Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review - Demon Haunted World

I'm a pretty big Sagan fanboy, but until now, I've never read an entire Sagan work. I've listened to several interviews, seen all of Cosmos a few times, and enjoyed his clips in Symphony of Science. I have an audio book, of Pale Blue Dot, but lack a portable media device to make it convenient.

I'd heard of his book, Demon Haunted World (Science as a Candle in the Dark), before but had shied away from it. It was said to concentrate on pseudosciences that I generally find uninteresting (UFOs, psychic healing, etc...) due to their waning popularity and lack of influence on our government and educational system when compared to more insidious pseudosciences like Creationism.

Yesterday, as I neared the end of the book, I made a quick note on my G+ account saying as much. Universe Today's publisher, Fraser Cain dropped a pretty high piece of praise for it stating, "I'd say that book singlehandedly turned me into a skeptic."

Nicole Gugliucci (The Noisy Astronomer), echoed Fraser's enthusiasm, responding, "Ditto! It was already in process, but that book was pivotal."

The implication is that this isn't just another skeptic book; it's a game changer in a big way, and after reading it, I agree completely. I've been pretty ferociously skeptical since the end of high school, so near a decade now, but if I wasn't, I would likely be saying the same things as Fraser and Nicole. I've written a fair number of book summaries and reviews the past few years, but I would recommend this book above all others. I would suggest it be required reading, not just for scientists and skeptics, but for everyone, sometime in middle school, or by the beginnings of high school.

The first chapter begins by laying out the case: Many people believe things without good reason. In particular, Sagan recounts an experience with a chauffeur who accepted, without question, testimonies of extra terrestrials visiting Earth and seemed to have little interest in just how good the evidence actually was. Sagan asks his audience if that should matter and introduces a fantastic quote from Edmund Way Teale:
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.
Now if only people would realize just how important it is to get things right because, if Americans don't, other countries will continue to pass us in scientific achievement. In fact, Sagan notes that other countries are doing just that citing a 1994, Chinese proclamation which stated,
[P]ublic education in science has been withering in recent years. At the same time, activities of superstition and ignorance have been growing, and antiscience and pseudoscience cases have become frequent.... The level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance in economic development, scientific advance, and the progress of society. We must be attentive and implement such public education as part of the strategy to modernize our socialist country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous. Ignorance is never socialist, nor is poverty.
What a statement. Similar rhetoric is often used by US politicians, but with one notable difference in my mind: US politicians will never call out pseudoscience and anti-science. We'll talk of progress, but never stop to look at the elephant in the room that hinders just that.

Working to get the point across in a deeper way, the second chapter deals with why we need to perceive science as so important. Without overstatement, he entitles this chapter "Science and Hope". Immediately, he makes a deep and prophetic statement that seems to read as a perfect description of today, despite Sagan dying 15 years ago this December.
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United State is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
He then goes through many of the ways science improves our lives, including a quote I've often heard referenced, but never realized originated in this book, "If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate."

Why does science work so well? Sagan rightly suggests its because of how powerful that "way of thinking" actually is. As I quoted in my last review, Feynman describes it as a "kind of utter honesty". Sagan adds that students doing their PhD dissertations must stand before a panel and are "subjected to withering crossfire of questions from the very professors who have the candidate's future in their grasp" in order to "practice a very useful habit of thought: they have to ask: Where in my dissertation is there a weakness that someone else might find?" Scientists don't only search for the things that confirm their biases; good science also looks to anticipate the challenges and investigate them, before someone else does. "Valid criticism," Sagan notes, "does you a favor."

He illustrates how this works with a comparison to metaphysical pseudoscience which, while coming up with luxurious, and largely internally consistent explanations for whatever it likes, never investigates those explanations with honest evidence by comparing them fiercely to reality. "The difference" between science and metaphysical psedudoscience "is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory."

The next several chapters are what I consider to be the meat of the book and look at how we like to fool ourselves and how science encourages us to reflect more realistically on issues.

Sagan begins by introducing how our perceptions can skew our ability to think critically. His examples in this relatively short chapter concentrate on pareidolia, specifically the man in the moon and the face on mars. In general this chapter describes the human propensity for seeing patterns where there are none.

The fourth chapter extends this to aliens, describing how closely linked the phenomenon of "alien abduction" is to other historically described invasions, specifically demons. In both cases the visitors come at night, can paralyze the victim, walk through walls, communicate without speaking, and are often preoccupied with sex. Yet there exists a more prosaic explanation that is overlooked: sleep paralysis.

Sagan also looks at other alien related phenomenon such as crop circles, which were intentionally created by humans who confessed to the hoax. Yet UFOlogists engage in goalpost moving ("But what about that one then!") as opposed to admitting the general rule. Much the same as the ID proponents and "irreducible complexity".

He looks at why governments would (and should) want to keep some things secret and how military technology will often create anomalous signals that can easily be mistaken for something more unusual.

