Carl Sagan is a hero of science communication: his books and TV series provided a forum for people to learn about science, and he sought to make nebulous topics understandable and interesting for everyone, not just for scientists. Science Friday recently posted an interview in honor of his birthday, which inspired me to explore one of his non-fiction pieces which he mentioned in the interview in greater detail. I am a huge fan of his book ‘Contact’, which I devoured two years ago and consider it one of my science fiction favorites. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading his book published in 1995, ‘The Demon-Haunted World,’ with the running subtitle ’Science as a candle in a dark world.’ To provide some perspectives on the topics he addressed in this book while still giving you motivation to actually read it yourself, I’ll highlight some of his points that stuck the most with me and connect them to what I see as the current struggles between science and society.
Science should be a cautious mix of skepticism and wonder
Sagan mentions his parents as a source of inspiration for his own career in science. Not because they themselves were scientists, but because they helped instill in him both a sense of wonder about the world and the complementary skepticism needed to distinguish the true from the untrue. Sagan comes back to these two qualities quite often in his book and relates them as the crucial factor for being a good scientist. You must have a passion to learn about the universe, the wonder and the inspiration that keeps you going through mundane scientific tasks or during the times when it feels like nothing is working. At the same time, you need the skepticism to keep your hypotheses in check, to be able to look at results with a sharp and critical eye, and to prevent yourself from becoming too dreamy-eyed about an idea when new evidence shows up against it.
This sense of wonder seems to come naturally to many of us, especially as kids when they start learning about the world, and this natural wonder is the reason why many of us got involved with science in the first place. Being excited to learn about the universe we all inhabit is the driving force behind many endeavors—but it’s the skepticism and the thorough approach that distinguishes science from purely creative endeavors. Scientists and engineers must balance a seemingly contrasting set of ideals and methods: we must be imaginative enough to bring new ideas and perspectives together, but at the same time disciplined enough to know when the logic of an argument doesn’t hold up.
The methods of science are more important that the answers
Science is very different from other fields because its passion and its core lie in framing testable questions and conducting definitive experiments. While this problem-solving nature is instinctive to the human condition, we still have to be careful in terms of how we set about asking questions and what we do when we get back the answers. A fundamental theme that Sagan stresses is that scientific theories can and should shift when new results reveal a new understanding. This can give some people the impression that scientists are constantly changing their minds and therefore aren’t trustworthy. This can be addressed by better explaining the concept of the scientific method and how theories come and go as new knowledge arises.
At the same time, scientists can have a habit of getting overly attached to a hypothesis or an idea, especially if it’s something that they’ve received grant money for pursuing further. Sagan stresses just how important it is for a scientist to be willing to change their ideas when support in the form of data becomes available. As such, scientists should always be striving for new ideas and, regardless of whether their initial ideas were right or not, should aim to leave behind a legacy that can be built upon and amended as needed.
Skepticism as a key tenant of science and of life
Sagan’s perspectives as an astronomer led him to many interesting encounters with UFO abductees and astrologists. Regardless of what field you’re in, there is probably some related form of pseudoscience that develops from people’s general fears, misinterpretation of science, and a resistance to asking testable questions. Sagan believed that skepticism provided the best way to dispel the haunting demons of pseudoscience. His idea was to provide better training to help students develop their own skills in skepticism, or as he terms it their ‘baloney detection kit.’ Sagan describes his kit in great detail and again brings it back to the scientific method: you start with the results presented to you, whether they be raw data or observations, then try to explain what you see with a testable hypothesis (the key here being testable). Sagan suggested that this skepticism could be instilled in earlier years by having academic scientists more involved in public education settings, and to make it clearer that science is not just about results but also the questions and experiments you use to get there.
A look at the ‘demon-haunted world’ 20 years later
In today’s world, science is at the forefront of daily news websites, and journal articles are published more quickly and made available more widely than ever before. Newspapers have science columns and science journalists, and there is a reason for that: science can bring in some juicy, dramatic stories. Between predictions about global warming, new cures for cancers, and water on Mars, there are a lot of attention-worthy stories in science today. It’s for this reason that good science and accurately talking about the scientific method, as well as the implications of findings, is so important. Ideas like ‘vaccines cause autism’ are hard to erase from the public mind, even after a paper gets retracted, so having both scientists and lay people being at the forefront of solid science and accurate interpretations of studies is crucial.
In my own line of work as an environmental toxicologist, I see demons coming to life not in the form of UFOs and star signs but in the obsession with ‘chemicals.’ There is certainly no doubt that the industrial has severely impacted our environment: pesticides that kill more than just bugs, rivers that catch on fire due to toxic waste, and oil spills that last for 87 days. Because of these very impactful stories, discussions on the use of chemicals and where they end up in the environment can quickly become polarized, especially if they involve impacts on human health. While these dialogues are crucial, the issues can often become overly simplified as a battle between the bad industry company and the good little guy who is unjustly exposed to these evil chemicals.
There are plenty of examples of sensationalism and misinterpretation of science in the area of health, with other science bloggers keen to bring to light logical errors on 'poisoning' exposés, which included statements such as ‘there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever’ (not even water, apparently!). In these heated discussions, it becomes quite easy to craft a story of injustice and to point fingers at the big corporations that are ‘poisoning’ us or our environments with chemicals and then to say that we’re being stepped on. In reality, these problems often have a myriad of stakeholders and there’s no bad guy versus good guy, its just different groups with different needs and perspectives. While there will likely continue to be misinterpretations and over simplification of the issues plaguing our world, the goal of science in these debates is to help clarify the ever-present gray area and act as the mediator in these discussions.
Sagan strives in his writings and TV shows to help everyone learn about science and how it works, because our success in the future is dependent on science, mathematics, and technology. However, with as much pressure that rests on these fields to deliver solutions, these topics remain poorly understood by many of the people that they impact. As scientists, we have numerous skills that go beyond pipetting: we are good at thinking, working in teams, solving problems, communicating, and teaching. We can put these skills to good use not only to advance scientific progress but also to share science with society.
In this book, Sagan not only provides a guide for lay people to understand science but also provides inspiration for scientists to continue his saga of science outreach. Through positive collaborations and more engaging and open forms of communication, we can work towards Sagan’s vision of using science to keep the world’s demons at bay, and to usher in a society that has the same passion for understanding the natural world as the scientists who work towards that goal every single day.
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