Scott Hardie | February 14, 2003
I'm currently reading Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (three guesses what Sagan is arguing against), and as a curious, open-minded skeptic, it's gotten me thinking. It's comforting to read Sagan admit that the world would be more interesting if ghosts and Atlantis and ESP and so on were real, and that it's not shameful to wish that they were. Then he takes the same approach that most skeptics do: Disbelief in all of the above, because there is no empirical evidence of them, and because the world as thoroughly understood by science doesn't have room for such things to exist; they're virtually impossible. I'm hesitant to dismiss so quickly, but I'm willing to move along with him to his next idea.

So what does he offer as a worldview in their place? Science. He goes on for many pages about all of the good things that science has done for us in a tremendous number of fields, and all of the promising things that it could do. He says it can cure diseases, that it can improve quality of life, that it can inform us about the universe, that it can answer all of our questions no matter how fundamental if we're patient enough for it to reveal the truth.

Forgive me, but doesn't that sound like religion? Well of course it does, Sagan would argue, but the difference is that religion is simply told to us like dogma, while science can be empirically tested and independently verified. He holds up the scientific method itself as more important than any (and every) scientific discovery. That seems reasonable, sure, but doesn't Hubbard's e-meter also have observable results? What about psychic fortune tellers? Astrologists? Crystal practitioners? Acupuncturists? Transcendental meditationists? Hypnotists? Spirit mediums? Chiropractors? Even Uri Geller has observable results. I ate at a Chinese restaurant last week and the fortune cookie told me I was about to receive riches, and yesterday a friend mailed me a check for a few hundred bucks, so obviously the cookie had some ability to tell the future, right?

I know that none of the things I just listed are empirical, but I'm trying to establish that they're all believable. John Edwards talks to the dead on TV and tells his audience members things that only the spirits can know, so is Edwards a cold reader or a true spirit medium? Skepticism would tell us the former is much more likely, but on his own terms (which are plainly visible and very easy to believe), the latter is not only likely but almost certain. Anything can be believed on its own terms, and some 'terms' are slim premises indeed, but they work! There are four billion Christians on this planet, and their only fundamental source is the Bible: Believe what's in just this one book, and it all makes sense.

So my point is, how is science any different from this? We believe that what we discover in empirical tests is valid because we believe that our scientific method is valid. But the scientific method is a fucking premise, just like all the rest, and if you can accept it, then all the rest follows. If you accept the scientific method, then you can believe in tests that have proven that ESP is impossible. But if you don't...

Listen, I'm an atheist. I believe that all of that paranormal stuff is baloney, including God. But I just believe it, I don't know it. As compelling is his argument against pseudoscience, and as fervent is his desire for everyone to become scientifically literate, Sagan is up against something fundamental here: That for the vast majority of us, the scientific method is just a concept. It's a great concept, right up there with peace and love and democracy, but even though most of us agree with it, it's not completely real to us. Even Sagan himself admits to being unaffected in science classrooms as a child, and that's the only exposure that most of us get. He can tell us the same facts about biology and chemistry and quantum physics that science teachers tell us, but you know what it sounds like? A preacher giving a sermon, or John Edwards talking about spirits on TV. True science will never completely replace pseudoscience until its advocates find a way to make it real to us normal folks, and that's going to take a revolution in human thought that probably won't occur in our lifetimes any more than it happened in Sagan's.

Scott Hardie | February 21, 2003
Mr. Sagan spends a lot of time putting down pseudoscience (it's the whole purpose of the book), and he makes a persuasive case that belief in pseudoscience and superstition can literally be deadly. This incident in today's news is exactly the kind of thing he warns about.


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