Friday, October 17, 2014

The Demon-Haunted World: A Review

I just finished reading Carl Sagan's final book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark.

"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."
--Carl Sagan, from The Demon Haunted World.

I'm on an intentional spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose after Mormonism. A big part of my program this year involves reading. Lots of reading, all sorts of books. This was first on my list, and I'm going to review it here.

The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1995, shortly before Sagan's death in 1996. As I read it, there was the sense that this was his last, best effort to convey to us (and to history) the central passion of his life: the overwhelming power of the scientific method to illuminate real truth and dispel myth. Many of the chapters were adapted from other articles and essays that he had previously written, so the book at times feels a little scattered, unfocused. Also, at times he comes off somewhat pretentious, erudite, dismissive (no matter how justifiably) of the cherished experiences or feelings of that vast majority of the human race. But at welcome intervals, he tempers that attitude with expressions of genuine humility and even affection for the rest of us who have a hard time telling just what we're seeing as we gaze through the glass darkly.

Carl Sagan has long been a hero to me. After spending time with him in this book, he's moved further up my hero's totem pole. For the most part, he speaks in the languages I most appreciate: curiosity, clarity, rationality, integrity, skepticism and real truth. I have vague memories of the first Cosmos series in the late 1970s: "Billions and billions" is the famous (and inaccurate) line. One of my all time favorite books and movies is Contact. Recently, my admiration for him has been renewed through the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, a former student of Sagan.

The homage paid to Sagan by the new show is touching and deserved. Sagan was a world-renowned scientist in his own right, but his ability to articulate, captivate, animate, persuade is what defines his legacy today. To do what he did--speaking hard truths about scientific discovery, dispelling myths and superstitions, and making it understandable and persuasive--takes courage, intelligence, savvy, and also a sort of meta-perspective on the nature of humanity, a rare ability to see beyond the muddy waters of the moment and point himself and thus others towards a higher understanding of our place in the universe. He's been called the greatest science communicator of all time, and so I think it makes good sense to pay attention to his last best effort to share his hard-gained wisdom.

The title "The Demon Haunted World" sets the tone for the book. There are no real demons in our world. There are only people. And yet from the dawn of the human race, humans have imagined demons up, been haunted, persecuted, driven mad by them--or by ghosts, witches, Big Foot, UFOs, aliens, or cursed by gods and devils. But this belief in the supernatural and pseudoscience, our ceding of control to imaginary forces, is not just a charming relic of the past. It's a terrifying, ubiquitous, and frighteningly contemporary feature of human life, all based on fear and fantasy. The Witch Trials of Europe and Salem, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust and the wars that now rage in the Middle East and elsewhere, have religion, irrational fanaticism and superstition at their root.

The first two chapters discuss how the rigorous application of the scientific method can dispel myth and superstition, how it can light "a candle in the dark." Then, in order to illustrate his point, Sagan launches into a discussion about aliens and alien abductions. This caught me by surprise. I've never taken those stories very seriously. But as this book was written twenty years ago, apparently there was somewhat of an epidemic of alien abductions in the 1980s. The statistics are pretty alarming. In 1994, a Gallup poll showed that up to 3 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens. A lot of the stories had similar features, and usually involved some sort of sexual assault. Support groups, conferences, societies, and an alarming amount of psychologists gave enhanced credibility to the stories. It was accepted as a fact of life by many: aliens would come at night and adbuct you, and there was nothing you could do about it. How could so many people have the same experiences with such strikingly similar features?

This is a question that Sagan dismantles easily. He asks in return, how could there be such a stunning increase in abductions, and such an absolute dearth of actual evidence? In the end, all of these tens of thousands of abduction stories have one thing in common: they are entirely subjective. Sure, some people present with evidence of bruises, or missing gaps of time on their watches. But there are many ways to be bruised, many ways to reset a watch. What is lacking is any sort of tangible, reproducible, independently verifiable evidence.

