Originally published April 26th, 2015
Not at all what I was expecting. I thought this was going to be a book of concrete examples and sections: here is what we believed about demons/possession/etc until we made such and such scientific discoveries and realized we were wrong. While that sort of discussion is present to a degree, mainly focusing around alien abduction and psychic powers, the connections Sagan draws are more implicit. He discusses the way general advancements in science have made verifying claims of alien abduction or ESP less realistic, although he’s careful to emphasize that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”(213) I wasn’t expecting the high volume of politics in the book either. As Sagan tells it, the most crucial task of science is to hone the critical thinking skills of the masses, so they can keep their rulers in check. Without solid skills in skeptical thinking and the experimental method, Sagan fears we will all be sheep trapped by the few wolves in power, who have chipped away at our rights until we have no way left to free ourselves. He bemoans the shortcomings in the education system, but without (as I have heard so often) dumping the blame on “lazy” students who just can’t memorize things like their elders. Memorization isn’t what’s important, it’s the ability to think! Why should it matter if you can spout back your entire Science 10 textbook from end to end if you don’t know what to do with any of that information? If you can recite John Proctor’s soliloquy from The Crucible, but have no real grasp of what Miller was trying to say with the play as a whole, how are you better off?
Sorry. Rant over. Anyways…
I’d love to make this book required reading for anyone interested in a position of political or economic power, although I suspect those of devout faith (especially Christians) will be offended by portions of it. Sagan attempts to maintain neutrality, but in my humble opinion hints of frustration with the dogmatic nature of the major religions creep through from time to time. In Sagan’s eyes, it is vital to constantly reevaluate your own beliefs against the best evidence from well constructed experiments which have been published and reviewed by other scientists. Since the major religions have as one of their main tenets the unchanging, infallible nature of their doctrines and beliefs, they come under fire as having contributed to a demon-haunted world, rather than one brightly illuminated. (And perhaps, by extension, safer? Freer?)
But considering the hate-filled rhetoric I have read and heard spewed against scientific advancement and cultural change by people claiming to speak for a God whose most important commandment was to love, I’ll cut Sagan a fair bit of slack for a little irritation poking out here and there. He does better than most.
I’d like to close off my review with an extensive quote from page 413, where Sagan was recounting the flaws in reasoning and logic which lead to hundreds of years of witch hunts and torture throughout Europe and North America:
The witch mania is shameful. How could we do it? How could we be so ignorant about ourselves and our weaknesses? How could it have happened in the most “advanced,” the most “civilized” nations then on Earth? Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, monarchists, and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, Quakers and followers of the Enlightenment? If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey–then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man. Note Friedrich von Spee’s very first point, and the implication that improved public understanding of superstition and skepticism might have helped to short-circuit the whole train of causality. If we fail to understand how it worked in the last round, we will not recognize it as it emerges in the next.
We should keep this in mind.