issues facing humankind in the 21st Century. Climate change, depletion of natural resources, diseases, food security, clean water supply, space exploration, etc., etc., etc. These challenges are best met with the full force of a scientifically literate public. I’m no scientist and, odds are, neither are you. But for those of us concerned with these challenges, this book is a great place to start.

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