Another topic examines how we can gain false memories by our brains either doing something funny, or being tricked, intentionally or otherwise. He spends a great deal of time discussing how techniques like "hypnosis therapy" are easy to misuse and susceptible to the therapist guiding the victim. Sagan refers to great extent how this has been misused in searching for evidence of childhood sex abuse where nearly anything (including headaches) could be an indication that someone had been abused and that therapists were to operate from the assumption that they were. From there, the therapists would press patients to remember things, but while under the influence of hypnosis, they would create accounts that never happened. The same is true, Sagan suggests, for "recovered" memories of UFOs and abductions.

All of this reminds me of another fantastic Feynman quote. When interrogated about UFOs, he responded,
[F]rom my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Sagan then begins introducing the methodology of science in a more direct manner. In a famous example, Sagan discusses the "dragon in his garage". When a rational question for evidence is posed, he makes a case of special pleading to avoid having to present any (the dragon is invisible, floats as to not leave footprints, and incorporeal, but it's there!). He uses this example to build his "Baloney Detection Kit" (a good summary of which can be found here). The first part is to understand the workings of science, and to also be familiar with the logical fallacies and misdirections pseudoscientists like to engage in.

This chapter has another quote that I'd like to address specifically:
[O]ne academic UFOlogist suggests that both the aliens and the abductees are rendered invisible during the abduction (although not to each other); that's why more of the neighbors haven't noticed. Such "explanations" can explain anything, and therefore in fact nothing.
I've made nearly identical statements before, but in regards to ID/Creationism which, no matter what comes along, can always posit that "God intended it that way." If you can explain anything, you've explained nothing.

There's another great aside Sagan relates about the physicist Enrico Fermi who joining the Manhattan Project was introduced to several important generals.
So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.
How many?
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
What fraction of American generals are great?
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one in two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three battles 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 - which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles - purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles...?
I like this because it is a perfect example of how we make such significance of short lived trends that are statistically likely given enough chances. Sagan returns to this later, but I think this quote summed it up better than his example of flipping coins.

Sagan goes on to discuss some of the work of James Randi who set up deliberate hoaxes to demonstrate how easily people would go along with them. The main one was of "Carlos", a supposed channeler of a 2,000 year old spirit who an Australian audience gobbled up, uncritically. His background was faked (and not even convincingly had anyone bothered to check that some of the places existed).

A chapter is devoted to the gibberish of those that decry science and attempt to tear it down as only another way of knowing. In the next chapter, he shows what folly this is giving a fantastic summary of the power of science:
We detect the light from distant quasars only because the laws of electro-magnetism are the same ten billion light-years away as here. The spectra of those quasars are recognizable only because the same chemical elements are present there as here, and because the same laws of quantum mechanics apply. The motion of galaxies around one another follows familiar Newtonian gravity. Gravitational lenses and binary pulsar spin-downs reveal general relativity in the depths of space. We could have lived in a Universe with different laws in every province, but we do not. This fact cannot but elicit feelings of reverence and awe.
Using this light of science, Sagan notes that "tenents at the heart of religion can be tested scientifically." He spends a few paragraphs on this, but treads lightly.

The next chapter is looking at the culpability of scientists for the dangers they help realize. While he agrees that the dangers are indeed great (hence the need for a critical and thorough framework of reason which is the topic for the entire book), and that scientists have often callously disregarded their consequences as "not their business", many others have worked feverishly to make sure their actions do not bring harm.

In another chapter, Sagan describes the marriage of skepticism and wonder: Science must keep an open mind, but be, at the same time, skeptical. This is the same as a response I'd made to a crackpot whose book I'd torn apart when he accused me of having a closed mind; I responded that it was open, but "guarded" while his was allowing any gibberish in.

The next chapter explores how science and the act of questioning is a human endeavor. He explores a tribe of hunters that, through interrogation of nature, has extraordinary skills. I think the concluding remark of the chapter summarizes nicely:
A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage the future.
How we disenfranchise them is the topic of the next chapter. Sagan suggests we turn children away from science by teaching it wrong (as a collection of facts) and by pressuring them not to as "dumb" questions. How do we fix this? Sagan responds:
improved status based on teaching success, and promotions of teachers based on the performance of their students in standardized double-blind tests; salaries for teachers that approach what they could get in industry; more scholarships, fellowships, and laboratory equipment; imaginative, inspiring curricula and textbooks in which the leading faculty members play a major role; laboratory courses required for everyone to graduate; and special attention paid to those traditionally steered away from science. We should also encourage the best academic scientists to spend more time on public education - textbooks, lectures, newspapers, and magazine articles, TV appearances. And a mandatory freshman or sophomore course in skeptical thinking and the methods of science might be worth trying.
Sagan's advice for scientists looking to reach out:
Don't talk to the general audience as you would to your scientific colleagues. There are terms that convey your meaning instantly and accurately to fellow experts. You may parse these phrases every day in your professional work. But they do no more than mystify an audience of nonspecialists. Use the simplest possible language. Above all, remember how it was before you yourself grasped whatever it is you're explaining. Remember the misunderstandings that you almost fell into, and note them explicitly. Keep firmly in mind that there was a time when you didn't understand any of this either. Recapitulate the first steps that led you from ignorance to knowledge. Never forget that native intelligence is widely distributed in our species. Indeed, it is the secret of our success.
This same chapter also reveals that the same issues we faced in education, in particular, ranking among the bottom of industrialized nations in math and science scores for students, were prevalent 15 years ago as they are today. This came to me as a shock. When discussed presently, our ranking is always described as "slipping" as in the present tense. Yet for at least half of my life, we've been failing. We keep pretending this is a new crisis that we'll quickly pull through. Seeing this demonstrates that we're in for the long haul and our methods thus far haven't worked.