(Sidenote: I imagine that one reason Sagan spends such time deconstructing alien abductions is that, due to his extensive involvement in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, he was often unfairly associated with these stories. He puts those suppositions to rest. He does believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, merely based on the unfathomable size and age of the universe and the number of likely inhabitable planets. But he doesn't believe any of these life forms has yet contacted earth, much less stealthily invaded our atmosphere within the last fifty years and stolen us away in the night to examine our genitals.)

Saga takes the same approach in dealing with pervasive folk legends about UFOs, crop circles, satanic cults, and divine visitations. Each superstition is evaluated fairly, and the objective evidence that speaks strongly against their veracity is weighed against the subjective testimonies of those who swear on their souls that it's true. When fairly weighed, those scales always tip towards hoax or delusion.

One of the most famous chapters is "The Dragon In My Garage," an allegory about how rational beings should skeptically evaluate truth claims that are not falsifiable. The story goes like this: I tell you there is a dragon in my garage. You doubt my claim, and ask me to show you. I say, Sorry, can't show you, because it's invisible. You say, Let's spread flour on the floor so I can see it's footprints. I say, Sorry, no footprints, because this dragon floats. You suggest we spray paint it to make it visible. I say, Sorry, this an incorporeal dragon, so paint won't stick. And so on.

I've made an incredible claim. You've suggested ways to prove it true. But I've fended off every attempt by telling you a more fantastical way to evade that proof. Eventually a simple question arises, as Sagan states: "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon . . . and no dragon at all? If there is no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof . . . are worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of any evidence, on my say-so." (p 171)

Another essential chapter is "The Fine Art Of Baloney Detection," Sagan's famous toolkit for avoiding logical and rhetorical fallacies when evaluating truth claims. Here is a great link to a website that summarizes it. Sagan gives us a way to look at various tactics that are often used to support a fantastical truth claim, or at least to stifle a doubter's disbelief. Ad hominem attacks, false dichotomies, straw men, suppressed evidence, and mostly appeals to ignorance and appeals to authority: these strategies form the playbook for FAIR Mormon and pretty much any other dogmatic institution's apologetic arm. When I confront a truth claim, I want to answer this question: "How can I know for sure this is true?" But dogmatic organizations will not address such a question--they are existentially threatened by them. Instead, their apologists pose their own question: "How can we make the evaluation of this spurious truth claim, which we know if our heads and hearts to be baseless but which if definitively repudiated would undermine the authority of the whole organization . . . how can we make this so confusing that an average reader will give up trying to find out whether or not it is actually true, and instead fall back to their leader's appeal to just accept it on faith, fear or feeling?"

I have another critique of this book, which I think illuminates some limitations of Sagan's scientific world view. He references a few times the biologic basis of mental illnesses, and the triumph of science in developing the efficacious drugs used to treat them. On one level, I can give him a pass here, because this is not his area of expertise, and because twenty years later we know a lot more than we used to.  From his perch in 1994, the secrets of the brain appeared to have been unlocked, just like the secrets of the stars and the atoms had been. He trusted the "scientists" in authority who produced the DSM and developed the drugs, like Prozac, that had been recently introduced to the market. But man, do I have a book I'd like Carl to read now: Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker, which I've written about previously. In my opinion, the current state of psychiatry and the psychopharmaceutical ideology that supports it, represents a failure of science to correct itself. This is not to say that there is not some biological basis for symptoms of emotional and cognitive distress, or that medications are not helpful for some people in some situations.

But Sagan's Baloney Detection Meter would go bezerk if evaluating the current practice of biopsychiatry. The mental health industry is fundamentally compromised by Big Pharma money, and underwritten by people's undying desire to believe in magic pills and quick fixes. Much of the research is corrupt or incomplete. Evidence is suppressed, or cherry-picked. Dissenting opinions are attacked personally instead of objectively. It is a terribly complex issue, and most people--doctors, patients, families affected by it--are simply trying to do the best they can. But in this instance, unexamined faith in science, not religion, and psychiatry's unholy marriage to profit motive, has caused net harm to society.

