The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan

Created on Friday, September 2, 2011.
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A deeper exploration of the way pseudoscience distracts peoples’ sense of awe and wonder from evidence-based science.

 

“My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method. They were only one step out of poverty. But when I announced that I wanted to be an astronomer, I received unqualified support — even if they (as I) had only the most rudimentary idea of what an astronomer does. They never suggested that, all things considered, it might be better to be a doctor or a lawyer.

 

I wish I could tell you about inspirational teachers in science from my elementary or junior high or high school days. But as I think back on it, there were none. There was rote memorization about the Periodic Table of the Elements, levers and inclined planes, green plant photosynthesis, and the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal. But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed. In high school laboratory courses, there was an answer we were supposed to get. We were marked off if we didn’t get it.

 

There was no encouragement to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual mistakes. In the backs of textbooks there was material you could tell was interesting. The school year would always end before we got to it. You could find wonderful books on astronomy, say, in the libraries, but not in the classroom. Long division was taught as a set of rules from a cookbook, with no explanation of how this particular sequence of short divisions, multiplications, and subtractions got you the right answer. In high school, extracting square roots was offered reverentially, as if it were a method once handed down from Mt. Sinai. It was our job merely to remember what we had been commanded. Get the right answer, and never mind that you don’t understand what you’re doing.

[…]

I’ve always been grateful to my mentors of the 1950s, and tried to make sure that each of them knew my appreciation. But as I look back, it seems clear to me that I learned the most essential things not from my school teachers, nor even from my university professors, but from my parents, who knew nothing at all about science, in that single far-off year of 1939.”

 

“As we drove through the rain, I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life.

And yet there’s so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge — as well as being a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 4-million-year-old volcanic ash? What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses, built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host organism’s defenses and subvert the reproductive machinery of cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the newly discovered ancient civilization of Ebla that advertised the virtues of Ebla beer? No, he hadn’t heard. Nor did he know, even vaguely, about quantum indeterminacy, and he recognized DNA only as three frequently linked capital letters.

Mr. "Buckley” — well-spoken, intelligent, curious — had heard virtually nothing of modern science. He had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe. He wanted to know about science. It’s just that all the science had gotten filtered out before it reached him. Our cultural motifs, our educational system, our communications media had failed this man. What the society permitted to trickle through was mainly pretense and confusion. It had never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap imitation. He knew nothing about how science works.“

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
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