Before publishing this book, Sagan published a summary of the failures of the educational system in Parade magazine. One teacher asked her 10th grade class to read it and respond. Some of the responses were published and they were horrifying to read. Filled with grammar and spelling mistakes of which a 5th grader should be ashamed, or acted like they had an unbelievable burden and that improvement was simply asking too much. The one that mentally made me do the largest double take was this one:
I think your facts were inconclusive and the evidence very flimsy. All in all, you raised a good point.

Obviously, these letters drove home the point Sagan was making. We're failing students. But Sagan responds that it is not simply the fault of parents or teachers:
The responsibilities are broadly shared - parents, the voting public, local school boards, the media, teachers, administrators, and local governments, plus, of course, the students themselves.
This statement stuck out to me because this is, again, a point I have been trying to make for some time, but the particular phrasing is also startling: "of course" students should bear responsibility. Yet when hearing about education reform today, I never hear students indolence addressed as a major concern. Yet Sagan treats it as a self obvious statement.

Sagan also brings up another important point: The misplacement of our national priorities:
Challenging programs for the "gifted" are sometimes decried as "elitism." Why aren't intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball, and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double standard at work here, nation wide.
The next chapter, entitled "The Path to Freedom" was perhaps the best of the book. It is a sobering analysis on just how important education is at improving our station in life. It begins by recounting the story of Frederick Bailey, a slave in the 1820's who eventually taught himself to read and realized that keeping slaves ignorant was the key to their misfortune. Eventually he ran away and renamed himself Frederick Douglas. He became one of the most well spoken people against slavery and his freedom, his power, all rested on the foundation of knowledge.

Next up, there is a chapter on making too much of a statistical fluctation, flipping 10 heads in a row when you've flipped a thousand times. It should happen, but forgetting the larger context, people seem to get a high off of being on a "lucky streak". This applies in casinos, sports, and many other places. I'm not entirely sure why this chapter landed here and not earlier (perhaps when discussing the Fermi bit earlier).

The chapter called "Maxwell and the Nerds" was easily my favorite. While it didn't have, perhaps, the largest impact on the thesis as a whole, the point to me was so important as a teacher, that I couldn't help but feeling an overwhelming sense of agreement with it. The idea behind it is that James Maxwell, the creator of Maxwell's laws which are a mainstay of modern physics was rather denigrated as a child for being odd and poking into things in bizarre ways. When developing his laws that described electro-magnetism, he didn't necessarily know what they would be useful for, nor did anyone else. Yet today, these laws are the foundation of nearly all communication since they explain light of all wavelengths, as well as all of electronics since they describe moving charges and fields.

The point being that simply looking at science as esoteric and unhelpful, we must realize that we never know how it might be useful later. Maxwell didn't invent the television or our power grid, but without him, the knowledge for those that did wouldn't have existed! This is the perfect answer for students when they ask the inevitable "How is this useful?" question: We don't know, but having more knowledge never hurts, especially considering the previous chapter on Frederick Douglas. Sadly, most students will likely simply continue to use the question as a dodge of responsibility than internalize what it actually means.

The last two chapters Sagan makes a footnote stating that they're somewhat political in nature. Which is perfect. As stated previously, science isn't a collection of facts: It's a method and that method can be applied to political discussions as well.

Sagan returns to the witch trials going into them in some more detail, showing how the entire idea of a trial was designed to deflect critical analysis. I actually had to stop reading for a bit at this point because it offended me so greatly.

In the last chapter, Sagan discusses the founding fathers, noting that several had scientific training, Jefferson in particular. As a nation, we were founded with the freedoms to question and challenge. Yet we refuse our national heritage, blindly following political ideologues. Should it continue, the prophetic conditions Sagan laid out in the opening may well come to pass. Indeed, they already seem to be.

1 comment:

Stephen Uitti said...

The Demon Haunted World didn't make me a skeptic. As near as i can tell, i was born that way. It was, however, a fantastic read. His handling of the "Are UFO's evidence of aliens" question was totally new to me. It's so far away from the next best handling i'd heard that i no longer consider anything i'd heard before on the subject as even worth being called second best. This is a model of how explanations can be done. That's game changing.

I'm probably wrong on how long i've been a skeptic. More likely, i grew into it incrementally. Recently, my dad sent me my k-8 report card. They aren't the way i remembered it. Still, my dad's an engineer. He even met Colonel Murphy (of Murphy's Law). Engineers know better than to believe much of anything, through repeated painful experience, if nothing else. I don't hear "it works that way because I designed it", or "my code worked the first time" very often.