But in a round about way, even my critique here is a expression of faith in science. I believe Carl would agree with me, or would at least be open to re-evaluating the evidence and our conclusions. That is a fundamental part of the scientific method: be open to new evidence that would challenge your old assumptions. Reversing the damage of psychopharmacology, inverting the current paradigm, will require a renewed application of the scientific method to our broad societal assumptions about mental health. If I'm wrong, if the evidence proves otherwise, I'll admit it, and adopt the evidence-based model. So let's try it. Let's have a real, objective societal conversation about it, and follow where the evidence leads.

Other chapters of note:
  • "Obsessed With Reality":  Sagan shares a fascinating story that occurred in Australia in 1988, where a man with a supposed brain injury began channeling a wandering spirit named Carlos. Carlos came with a "great lesson" to teach humanity. He filled the Sydney Opera House with believers, only to reveal the next week on national television that it was all a hoax meant to show people how gullible they can be. 
  • "The Path To Freedom": He tells us, through the story of Frederick Douglas, the incredible power of books and literacy to transmit ideas across time and space, to level the playing field in a democracy, and to propel lives from the abyss of physical or mental slavery to the pinnacle of freedom of thought and expression.
  • "When Scientists Know Sin": He discusses what can happen when science is unbridled by ethics, or by considerations of the consequences of its discoveries and innovations. This is told through the story of the development of the hydrogen bomb, and how that unnecessary weapon led to the escalation of the cold war and the near annihilation of our species.
  • "The Marriage Of Skepticism And Wonder": He shares how science unfortunately can turn some people into crotchety party poopers in the fiesta of life. Yet he argues that true science should evoke a sense of reverence and awe, similar to religion. I like this quote: "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. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking keeps the field on track." (p 304)
Finally, I want to highlight a few quotes regarding the dichotomy of certainty/uncertainty, seeing as that's the title of this blog and my 40th year quest. Here's the question: Does the rigorous application of the scientific method allow us to arrive at any measure of certainty in an uncertain universe?

Sagan quotes Rene Descartes, who said, "I did not imitate the skeptics who doubt only for doubting's sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath." This reminds me of a favorite quote by Sir Francis Bacon: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties."

But, Rene and Francis, is that true? Will science and skepticism, in the end, lead us to certainty? Of course both of those quotes were offered a few centuries before we discovered relativity and quantum uncertainty, principles which govern the universe at the cosmic and subatomic levels in apparent defiance of Newton. Here's what Carl has to say about it:

"Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it, they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science--by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans--teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us. We will always be mired in error. The most each generation can hope for is to reduce the error bars a little . . . 
"One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' This independence of science, it occasional unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom, makes it dangerous to doctrines less self-critical, or with pretensions to certitude.
"Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be, its findings may not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying. It may take a little work to restructure our mindsets. Some of science is very simple. When it gets complicated, that's usually because the world is complicated--or because we're complicated. When we shy away from it because it seems too difficult . . . we surrender the ability to take charge of our future . . .
"But when we pass beyond the barrier, when the findings and methods of science get through to us, when we understand and put this knowledge to use, many feel deep satisfaction . . . how gratifying it is when we get it, when obscure terms suddenly take on meaning, when we grasp what all the fuss is about, when deep wonders are revealed.
"In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide buildup of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a transnational, transgenerational meta-mind.
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual." (p 28-29)
Wow. That's what I'm looking for. Wisdom. Humility. Clarity. Beauty. Truth.

I'll close with one more famous quote from this book that demands to be read:
"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back." 
Thank you, Carl. This is a book that deserves a prominent place on any seeker's shelf. But be careful, fellow seekers! It's the sort of book that, when its tools are applied conscientiously, may cause some heavily-laden shelves to crack . . .


  1. Mark, I strongly suggest you read "Pillars of the Earth" and its semi-sequel "World Without End" on your reading journey, if you haven't already done so. By the historical fiction master, Ken Follett. They are really about the first attempt science to rear its head against the forces of ignorance and superstition. Enjoy and then have a talk with me about what they mean. John Reha

  2. Thanks, John. I'll add them to my list, which is constantly growing. Gonna need a second life just to read all the books I need to read to figure out this first life,